Future Tense

The Complicated Etiquette of Bringing Home a Smart Speaker

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

On the scale between unbridled enthusiasm for smart speakers and technophobic paranoia, I fall in the ambivalent middle area. I’d read about the potential for these devices to be hacked or gamed by advertisers or to simply make expensive mistakes, and I’d heard others gush of the ways it had radically transformed their homes for the better. But I had never pictured myself having one, and so I didn’t do any real research or form any real opinions.

But on one evening in May, I found myself unwrapping a brand-new Amazon Echo, a startlingly generous grad school graduation gift from a family friend whom I had not seen in years. Once I overcame the discomfort of receiving such an expensive gift, I started imagining it as a kitchen aid, handling timers and music and recipe questions as I chopped vegetables. Cooking would become so stress-free, I thought. I carried it, still in its box, upstairs to the living room, where two of my roommates were watching a movie. I expected them to be excited. “Look what we got,” I said.

They were not excited. It was creepy, they said. They didn’t want something in the house that could spy on them. I feebly tried to argue that their phones were likely already listening to them anyway, that it was the same technology. But they held firm.

They sensibly told me that I could place it in my bedroom. I could not see its use in a bedroom and, I have to admit, was unnerved by putting it in such a personal space. So I carried the box downstairs and slid it under my bed, where it remains, and will remain, for the foreseeable future.

I was momentarily angry, but I shouldn’t have been. They have every reason to want to feel secure in their home. But I did wonder if others had made similar miscalculations that might have blown up in more dramatic ways. I turned, of course, to the internet. The discussions on Reddit dealing with Google Home and Amazon Echo devices as they relate to roommates tend to fall into two categories: security and pranking. As far as I can tell, none attempt to parse the etiquette of bringing an always-listening device into your home.

I had a hard time reading the posts and envisioning the dynamics and conversations behind them. Did all these posters talk to their roommates about the device and its safety implications? Did they treat them as communal apartment technology, like televisions, or more like personal phones or laptops? Did they have to think about it at all? Or did they just steam ahead confident of their roommates’ approval?

A quick poll of people at work showed anecdotal evidence of gray areas and missteps. On our workplace Slack, people told stories of being convinced to accept a smart speaker, only to have the original Echo-advocate become uncomfortable with it later on. Another person mentioned a roommate who placed a Google Home in their communal living area without asking. “I’m not bothered enough to ask them to remove it,” she said.

I did find one Reddit user who sought advice about something like this a year ago. She posted that her “INCREDIBLY paranoid” roommate was threatening to move out because of her newly purchased Echo. The commenters—a small batch, admittedly—fell almost universally on the side of the roommate and argued the roommate’s right to privacy trumped the woman’s right to spend her money as she wished.

I have to agree with the commenters. The best roommate relationships are based on communication, compromise, and respect. If you’re an oboe player, you should negotiate with your roommate when, if at all, playing an instrument would be acceptable. Your musical passion likely gives you a valid stake in a discussion about your roommate’s needs for peace and quiet. But when it comes to the argument over having a smart speaker versus not having a smart speaker, the two sides are not comparable.

While the online services, platforms, and products we use every day peddle our information in ways we often find creepy and invasive, by choosing to use them we consent to give our information.  We’re at least nominally controlling how we give it. By placing an Echo in your house, you’re consenting to the possibility—if unlikely—of your information being gathered at all times. If you make that decision for yourself, that’s fine. But it’s unreasonable to pressure someone into consenting, even if you think their concerns are absurd or paranoid. You must ask your roommates directly—don’t wait for a roommate to raise objections—and they must be fully on board.

If they’re fine with it, you should probably still have follow-up conversations to lay the ground rules, much as you would with throwing parties. Do you alert houseguests to the presence of a smart speaker? What rooms are you comfortable placing it in? Will you establish times or circumstances in which the device should be unplugged?

As you dive into your holiday shopping, you should also bear in mind that when you buy a smart speaker as a gift, you need to remember the home it will affect, not just its owner. Even if you’re confident your friend or loved ones would be thrilled to receive a Google Home, check first if they have roommates. If they do, you probably shouldn’t buy it for them. I appreciated such a generous gift from my family friend, but I know she would be disappointed, and likely frustrated, to know her money went toward an item boxed in with my summer clothes and old textbooks.

One day, I’ll move into a new place where I can own a cat and, hopefully, use my Echo. It might be outdated by then, but I’ll have no one to resent for that.