Monday, February 25, 2019

Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant, Cortana, and My Digital Life


I just bought a new laptop for the first time since 2011. While I’m quite pleased with it so far, the process of setting it up and transferring accounts from my old machine has brought into sharp focus something that I’ve been vaguely aware of for the past few years: There are a whole bunch of companies vying to be the complete solution to my entire life. And you know what? It stresses me out.

Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Apple, and many lesser-known players all now want not just to sell me their flagship products or services, but to get me to use their comprehensive suite of solutions to all of my digital (and increasingly non-digital) needs.

As things stand now, I own a laptop computer built by one company with an operating system built by another company, on which I run primarily apps built by yet another company. I also have a phone built by a completely different company and use some of that company’s media services, but my TV is powered by a different company and I use some of its media services there, as well as some media services provided by the aforementioned company that provides apps for my computer. And I am relatively happy with how this works out.

However, while I am taking this à la carte approach, the fact is that now, any one of these companies is fully capable of providing all of the other products and services mentioned above entirely on its own. And boy, do they love reminding me of this. And stealthily trying to get me to use all of their services. And actually acting hurt if I decide not to.

And it bothers me so much. I’m a very loyal person. I’m also relatively prone to anxiety and tend to struggle with misplaced empathy. These combined tend to make me a dependable and nice person when it comes to dealing with other people, but it only compounds all of the stress I feel over all of these digital services.

First it was Siri, then it was Siri and Alexa. Then Google Assistant (who had been there all along, I just never noticed her) became part of my life. And now Cortana, my sweetheart from Halo in high school just came back as a full-fledged digital assistant.

They all want me to use them. They all want to own my data. And I'm really anxious about it all. 

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Thanks for sticking with me


I’m sorry if I’ve made you feel down recently. I really am. And so I will start this right off by saying that if I know you and you’re reading this, then I value you and your friendship, or acquaintanceship, or members-of-humanity-that-randomly-stumbled-across-one-another-online-ship. Thank you for being there, wherever that is. Furthermore, I want to affirm that I really do actually like people and believe that there is hope for the world, even if I’m increasingly unsure what it looks like.

If, over the last few weeks, you have chatted with me at a party, watched my Instagram story, met me for dinner, or interacted with me in any other personal context, you may have come away with the impression that I’m some sort of brooding, misanthropic character with a level of cynicism bordering on nihilism. I hope that that is not true, but what is true is that I have been pretty-generally in a dark mood.

Coming to the end of my 20s this year, I’m faced with the realization that my own life has not really been all that I might have wanted it to be and there’s a good chance it never will be. That’s entirely manageable though. What compounds it is that, over the past few years, I’ve almost entirely lost faith in the things that — however much they frustrated me — were supposed to give it meaning.

Looking at the wider world, I’ve also lost hope in the beliefs and institutions that I once really thought had the power to fix the many problems we’re facing. That would be bad enough on its own, but over the last couple years it’s become worse.  

Not only am I powerless to really fix the things that I see as problems; it’s actually turned out that the only path I’ve been able to find to improve my own situation is to become – at least to a degree – an accomplice to those very problems.

And that’s what really gets me.

I recently watched the Paul Schrader film First Reformed. I don’t often relate that strongly to fictional characters, but what was simultaneously intriguing and terrifying in First Reformed was how much alike I am with Reverend Toller in the movie, both in his tendencies and situation.

Maybe the thing that is most terrifying was that Toller isn’t quite who I am now — but who I could very easily see myself as in 10 or 15 years if a number of things don’t change. So I want to change, and I’m trying to change, but for the last few months it’s seemed especially daunting.

So that’s my explanation. It’s not a promise that I’m going to suddenly be cheerful all the time or even that I will stop being cynical about things and people that are. But I at least wanted to explain, and also say thank you for sticking with me this far anyway.