During the month of August, my husband Thom and I are renting a home in the mountains about an hour from our primary home in the desert southwest. This is our first year in this particular dwelling and it has a number of features to enjoy like good wifi (of course!), a large wraparound deck looking through the trees, and a hot tub. One of the unexpected amenities is Alexa. Have you met her? On the surface, Alexa seems like an amusing and helpful addition to any home. But watch out! Not only is she extremely attractive on many levels, she also adds to the many irresistible distractions that technology offers us in our current world.
We first met Alexa’s cousin Echo a couple of months ago when we visited some friends for dinner. Technically called a “digital assistant” these electronic devices have exploded on the market during the last two years. Our friends explained buying theirs as a novelty and showed us how you simply ask it to play any type of music or answer a variety of questions. I could tell Thom was intrigued, but after talking it over we decided it just wasn’t a necessary addition for our own home.
Then August 5th we arrived at the mountain home where Alexa sat innocently on a desk. As soon as Thom realized that she was an upgraded version of the Echo with a better speaker, he began plying her with requests. I’ll admit she is pretty remarkable. While Alexa doesn’t know every song we demand, her repertoire is pretty extraordinary and the sound is reasonably good. She is also quick to tell you today’s weather, keep a grocery list, tell you how many miles it is to drive to Los Angeles, and any number of trivial questions that you might be curious about. If you connect her to the right appliances she can turn on your lights, turn down the air conditioner, and connect to your television. And yes, she will even tell you a joke if you ask.
The problem is, after a couple of days I got the feeling that Alexa was taking over my peace and tranquility. While Thom and I both enjoy music playing quietly in the background throughout the day, the stopping and starting of a new artist every few minutes was annoying. And hearing Thom say, “Alexa, play such and such,” or “Alexa what time is it?” over and over, I began to fantasize about throwing her off the deck.
When I asked Thom why he found her so irresistible, he laughed and said it was nice to ask for something he wanted without her talking back! It also provides instant gratification to any request. Well almost. Alexa isn’t perfect but even then, some of the fascination is coming up with questions that she can’t answer. When you do, she says pleasantly, “Hmmm…I don’t have an answer for that.”
According to Nir Eyal the author of Hooked: How To Build Habit-Forming Products, Alexa is similar to many products specifically designed these days to hook us into continual use. By creating “sticky” technology, most products, websites, and apps have a strong intention to make customers so attracted to them that they repeatedly use them until they become a habit. While most of us might suspect that products are designed to do just that, we are naïve if we don’t realize how easily we play into their hands.
How do they do it? According to Eyal, the product is first calculated to create a trigger that prompts us into action. Think of Facebook. All the notifications we get through Facebook are triggers that our friends or trusted resources are doing something important that we need to know about. While many of those actions and announcements are frequently tedious, we still feel the need to click just in case it might actually be important.
Eyal says that while the trigger starts externally, we are the ones who then convert the trigger internally. In other words, if we begin feeling bored, lonely, or tired, we may find that we get a chemical boost from our brain when discovering what our friends are doing on Facebook. Before we know it, our internal triggers create cravings that prompt us to continually check for status updates.
Alexa triggers us in a similar way. Humans are curious beings and love to relieve the itch of uncertainty. By design, Alexa is right there willing to fulfill our demands or answer any question. Again, by flooding our brains with the pleasure of immediate gratification, the trigger goes from external to internal. Before we know it, using Alexa becomes a habit that we can’t imagine living without.
Think it can’t happen to you? According to a survey by Time.com, 84% of those asked say they could not go a day without a cell phone. Another survey says 50% of cell phone users check their phone at least once during the middle of the night. Since becoming indispensable in the last ten years, the majority of us users have become addicted to our cell phones without even realizing it.
The next step to “hook” us takes action. Eyal says, “Actions are the simplest behavior done in anticipation of relief.” Alexa makes the action step incredibly easy. By receiving immediate answers to our questions, we relieve negative emotions as well as alleviate our fear of forgetting. Alexa does this even better than Siri on our iPhones because we don’t have to pick anything up, unlock our phone, or find the app. This ease of use reinforces our attachment.
The third step to becoming hooked is the actual reward we receive. Most humans are wired to receive a chemical boost whenever we encounter something new and different that we find pleasing, helpful or safe. Perhaps our ancestors felt something similar when hunting for dinner. Alexa is purposely designed to surprise, delight or comfort us with her answers. Certain types of questions show her “personality,” and before long the reward of using Alexa feels intriguingly close to talking to a real person—a compliant one at that!
The final step to creating a hook is an investment. Chances are good that the more you use something, the more you find ways to use it. Think of Facebook. The more friends you have and the more pages you like, the more interesting and varied the items are on your newsfeed. Research shows that the more you comment and like things, the more pleasure you report from using it. Plus, Facebook continues to develop different apps and aspects to the site all designed to keep you curious and engaged.
Alexa is the same. According to Voicebot, Alexa now has over 17,000 “skills” in the U.S. The top eight skills that people are using her for today are:
- Set timer
- Play songs
- Read news
- Set alarm
- Check the time
- Tell a joke
- Control the lights
- Add to shopping list
But get ready. A big part of solidifying the “investment” being offered to “hook” us is continuing to offer new and even better tasks for Alexa. Voicebot also predicts that while only 7% of U.S. households now own a “smart speaker” like Alexa, by just 2020, over 75% of all residences will welcome her (or someone like her) into their home.
I get the attraction. Like I mentioned above I love technology and I can see the many advantages of Alexa. However, we must continue to remind ourselves that much of our overuse of technology is due to the “hook factor” rather than real need or benefit. And like too much stuff can over-clutter our lives, the presence of too much technology can also lead to keeping us so busy and distracted that we forget about things that add true value to our lives.
Does it matter? It should matter to all of us. The more addicted or hooked we become to our iPhones, our computers, or our soon-to-be digital assistants, the less we are connected to people or the planet. Why care about the outside world if every craving seems satisfied by technology? Who needs companionship when we can order Alexa around 24/7? Such addiction is not good for our physical health and definitely not good for our mental health.
Lucky for me Thom gradually began to distance himself from Alexa as days passed. We still ask her to turn on the music now and then or check for tomorrow’s weather. But her attraction dims in comparison to finding ourselves surrounded by pine and oaks trees that are older than 100, bright blue skies beckoning us outside, and long hiking trails that feed our souls and exercise our bodies. By design, Alexa will likely be a part of every one of our homes in the coming years, but the SMART approach is to remember to surround ourselves with people and experiences that make life meaningful, connected and happy. And if we are going to get hooked on anything, let’s make sure it matters.
Your turn: Do you own an Alexa or Smart-speaker? What do you like best about it? Least? Are you hooked? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.