So it was Amazon Prime day recently. For those not in the Prime club, it’s a day where Amazon sells off stuff from the really high warehouse shelves where the forklifts can’t reach and no one can be arsed to keep climbing up and down the ladder. So they make one annual trip, create a mountain of crap on the floor and flog it off to people already paying for the privilege of shopping with them. I bloody love it.
We ordered an Alexa. I would like to say this purchase decision was based on extensive research and the proven need for one. I would like to say this but I can’t. What actually happened was the following:
Me: “Ooh look, Alexa is half price.”
(Just a point of clarification: it’s called an Echo. I believe that no one outside of Amazon’s marketing department ever refers to it as such though, because we all know there is actually a little person living inside that black plastic cylinder called Alexa. She’s like a hybrid of Wikipedia, Spotify and a Borrower. She is not called Echo because that would be a shit name, unless you are a celebrity, in which case Echo, Whisper and Spittle are all top of the short list of any baby names. World, meet Spittle Martin. It could have happened you know.)
Husband (slightly disinterested): “Is it?”
Me: ” Shall we get one then?” I am at this juncture simply abiding by international laws of negotiation that states that anything other than the words ‘over my dead body’ is an implicit agreement to purchase.
Husband: “Is it better than the Google one?” I haven’t got time for this. There are other Prime deals slipping through my fingers.
I type the question into Google with an ironic flourish of fingers. I spot an article entitled ‘Why Alexa is better than Google Home”.
Me: “According to all the research, yes, it is.”
I tell the boys we are getting Alexa. “When is she arriving?” B asks excitedly.
“Well, she’s packed her bags and is on her way,” I reply. I have a sneaking suspicion he thinks I’ve just ordered Mary Poppins v.2.1.
Alexa arrives the next day. She is packaged in the identikit cardboard couture that is de rigour for every piece of tech born since the Apple iTouch. You know the sort. You can’t find a way in because it’s far too bloody minimal to have arrows, flaps or a great red sticker that says ‘open here’ and once inside, everything is in another little, equally anonymous, box. Which is all well and good, until you need to put it back in the box, then it’s the most fiendish sodding Tetris puzzle ever invented. I plug her in. We all look at her expectantly. She is silent.
We look at each other. Well someone has to bloody well make small talk, so I dive in.
“Alexa. What’s the weather?” We are standing by the window, coincidentally another useful piece of technology that tells you instantly what the weather is like, but we have newer, shinier technology now, so quite frankly, the window is dead to us.
Alexa’s dulcet tone emanate from the black cylinder. “The weather is sunny, with highs of 22 degrees.”
One of the boys may have this point actually burst into spontaneous applause.
Now he has seen Alexa in action, E takes charge. “Alexa, play Uptown Funk.” Alexa duly obliges.
“Where’s the music coming from?” he asks.
“From… from…”I falter. Where is the music coming from? Maybe I should ask Alexa.
“From my computer,” I guess, then quickly change the topic of conversation. “Alexa,” I command. “What films are playing near us?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t have that information.”
What? WHAT? the local bloody paper has that information for crying out loud, how come she doesn’t? You can go off people, you know.
“ALEXA!” B shouts, jumping up and down. “PLAY TUBBLEMEEKER’.
Alexa says what the rest of us are thinking: “Sorry, I don’ t know that song.”
It transpires that he meant Troublemaker, but in his eagerness, forgot how to speak properly, so I translate and Alexa duly obliges.
“Alexa,” says E, elbowing his brother out of the way. “Play Wiggle.” This prompts me to wonder if Alexa has a content filter that I can apply to weed out the more moronic, sexist, cock-jockey songs, but it transpires no.
And so the kitchen fills with the immortal line: “You know what to do with your big fat butt…wiggle, wiggle…wiggle.”
“Alexa,” I say loudly, competing with the noise of hysterical giggles as much butt-wiggling occurs in front of the dishwasher, “play Superstition, Stevie Wonder.” Sanity is momentarily restored.
“I hate this song,” moans B before Stevie has even had the chance to take his first breath.
“Alexa,” he shouts, “play Gummy Bear.”
What the fuck? The sound of strangled, nasal electronic singing of a bear made of gelatin, sugar and citric acid bursts forth. (A further point of clarification. I asked Alexa what gummy bears are made of, and that was her answer. I then looked it up on Google and the first ingredient it mentions is ANIMAL BONES. Seriously Alexa, you didn’t think to mention this? You think that I want to know about citric acid but am not so bothered about the ground upskeleton of some mammal that is in there too? Holy shit woman, sort yourself out). Anyway, back to my ear drums that are bleeding and my overwhelming desire to eat my own elbows. In what universe is this music allowed?
“Alexa, stop,” I command to howls of protest from my youngest, who is either mid-dab or is wiping bogeys from his forehead with his arm (more common than you might at first think).
And this little loop of a child playing a song, me hastily playing a different song, child starting another song and me then stopping the whole damn shebang is a pretty fair representation of what we spend the next week doing with Alexa. Fair play to her, she didn’t lose her rag once, which makes at least one of us.
I decide to test her abilities one morning after we have all listened to her repeat to us the news that we just heard on the radio upstairs.
“Alexa, what sound does a panda make?” Now, I have no real need to know this. I mean, I can hazard a guess that it involves much crunching of bamboo, but the point is that this is the question that the dad asks in the Google Home advert, therefore, as a point of principle, it is an important question to which she bloody better well know the answer.
“I am still learning certain sounds,” Alexa intones, “and I will share them with you as soon as I can.”
A certain sound springs to my mind, and I can share that with her right now: “TWAT.”
Where on the specification did it say I was getting the bloody apprentice Alexa? I don’t want one that is still doing her sodding General Studies GCSE. I want one that’s fully qualified, well read and can tell me WHAT NOISE A SODDING PANDA MAKES. I mean, she could just ask Google, that’s what any sane person would do.
So Alexa has told us jokes, played Would You Rather with us and told me the time, which has saved me from turning my head to the wall clock. She has told a few jokes, mainly revolving around quantifying how many people of certain professions can insert a new lightbulb. Let’s face it, pretty essential stuff. She has played Desparcito by Luis Fonsi (no, me neither) around thirty-seven times for my five-year-old. She has played a medley of Queen, Bruno Mars and done some addition and subtraction for my eight-year-old. And when everyone else was out, she even played a selection of Radiohead and the odd Nadia Rose track for me, which I listened to all the way through without the fucking Gummy ‘suck on my animal bones’ Bear putting in an unwelcome appearance.
She did attempt to tell me and my son a story one day, but we lasted about forty seconds before her tortuous delivery, reminiscent of a lady-like Stephen Hawking with the pitch and intonation skills of a Dalek, made our brains go funny and our ears spontaneously close. So that’s one more bloody parenting job I am still stuck with.
Of course, I would like to see some Alexa enhancements. Perhaps she could be a little more assertive, so that when B asks for Gummy Bear, she could simply reply with “no, it will rot your brain, go away and read a book will you?”
Aside from the obvious skill of being able to speak without sounding like she is auditioning for the leading role in the remake of The Metal Mickey TV Show, I would like to be able to choose a regional accent. Her received pronunciation can be a little grating after a while and although I did ask her if she wanted to remove that cucumber from up her arse, she didn’t seem to want to know. I would quite happily switch to…oh, I don’t know… David Tennant? It would mean I would never leave the house again, but that’s a small price to pay.
And there we have it. Our little Borrower in a box. She’s alright really. Good with music, shit with pandas. In fact, I think that might be the strap line on the adverts.