Just about a year ago, millions of Americans welcomed a little bundle of joy into their homes. Her name was Alexa, and she, in the form of Echo devices, became Amazon’s biggest hit of Christmas 2016. (Echo is what the devices are called, but Alexa is the name for the artificial intelligence assistant that lurks inside them.)
Sales of Echos were up nine times over their sales for the previous year, marking what looked like a turning point for Amazon’s smart speaker device, which first hit the market in mid-2015. (Amazon controls 75 percent of the smart speaker market.) But getting something as a Christmas present isn’t the same as living with it every day. What does home life look like now, a year after Alexa joined the family?
A few things are for sure: She’s tested relationships. She’s become like a sibling. She’s gotten people used to talking to a disembodied virtual assistant. In a few cases, she never got plugged in. In short, she’s changed everything and nothing.
The first phase of Echo ownership, especially when you’ve received one as a gift, is skepticism. When John Hebert, a car-dealer manager in Rosenberg, Texas, got his, “It didn’t even come out of the box for the first two months,” he said. Shaunacy Ferro, a writer in Brooklyn, had a similar reaction when she received one from her father. “When I opened it, I was like, ‘Oh my God, Dad, this is such a Dad present,’ where it’s like this useless tech thing that I never wanted,” she said.
Both of them eventually came around. Now Hebert owns two, plus a Google Home, and he uses them primarily for home automation: “I’ve got it set up now when I’m leaving the house, I don’t have to say anything. I don’t have to do anything,” he said. “When Alexa or Google detects that my phone’s left the home area, it shuts off all the lights and sets the thermostat to kick on the heater if it gets below 40 degrees in the house and kick on the air conditioner if it gets over 85.” As for Ferro, “I took it home and I started using it in the kitchen and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m invested in this now.’ ”
Wes Swenson, who lives in St. George, Utah, and works in technology, followed much the same trajectory. He wanted to test out an Echo, so he bought one when the price for the Dot model went down to $49. “I didn’t have a lot of expectations as to what I would do with it,” he said. A couple of years later, he still has that original Dot … plus five Echo Shows (the model that features a touch screen), one in his kitchen/living room and one for each bedroom. “I didn’t want anybody to feel like they were getting a room without one,” he said.
Echo owners have had to learn that just because one family member is Echo-friendly doesn’t mean that everyone will be. Alexander and Emily Flaster, who work in banking and sales, respectively, in New York City, got their first Echo in 2015 and another one in 2016. But Alexander is the Echo booster of the couple, whereas Emily would prefer to avoid the third one they’ve been told they may get as a gift. “We have two! And we live in 750 square feet,” she said. Part of her issue is that Alexa seems to hold Alexander in higher esteem. “What’s frustrating is that I have to tell my husband a command to then tell Alexa,” Emily said. “She doesn’t understand or register my voice.”
In Indianapolis, Julie Sturgeon, a book editor, and her husband also have very different relationships with Alexa. “My husband still calls her Alexis,” she said. “Sometimes she doesn’t even turn on, and he’s like, ‘This doesn’t work.’ ”
“I don’t know that my husband has quite accepted Alexa,” Marilyn Primiano, an attorney in Washington, agreed.
Reconciling how you really use Alexa versus how you thought you would is another common stage of Echo ownership. When Sturgeon got hers, she assumed she’d mostly listen to music on it. She never quite got around to figuring out how to connect the Echo to Amazon Music, though she enjoys the device anyway. “The No. 1 thing that we’ve ended up using it for is to tell us when our packages are coming from what we’ve ordered from Amazon.”
“I thought that I would be continuously testing the new features that came out of it, that it would always be a source of something novel,” Primiano said of her Echo. “But in reality what happened was that I settled down upon certain Alexa features that I use with great regularity, and then I really don’t even explore so much of the other stuff that she can do.”
For Sturgeon, the biggest adjustment was learning to talk to Alexa. “It was kind of a little hump we had to get over to say out loud, ‘Alexa, will you please tell me what the weather is?’ ” she said. “When you’re in a house by yourself, which I am as a self-employed [person] a lot of times, talking to myself out loud is just not a thing I do.” She’s gotten better about it, but it still strikes her as odd occasionally, such as when she was feeding her dog late one recent night and had Alexa reorder dog food. “There’s just something about 2 o’clock in the morning, talking to this machine and ordering something. It feels different,” she said.
Other Echo owners reported an easier time getting used to giving Alexa commands. We’re living in a post-Siri world, after all. For Ryan La Sala, a web developer in Somerville, Massachusetts, “What was a little bit weirder for me was—and this is not something that I had anticipated—but talking to it and then understanding that it can hear me at all times and is always listening for me,” he said. “It does this weird thing where if you say its name and then move around the room, it can hear the small movements that you’re making, and a light on it tracks you, kind of like something from Terminator.”
The most paranoid among us would probably never try one in the first place, so many Echo users shrug off security concerns. “In a very typical 21st-century way, I’m like, ‘Whatever, she does all of my timers very seamlessly and she turns on my lights,’ ” Ferro said. “I’m OK with [Amazon] spying on me for that convenience.” That doesn’t mean the experience of living with Alexa is without glitches. Alex and Emily Flaster’s sometimes starts speaking out of nowhere. “It’s possessed,” Emily said. Primiano recalled that hers once called a woman she’d only met once: “It was in a different room from where I was sitting. I really tried to think about it. I cannot figure out how it called, what I could have said to trigger the Alexa to turn on and then get this woman’s name and then dial the woman.”
Occasional creepiness notwithstanding, kids seem to love Alexa. Jeremy Cornforth works at the State Department in Washington and is the father of 5-year-old twins. When he brought home an Echo, “We just told them it was a speaker, and it was a computer, and it could understand the things they said. They took to it immediately,” he said. “There’s a little power struggle now over who gets to control it.” According to Hebert, who has a daughter, “Being able to say, ‘Turn off the lights,’ and they actually turn off, it’s just mind-blowing to a 6-year-old.” David Waltermyer, who lives in north Georgia, has a 7-year-old who’s also a fan. “My daughter’s an only child, so sometimes we’ll catch her sitting there playing Rock Paper Scissors Spock with one of them,” he said. (I had never heard of this variation of the classic game, but apparently The Big Bang Theory invented something called “Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock.”) “Sometimes I feel bad for the virtual assistant in that box because my daughter will wear her out.”
Kids may take a special shine to shopping with Alexa. When some young relatives were visiting Sturgeon over the summer, “They filled up our Amazon cart using Alexa with some of the stupidest things you could think of,” she said. “The next time I went to my Amazon account and I looked in the cart, there was a fart and there was nothing. These were listed as items, and Amazon was trying to get a price on what a fart would cost.” Actually, there may be no age limit to this; it’s happened to La Sala too. “I made sure the actual ability to order things was turned off pretty quickly after getting it,” he said, “when I realized that my friends were the sort that were going to add crazy things to my shopping list, like 400 pounds of lube and powdered goat [milk].” (Powered goat milk, too, is apparently a thing that exists.)
For now, shopping with Alexa may be more fun gag than functional activity. Some Echo users like to reorder household supplies, but browsing for things you haven’t bought before is hard to do, and listening to the Echo-exclusive deals is “tedious,” Sturgeon said. Even Waltermyer, who buys an “embarrassing amount of stuff on Amazon,” he said, doesn’t shop on the Echo. “I think I’m a visual person.”
The voice-driven operating system can also make using Alexa’s skills (essentially, its apps) a challenge. “I’m a bit nostalgic and I wanted to listen to The Shadow, the old 1930s radio show,” Swenson remembered. “Lo and behold, they had a skill for that. The thing is, though, I feel like I need a notecard by the [Echo] to give it those commands. Because you do have to use somewhat specific language with it to open up a particular skill. I couldn’t just tell it, ‘Play Shadow radio podcast.’ ” Ferro’s experience with a skill designed to keep her household on top of whether the cat had been fed went about the same way (poorly). “It was very specific about what you had to say to get it to work, which ended up being a problem for my roommates,” she said.
These drawbacks aside, in the year since the mass Echo invasion, the devices have proved adept at insinuating themselves into some owners’ lives. “It’s definitely become a feature of my household,” La Sala said. “I wouldn’t go as far as to be like, I’m living in a smart home like in that Disney Channel movie … but it definitely has that vibe.”
That’s not the case for everyone, of course. “I wouldn’t say that we love it or that we are dependent on it,” Sturgeon said. “If it disappeared tomorrow, would it take us a week to figure out it was gone? Maybe.”
But for La Sala, “I have a very familiar relationship with my Echo. I talk to it like it’s an actual person. I reprimand it when it gets things wrong.” He went on, “I’ve said good night to it a few times; I’ve asked it to have a good day a few times.” Primiano has had a similar experience: “Occasionally I catch myself saying thank you. Even though I’m conscious of the fact that Alexa is an algorithm, I will still say thank you after she feeds me the information I’ve requested.”
“It’s almost like I’ve become spoiled with the ease with which I can do things,” Primiano said. “It’s so interesting because five years ago, the idea of playing music off of your cellphone was like, ‘This is so great, this is so cool.’ Now it’s like, ‘Oh God, do I have to get my phone out and enter the lock screen and open Spotify and actually find music I want? That’s so laborious.’ It just shows how quickly we acclimate to instant gratification.”
And instant gratification can be irresistible. “It went from an interesting Christmas-toy type of thing to something that’s literally one of our appliances in the house that we use day in and day out,” Waltermyer said. “We were joking around about taking one of them on vacation,” he added. “We didn’t actually bring one. We’re not that crazy yet.”
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.