alexa and the banality of laughter

Several weeks ago, terrified people topped social media with stories of a sinister, chuckling Alexa. The Amazon home-assistant was laughing without a corresponding command to chortle. These frightened folks are not publicity hounds or conspiracy theorists. Amazon acknowledged the problem and explained that Alexa might be mishearing and reacting to a presumed request to laugh. We live with speakers that can laugh on command, but somehow the creepy part is that the device laughed without being told to do so.

Objects have become our increasingly responsive companions. We can talk to and boss around everything from our fridges to our phones. Articles have chronicled toddlers ordering around adults with the same language they use to talk to their digital home companion. Techno-optimists believe that these things — A.I., chatbots, smart home devices —  can solve for human inefficiencies and shortcomings, but is that possible if they can’t laugh? You may not think this is a relevant question, but I believe that in this moment of techno-laughter we are experiencing why the techno-optimists are wrong. My use of “experiencing” is intentional because I believe this realization is something that we must feel in order to understand. Alexa’s laugh paralyzes us in our profound human-ness and reminds us that objects can be effin’ scary.

What is a laugh? This question illuminates what we can gain from Alexa’s amused hiccup, but the answer is not simple. You could define a laugh by its sound or consider it the reaction to something funny. You could note that it was contagious or the best medicine. When you pay attention to these dimensions, you recognize that a laugh is both embedded and embodied. The soundwaves of laughing bounce off your eardrums, and from this perspective, you can easily call the noise emanating from Alexa a “laugh.” We hear it. But, if a laugh is a reaction to something funny, spreads amongst friends, and makes you feel better, if laughing requires and affects a body, can the snickering of disembodied code count? You could also stipulate whether laughter is voluntary or involuntary. Think about a moment you just lost it and you might understand why some people argue that all laughter is canned laughter. You simply can’t control it, and if it is automatic, then isn't it machinic? Here again, then, we find another argument for why we could accept that Alexa can laugh. If all laughter is merely canned, then Alexa’s giggle is as genuine as your Aunt Linda’s guffaw.

Let’s set aside the question of whether or not we can with any certainty call Alexa’s noise-making a “laugh” and instead focus on what we do know: An object that emits a humanesque voice is broadcasting a noise that sounds like a laugh, and the unwanted noise elicited strong reactions from people. For example, @GavinHightower tweeted: “Lying in bed about to fall asleep when Alexa on my Amazon Echo Dot lets out a very loud and creepy laugh... there’s a good chance I get murdered tonight.” You probably do not account for how Alexa’s sound has influenced your day. Suddenly, however, Hightower, and others, found Alexa loud and creepy. In a crystallizing moment, Alexa attuned listeners to a previously unvoiced tension between silence and acknowledgment. We sense that these objects are there, listening. We see them in their silence perched on desks and atop fridges, but the unrequested laugh brought before our ears the inculpatory evidence. 

The laugh has reminded us that objects and environments work in mysterious and productive ways, changing us without language or logic. Even the silent and unassuming Echo Dot perched on the nightstand is influencing us. We engage in the daily, trivial use of Alexa and other digital voice services. Home assistants are unassuming in their everyday presence, but they have also made us more unassuming. Those that live with voice assistants take for granted that the “assistants” turn off the music, tell what time it is, or order toilet paper. You do not have to navigate strewn toys as you ascend a staircase, experience a tinge of burn in your thighs, and confront a pile of unwashed laundry to turn off the music upstairs. You do not have to glance at your wrist and be reminded of your dad who gave you his retirement watch before he passed away. And, thank goodness, you are no longer forced to feel embarrassed when you run into your former crush while wearing dirty sweatpants and holding a pack of Charmin in aisle four. Alexa is always present, responsive, and ready to assume the most mundane task, and in turn, every task has become mundane. Alexa is always listening. When we recognize its everyday force, or ambiance, Alexa is orchestrating banality. The unwelcomed laugh was a cry that pierced the silent routine.

Hannah Arendt wrote about banality. Arendt created the phrase “banality of evil” while covering the trial of Adolf Eichmann, an officer in the German SS who facilitated the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jewish people during the Holocaust. The path from the Holocaust to a laughing digital voice assistant may appear tenuous at best and insensitive at worst, but from trains to IBM punch cards, technology helped Eichmann carry out the Holocaust. Whereas some might argue that evil is perpetrated by a calculating mastermind, Arendt demonstrated how evil can be expertly executed by a thoughtless rule follower. It was an absence of thinking that put the banal in evil and concerned Arendt.

Keeping in mind banal thoughtlessness, I return to the question: what is a laugh? Can a laugh be banal? I say no because I believe that laughter and thinking are important counterparts. The phrase “Oh, you think that is funny?” implies this relationship. Imagine what banal laughter would sound like, and I think you might envision a noise much like Alexa’s laugh— really creepy, but perhaps more importantly, inauthentic. The laughter we covet may not be controllable or explainable, but it is conditioned by experience. We do not all laugh at the same things because we do not experience the same things. We do not think about the same things or if we do, we do not think about them in the same way. Laughing is inextricably linked to thinking even if in the moment of involuntary tittering there is a suspension of thought. In fact, it is the ability of a joke or situation to suspend thought that imbues it with comedy. Comic relief is a relief from something. If you are able to continue to think about, evaluate, and critique an ill-timed or racist joke, you will not laugh. It is the intervention into something worth interrupting that makes laughter magical. We know when someone is laughing to be polite, in other words, when they are thinking about their laughter. A Redditor’s reflection that the Alexa noise they heard “definitely sounded like a canned laugh, not like someone laughing live” demonstrates the lived phenomena of laughter, that all laughter is not canned. The joy of laughter exists in the suspension, and if there is no thought to be suspended, there is no joy, no contagion, no medicine. There is simply trivial, scary noise. Or, Arendt might say banal noise.

Journalists have mentioned Masahiro Mori’s uncanny valley in articles about Alexa’s laughter. Mori argued that humans were amused by robots until they reached a threshold of being too human without being quite human enough. He called that area of too human, not human enough the uncanny valley. In Old English cunnan meant “to know,” and thus, we could interpret un-canny as unknowing, which today we define and experience as unsettling. Current technologists want to jump the uncanny valley and build A.I. that can completely pass for human. Even in 1970 Mori wrote that some robot developers believed that robots could improve upon humans, but Mori wanted to theorize the uncanny valley in part because he wanted to understand what makes us human. Some current engineers theorize that if they improve a robot’s ability to display emotion, they can increase our affinity for humanoids. If they can make laughter more real and well-timed, they hypothesize, we will learn to love our robot leaders.

To answer Mori’s question about what makes us human, I think we can learn from our gut reaction to the Amazonian laugh. We think Alexa’s unsolicited laughter is creepy because she is not thinking. Returning to the Old English, A.I. optimists overlook that canned emotions will always be uncanny because machines will always be un-knowing. We know this in part because day-in and day-out we embody Alexa’s thoughtlessness. We feel it reducing daily moments to dullness. The unease people have experienced in coded laughter is triggering a visceral reflection on this co-created inability to think. To presume that the lack of thought is a defining characteristic of objects or to believe that the lack of thought means that something or someone is harmless is wrong. Arendt understood that a code impenetrable by thought could perpetrate horrific crimes.  And, whether Alexa is ordering duct tape or laughing inexplicably, it is simply following code and asking you to bend your language and habits to its necessity. So, before condemning Amazon for buggy code or unwarranted surveillance, perhaps we should ask, who has invited this thoughtless object into our homes to make decisions and control our lights? And, we should remember, never trust a thing that can’t laugh.

media and violence

I have a new pastime. Each morning I wake up and flip through the front pages of American newspapers courtesy of the Newseum app. I try to discern a pattern, to mentally arrange the stories in a way that provides an explanation to something, although I am not quite sure what. I seem to know that there is a theme somewhere, an answer or a solution to a problem perhaps not yet clearly defined. According to front pages this week, the key to the current zeitgeist is Pikachu. Okay, I am not just wading down a Nashian tunnel; I also enjoy the aesthetics of flipping through front page after front page. The colors. The fonts. The quirky local stories: "Robot had a 'freakish' accident..." And, a couple of boys from Alabama set Colorado on fire. 

There are murders. There are rapes. This morning, there was Nice. Of the 15-plus local front pages I swiped through, 15-plus featured the Nice attack. Big, dark photos. Big, bold fonts. Some simply had one word "Horror;" The New York Post, in its never tactful approach, filled the entire front page with an image of a slain child covered in an aluminum blanket, a baby doll cast nearby.

HORROR

The violence is sad, and it is scary. It affects the way I think about my day and my vacation plans. How about you? I know statistically it is not rational to assume that any trip to a major city will end up in "Horror." I witness real humanity everyday when I leave my house -- in the smile from a stranger at the grocery store, a door held open, a dropped paper retrieved, shared laughter with a person I do not know -- millions of moments unremembered because they were the normalcy of a day, but at the same time remarkable when juxtaposed with the image of a child run over at a fireworks display.

In the midst of all this, I have been thinking about media and violence. I do not have anything new to say, and it is not a complete thought. I do not think that media necessarily makes people more violent, but I think that media is powerful. People with hurt and hate want a platform from which to be heard. It makes them strong. It vindicates their pain. It legitimizes whatever battle they are waging. "News" validates. How effective would violence such as that perpetrated in Nice be if it was not front page news? Does a sick, hateful man with a truck warrant a response from POTUS? When I think about these questions, I wonder if the most effective war against violence we could fight is a media blackout. 

I know it is a complicated question with implications worth exploring. Jeffrey Simon asked similar questions (in a much more academic and thorough manner) in 1987. If you can find it, read his Misunderstanding Terrorism. I have a pdf. If you want to read it, feel free to email me. 

pEAzza recipe

glutenfreepizza

My husband has decided to forego flour products. I know you may be thinking, "Ugh, another gluten-freek." I agree that the gluten frenzy is heightened, and it has earned a fair share of guttural utterances from me, but I am starting to think that wheat may truly be out to get us. It could be the fact that I just read that the wheat's genome is more complex than a human's or our friend's repeated mention of Grain Brain (which I want to read), but I have my eye on the DNA-hefty grain.

Of course, skipping flour means missing out on many dishes of devotion, namely pizza, so, in an effort to preserve the moments of pie bliss we embarked on a bean-flour-crust experiment. We have been eating chickpea flour pizza crusts for approximately one week with smiles. For other gluten-free pizza lovers I thought I would share what we've learned so far in our efforts to make pea-zza. If you have ever made pizza dough you may doubt the simplicity of what follows, but its ease is just another reason to love it despite its imposter status. Note: we like thin, crunchy pie.

Here you go, a recipe for gluten-free, bean flour pizza crusts:

Ingredients for three 9-inch crusts

1 cup of chickpea/garbanzo bean flour (You can buy this at natural food grocers such as Sprouts, but it is more economical if you have an Indian grocer nearby. Look for the row of gram or besan flour. We purchased 4-lbs for $3.99 at Rani's.)

1 1/4 cup of water

1 tbsp olive oil

Dash of garlic powder (You can skip this if you do not have handy.)

1 tbsp butter

1 tsp corn meal (to prevent sticking)

Toppings of your choice, including tomato sauce and cheese

Whisk all ingredients except the butter, corn meal and toppings in a bowl until clumps have disappeared. Store in the refrigerator until needed. 

Lightly oil a 9-inch cast iron skillet (probably any oven safe skillet would do?) and place on the center rack of the oven. Preheat the oven to 525° F with the oiled skillet inside. When the oven reaches 525°, place the tablespoon of butter in the skillet and return to the oven until the butter has fully melted. When the butter has melted, remove the skillet and pour 1/3 of bean batter into the center of the skillet. It will sizzle! Pour and slightly swirl to ensure that the batter spreads to the edges. Return the skillet to the oven and cook for approximately 10-12 minutes or until the edges are golden brown and the batter has stopped bubbling. If big bubbles develop during cooking, pop 'em with a knife or other clean, sharp object. 

When the crust is golden brown (again approx. 10-12 minutes), remove from the skillet from the oven. Careful! It will be hot. Remove the crust from the skillet and place on a surface with a pinch of corn meal to prevent sticking. You can repeat the above steps to make two additional crusts. After you are done making crusts, reduce oven temperature to 450°. 

To top, remove the crust from the skillet. We place the crust on our pizza paddle with a pinch of corn meal. You will be returning the crust to the oven rack, so just be sure you have a plan. (Honestly, if you did it right, the crust should be sturdy enough to just pick it up and plop it back onto the rack.) Top with sauce, toppings and cheese as you desire, and return to the center oven rack for approximately 3-minutes at 450°, until the cheese is melty.

If you happen across this recipe and give it a whirl, let me know how it works out. It took us a handful of pies to work it out because we tried different oven temperatures. We're still experimenting with the goal of getting the crust more like a cracker thin crust.  

 

expertise schmexpertise

I am 37-years old, and I spend a lot of my days wondering, part lamenting, how I arrived at this age without an expertise to which I will confidently lay claim. When pressed on the issue, I typically share the story of my first job after college. I explain that if I can work as an investment banking analyst with a degree in American Studies, a minor in Education, and only a week's worth of WSJ knowledge about the DJIA and finance, then, I can do anything. 

There's a little corner somewhere between my ears and fingertips that harbors that cocksure confidence. But, there are so many talented folks who have dedicated lifetimes to honing one brilliant expertise, and thus, when I start thinking, "Sure, you could run off and be an interior designer," I am confronted with the gent who designed and built a crib for his bespoke nursery at the age of 18 months, and suddenly, I am not worthy. 

So, I chuck the interior designer plan and start taking inventory of my skills and life experience to determine my true expertise, my brand, my platform... blarg. The packaging of ourselves is perhaps the most demoralizing demand of the modern workforce. We are pretty hard to fit into boxes, and I do not really want to be a "social media expert" or a "marketing maven." I do not care what SEO demands of me. I like to think I am pretty frickin' nuanced and capable across a wide range of domains for one reason: I can read, and I can learn. Okay, maybe that is two reasons, but they are closely related to a third reason: I can write. 

So, the story about the story about the apple (check "About Me") is a little goofy, perhaps a little gimmicky, but when I think about what I have been doing for a lifetime, it's writing.