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Hey, Google! Who Was I Before I Met You?

(Yagi Studio/Getty Images)
(Yagi Studio/Getty Images)

As we pack up our home of nearly 40 years, I’m eying the Google smart speaker in our bedroom, trying to decide whether to take it with us.

We call her “G.” If we didn’t — if we referred to her by her full name --  the hypervigilant device would wake up and start answering rhetorical questions such as “How can Mitch McConnell live with himself?” or “Why is it that in Boston there are always signs for the cross streets but never for the street you’re on?” When I wondered aloud where the hell my matching sock was, she dolefully responded, “Sorry, I can’t help you with that.” She recited the weather forecast when my husband pondered how much longer Queen Elizabeth would reign.

We acquired G to turn our bedroom closet light on and off. (Yes, despite her androgynous appearance — compact, round and ageless — we’ve given her a female pronoun, though I suspect that in a Zoom session, we’d see “(they/their)” next to G’s name.) Numerous attempts to replace the broken pull-string on the bare bulb that had been in there since the invention of electricity failed. The new cord would get stuck, leaving the light indefinitely shining or dark, and it became unwieldy to hold a flashlight in one hand while using the other to rummage around for those pants I could have sworn still fit properly, especially given that every pair of pants I own is black.

But G, paired with a special bulb and the Google Home app, let us simply command the closet light to turn on and off. It was a miraculous high-tech solution to a low-tech problem. And so G insinuated her way into our lives. Giddy with power, we eventually extended our dominion (okay, G’s dominion) to the coffee machine, telling it to awaken itself each morning well before we did.

When I wondered aloud where the hell my matching sock is, she would dolefully respond “Sorry, I can’t help you with that.”

The next thing you know, she offered to give us a daily briefing — no alerts about threats to our national security, but a chipper “Good morning,” followed by the weather forecast for the day, an itemization of every meeting and appointment on our calendars, and an entertainingly random set of news headlines from sources as diverse as ABC News and The Paducah Sun.

Soon we were relying on her to answer burning questions that arose as we tried in vain to sleep — questions like “Who wrote 'My Baby Does the Hanky Panky'?” or “What’s the difference between a possum and an opossum?” or “Why is the sign of the fish significant in Christianity?”

This dependence isn’t all bad. In fact, it’s helped me develop some better habits. For instance, G penalizes vagueness (“Who was Popeye’s friend?” yields several possible answers) and instead demands a precision and rigor all too often absent from contemporary discourse. (“Who was Popeye’s hamburger-eating friend?” is quickly and easily answered.) She forces us to pose questions that are devoid of either/or alternatives (“Are earworms more likely to be songs with or without lyrics?”) and instead are quantitative and direct (“What percentage of earworms have lyrics?”). Thanks to G’s unpredictable cluelessness, we’ve engaged in hours of creative problem-solving (and just when we want to do it, between the hours of 11:15 p.m. and why-even-bother-trying-to-sleep a.m.).

We're not so much reinventing ourselves as returning to ourselves, to both the pace and values that marked the younger us.

But thanks to G, have we lost our capacity for delayed gratification? Are we like the undisciplined kids in Walter Mischel’s 1990 marshmallow test study, unable to resist the gooey delight in front of us despite the promise of a second one if we just wait 15 minutes? Or are we like the rich kids in the 2018 debunking of Mischel’s marshmallow test, willing and able to wait because marshmallows are as abundant as easy answers? (Hey Google, can “social science” rightly be called “science?”) Are we lords of a Smart Home or serfs of a lazy one?

This question has taken on greater urgency as we prepare to move to a smaller house in a co-housing community, far from the urban thrum. We're not so much reinventing ourselves as returning to ourselves, to both the pace and values that marked the younger us.

Back then, we were curious, which is not the same as “We demanded instant answers to stupid questions.” We were impatient, yes, but for big things like world peace, not for small things like the ingredients for Ina Garten’s Perfect Roast Chicken.

I wonder if and how those concurrent desires will co-exist as I age — the hunger for slow consideration and speedy resolution, for massive changes and small pleasures. I don’t know how to frame that question in a way that G will understand. But that’s just as well. I don’t want to hear her answer.

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Julie Wittes Schlack Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Julie Wittes Schlack writes essays, short stories and book reviews for various publications, including WBUR's Cognoscenti and The ARTery, and is the author of “This All-at-Onceness” (Pact Press, 2019).

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