“Alexa, can you please take all my calls and alert me if anything important comes up? I’ve got some early retirement to do, and I don’t want to be bothered…” That’s right. We own an Amazon Echo now. Another device to plug in and make our lives wayyy easier, and of course, less complicated than EVER…
This is the kind of thing that happens when a birthday rolls around. We’re not the type of frugal family that lives a deprived existence, devoid of all things innovative and FUN. At one brief point, I fell onto that wagon, but it got boring pretty fast. “That’s it? Just a CARD?!?” I have no desire to be a monk while not living among other monks who get to stare at beautiful mountains in Bhutan all day long.
Hence, Amazon Echo (Aka “Alexa”). Color me impressed.
Despite pulling what few hairs I have left out of my balding head to get her connected to our wifi, she’s been a real treat. Did you know you can whisper to Alexa, and she’ll whisper back?? It’s not as creepy as it sounds. Our kids’ bedroom is nearby, and I need SOMEONE to say “Goodnight!” to, when Mrs. Cubert hits the hay early.
Beyond whispering, there are lots of really useful features to this handsome tube of circuitry. Let’s explore!
Our List of Useful Echo Features
First off, let’s have a look at the device we purchased, thanks to my aging one year closer to death:
Pretty sweet, eh?? Notice how the official photo above purposely omits the cluttery power cord. Can’t have everything perfect, Mr. Minimalist! Nevertheless, I’m a fan of the new “skins” you can choose from with the second generation of Echos (including a couple of wood patterns to pair nicely with your Eames Lounge Chair).
The new generation of Echo is not only better for your decor, it’s shorter in stature too. Amazon lopped off several inches, so the device now looks a lot less like a can of Pringles or Penn tennis balls. And that’s functionally important if you’re prone to knocking shit over from time to time like we are.
After just a couple of days, we’re already mastering the following features with glee. It all begins with, “Alexa…”
…play the news report Et voila! We get 5 minutes of the latest news from NPR. Thank you, Korva Coleman!
…add milk to the grocery list. Add apples. Magically, the items appear on an app installed on our iPhones. No more paper list pads cluttering up the countertop! Just Alexa and her power cord…
…what is the weather? Can’t ride my bike to work without wool socks lately. And my head sock. But also, we walk the kids a few blocks to school, so this helps us plan whether to wear a hat or mittens.
…play Sinatra With Amazon PRIME membership, we get loads of free music. Plus, we can set up Pandora to work on Alexa. Fly me to the moon, doo bee doo bee doo be do.
It may seem silly to you, but the music-on-command feature is what I had my heart set on when purchasing the Echo. Before Alexa, I had to fight for control of the iPad to get Pandora rocking, while the master chef was using said iPad to lookup recipes.
Or, the iPad and its bluetooth speaker were too low on battery, so we went without tunes. What can I say? I love a little background classical, jazz, or acid house music with my steamed broccoli and potatoes. It’s typically “Alexa, play Mozart” at the breakfast table these days.
…lower the temperature to 68 degrees. This one isn’t really that useful. Our NEST thermostat is a finely tuned instrument of environmental efficiency, even without Alexa’s bossiness. Still, it’s neat to see the NEST dial change on voice command. Very “Star Trek”.
…what is my commute? I’ll get a rundown of what I can expect on my typical routes, when I drive into the office.
and of course,
…call Mom The hands-free speakerphone feature make this hunk of wonder worth every penny. We’re a family that spends a lot of time in the kitchen, making our own meals from scratch. Now we can talk with family and friends on Echo speaker phone, while our hands are busy with food prep and the kids’ hands are busy with crayons, Legos, or mud.
There’s LOTS of other coolness to be had, but we’ve at least got the basics down. We’re having fun with the question of the day. And the Amazon Audible feature that reads sound-immersive books to you is slicker than snot.
The Psychology of Innovative Gadgets
So what’s really behind my lack of inner frugal discipline in buying this seductive cylinder (a device that’ll be obsolete in nine months)? For the answers, we need to dig into some psychology. A good read on Business Insider sums it up best:
It turns out that Alexa shares a common trait with other habit-forming technologies like Facebook, Slack, and the iPhone — the Amazon Echo has a great Hook. Hooks …. are “experiences designed to connect the user’s problem with the company’s product with enough frequency to form a habit.”
Oh shit. We’ve been duped.
My minimalist tendencies are being put to the test by clever amalgamations of voice recognition + bluetooth + cloud technology. We’re not a bleeding edge tech family, by a long shot. Our phones are iPhone 6s. We don’t have cable or satellite TV. Our washing machine occasionally does the macarena, and not by design.
Interlude for stupid human tricks
Moreover, we aspire to a simpler existence free from want of excess status, love, and money. Because those last three things are what’s left after filling your life with all the nonsense on the material spectrum. Heavy…
And no, of course we haven’t filled our home with crap. Though we are pretty content with our humble abode and modest, paid-off cars.
The thing is, we want to believe that technology will free us from demands and free us from work, while providing a little novelty on the side. Life was a bit more frustrating in an era where you had to manually lift the garage door to start (and end) your commute.
Before the era of GPS, we had to rely on paper maps to find a new destination. Half the time those maps were outdated. Half the time you tried to find your destination by ESP to avoid pulling over to read the map…
But even back in those frustrating days without GPS, without garage door openers, and further back, without microwaves (gasp!), society figured out how to relax and enjoy free time. Free time untethered by devices and social media.
So what happens when new technology comes along to free up our time for play? We simply backfill that newfound space with more nonsense, like social media, or video games.
Is There Room for Alexa in a Minimalist Home?
Here’s the question for those of us who prefer to sit on the floor cross-legged without rugs, plants, or furniture, in an echo-filled (pun intended) space. “Can we really be considered ‘minimalist’ if we plug this amazing device into our lives?” Hmmm…
My argument is this: If it’s attractive looking and doesn’t involve a screen, it’s probably okay. Even better if you find something(s) to subtract from the environment.
I mentioned earlier that our Echo appliance means no more notepads and pens on the bar-top. We can keep our lists floating on the ether. At some point, we can tuck away our Jawbone speaker brick, and bring it out for patio service in the summer months.
But what about privacy concerns? That’s a damn good point. We didn’t have to worry about a live mic with our trusty paper notepad and pens. In theory, the Echo’s microphone is dormant until the utterance, “Alexa…” triggers the device. Hackers will undoubtedly find a way around this, particularly those with last names ending in “ov” on Putin’s payroll. (A little Russia joke for my eastern hemisphere readers.)
The best thing to do for superior privacy protection is to unplug the thing. Or, if you’re like us, just avoid discussing any topics involving criminal plots, even if it’s a run-down of last night’s episode of Ozark.
We’ll have to watch the developments on how devices, like the Echo, shape our society’s tolerance with respect to privacy. After Facebook’s godawful recent run of privacy let-downs, we know we can’t 100% trust our electronics. (Is that TV listening to us watching TV??)
Privacy, and one-more-electronic-gadget concerns aside, I’m okay with our newest addition to the family. The other day I discovered the “Relaxing Piano Music” skill. We can now turn our living space into a day spa. Just need to fire up the essential oil diffuser to complete the effect.
Should You Buy One?
The Echo runs for about 100 bucks. It’s money you could use in many other more practical and useful ways, from the vantage point of pure frugality. Those 100 bucks could theoretically grow to $386.97 in 20 years’ time. Zap!
But really folks… We’re talking 100 bucks here. Get over it. Some of these newfangled gadgets are actually worth the nominal coin.
Just don’t go hog-wild and fill your house with Echo pucks and smart home novelty. It is okay to occasionally get up off your ass to turn off a lamp, or to see who’s at the front door.
The ease with which we can introduce music into our daily lives makes the “investment” in an Echo worth it for us. We can get help in the kitchen with timers, unadulterated by sticky fingers. Alexa can even convert ounces to milligrams, or gallons to liters. If the kids need help with a math problem, and we’re too busy playing Candy Crush? Alexa to the rescue!
There is something somewhat hygge about this device. Maybe that’s why I chose to follow up last week’s “winter survival” post with this topic. The Echo even shares the same profile as a typical wide-based candle. Now if only Alexa could give back rubs…
How about you? Do you own an Amazon Echo? What are your favorite uses for your little tube of electronic joy? Have you gone hog-wild on the latest and greatest “smart-home” add-ons? Let us know in the comments!
Featured Image Credit: Alexandr Bormotin