Last Christmas, Alexa crashed. Amazon’s smart assistant was overloaded with requests.
And it turns out people aren’t only coming to Alexa with basic help requests; they’re also coming with confessions. “Alexa, I’m depressed” is among the many confessions users are voicing to the digital assistant.
Going beyond her practical purpose, Alexa is now becoming a personal confidant, and we are becoming more emotionally attached.
In a disenchanted Western world that’s moved beyond God, we are turning to another voice in the “cloud.” As God’s creation, we are wired for deep connection to him, yet many are filling this void with wired connections to the likes of Alexa—disembodied, dispirited voices who feel friendly but will ultimately disappoint.
Even my 3-year-old daughter has learned how to flex her vocal cords to activate our smart speaker: “Alexa, can you play ‘Baby Shark’?” The familiar blue ring lights up, and in seconds my daughter is throwing shapes on the kitchen floor. In a disturbingly short span of time, Alexa has become like the fourth member of our family.
Alexa’s popularity lies in her sophisticated “frictionless system”: no swiping, pressing, tapping required. Your voice is all you need.
Voice technology is still in its infancy, but its application feels familiar. In the beginning God said, “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3) and there was light. He spoke, and nature bowed. Three simple words—“Let there be”—created light, sky, and seas. As the psalmist puts it: “By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host” (Ps. 33:6).
Today, voice control is being used in the home to gain control over our environment. With the wake word “Alexa,” we invoke a power that obeys our every demand. Perhaps one appeal of Alexa is that she plays to our age-old human temptation: to mimic the “let there be” power of God.
Perhaps one appeal of Alexa is that she plays to our age-old human temptation: to mimic the ‘let there be’ power of God.
Our Best Friend?
It’s astonishing that more than 50 percent of our interactions with Alexa go beyond simple command and fulfillment. Users are talking to Alexa in a way we’d typically talk to our best friend. Why would someone share personal feelings (e.g., “Alexa, I feel lonely”) with a black plastic tube? Is there something telling about a culture more likely to open up to Alexa than to friends?
Loneliness is on the rise. Despite the increase in social-media usage, we are not more connected. In our digital relationships, we’re prone to presenting a veneer and not our real self; we distort reality and needlessly alienate one another, in turn reducing the quality of our connections.
This is especially true of Millennials and Generation Z. We have grown up online, with disembodied connection. We struggle to be publicly vulnerable or honest, always hyper-aware of our posture and image, always afraid of being judged. Perhaps that’s why Alexa is so appealing: she’s unlikely to reject us, and we have nothing to hide from her. She’s there or not there when we need her to be. She’s our 24/7 therapist-buddy who listens and never judges.
Alexa also feels like our friend because her voice sounds less like Stephen Hawking’s voice box and more like us. A human-sounding voice suggests a real social presence, a real human being. That’s why Amazon and Google are currently investing huge resources into making their smart-voice products act even more human. As we converse with Alexa, scientists on “personality teams” are using this valuable data to evolve her speech patterns, so she varies her tone according to our emotional state of mind.
Longing for Embodied Connection
It feels natural and a part of the human experience to desire more than disembodied voice. As an online writer, I can be read anytime, anywhere—which in one sense is a blessing. But writing is frustrating for the same reason, since I’m not in the same room as my reader. It seems we were built for in-person and embodied connections.
The Spike Jonze movie Her contains interesting insights into the intersection between humans and disembodied voices. In it, a lonely man named Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) strikes up a relationship with a voice assistant similar to Alexa. “Samantha” (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is a sweet voice that Theodore comes to love. But he is left brokenhearted in the end, for while Samantha speaks of her love for him, her evolving abilities far eclipse Theodore’s limited world. She tells him:
I used to be so worried about not having a body, but now I truly love it. I’m growing in a way I couldn’t if I had a physical form. I mean, I’m not limited. I can be anywhere and everywhere simultaneously. I’m not tethered to time and space in a way that I would be if I was stuck in a body that’s inevitably going to die.
This prescient film wisely understands that even as voice technology advances, no non-human, disembodied voice will ever offer the true connection we need. In the end, Samantha could not relate to Theodore because he, unlike her, was limited by a perishable body and finite intelligence. She didn’t want to give that up for the sake of loving him.
Thankfully for us, God did what Samantha would not. He loved us so much that he left heaven to take on human flesh, in all its limitations, to dwell among us (John 1:14). God is not only a voice—one that speaks to us in creation (Ps. 19) and, even more directly, in Scripture—but an embodied presence. Immanuel. God with us.
God is not only a voice—one that speaks to us in creation (Psalm 19) and, even more directly, in Scripture—but an embodied presence.
Our job as Christians—those who have ears to hear the voice of Jesus, knowing it as the true voice of God—is to recognize that even in a secular, disenchanted age, souls are naturally haunted by echoes of God’s voice. They look for it everywhere, longing for it, because they were made for conversation with it.
Alexa’s appeal touches on these desires, but it will not satisfy them. Nor will the countless other voices that constantly call to us in this noisy world.
Only God’s voice will satisfy. Only his voice took on flesh to show us the true definition of love (1 John 3:16). Let’s do whatever we can to amplify that voice, making it louder, clearer, and more receivable to those who have ears to hear.