My Interview with Alexa Juliana Ard

And so, now, well into the eighth year since the launch of the Amazon Echo, we can make an obvious statement: Thanks to Amazon, now someone named “Alexa” can expect those that they encounter to associate them with a voicebot that they use daily, at which voicebot they shout requests, pleas, commands, profanities, and obscenities — and in any case, with which robot they stand in relationship of easy, comfortable, and intimate familiarity. And perhaps that is the thing that is most jarring to people who are called “Alexa”: those who encounter them immediately feel that they have the right to be jokey and pokey with them, immediately disposing with the usual formalities and politeness protocols that guide the behavior of people who don’t know each other. Instead, the non-Alexa human feels that they have the right to engage in familiar, presumptuous banter, and, almost always without second though, engage in such banter unilaterally, no permission asked.

In my interview, I started our conversation by spending time talking about Alexa Julana Ard the professional — a Foreign Video Editor who starts her morning getting caught up with the news, and then spends the rest of the day engaing with journalists on the ground, various freelancers and videographers, in the quest for the perfect videos that will enable reporters from around the world to bring their stories alive.

We then moved on to the question of: How does a reporter at The Washington Post convince their editors to let them pursue a project such as one that looks into the effects of naming a voicebot “Alexa” have on human beings named “Alexa”? The answer: Work very hard to provide evidence, and lots and lots of it, do it on your own time, put together the case that the story is worth investing into, make sure the case is compelling, and show your editor what you can do to the reader by doing to the editor what you promise your story will do to the reader: in this case, raise their consciousness.

Indeed, and not suprisingly, Alexa’s colleagues and her editors not only had never considered the issue problematic: they had never detected the existence of any issue at all. The genuine pain that many human beings were suffering had gone completely unnoticed by them. Her pitch presentation left everyone who was in attendance surprised and moved: they had no idea.

I also got a chance to ask her the large-elephant-in-the room question: The Washington Post is owned by Jeff Bezos — and so, did it occur to anyone to think twice about publishing a story that was critical of one of the products that Amazon, the company that Bezos owns, was actively and aggressively promoting? Her answer was no: such considerations did not enter her mind at all and any point.

Here is Part One of the interview.

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