I’m not the guy you go to when you need directions. As my wife will gladly testify, I have gotten lost in some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in America. If there’s a wrong turn to be made, I’ve traveled that road. The Clark Griswold character played by Chevy Chase in those Vacation movies may have been based on me.
I was too stubborn (and cheap) to buy a GPS when they first came out. About the time I started getting interested in one, my news photographer bragged that his GPS would lead us to a rural school I had never visited, an hour away from Chattanooga. It took us to a cow pasture, with no classrooms in sight.
Of course, GPS units have followed fax machines and typewriters into the Obscure Gadget Hall of Fame. Our smartphones and their various apps are more accurate than ever, and we can even choose the voice (and accent) that tells us where to go. One of my female co-workers chose a male voice with a sexy Australian accent. She sure drives a lot these days.
Gone are the days when you could pull over at the fillin’ station to ask a good ol’ boy with a chaw of tobacco how to find the Baptist church. “Over yonder a ways, jest past the holler,” he would say. Today he pulls out his Android and checks his Waze app.
Since we became accustomed to being ordered around while behind the wheel, those mysterious voices have invaded our homes. When I opened my Christmas present from my wife last year, an Amazon Echo featuring “Alexa” was included in the package I had never seen one, and certainly didn’t want one, but it was free, so why not?
Alexa, in case you don’t know, is the disembodied voice of the round little gadget, connected somehow to the Internet. She can answer all your questions, pay your bills, keep up with your appointments, and drive the kids to school. (Sometimes I throw in a little fake news to see if you’re paying attention.)
We plugged her in, and she soon became part of the family. I ask her the temperature (because it’s way too much trouble to turn my head and look at the thermometer), the TV schedule, and Cindy Crawford’s age. Why is this important? It’s really not, but that’s another story.
Even though Alexa is only supposed to react when called upon, (as in “Alexa, what time does Waffle House close?” The answer: “Never”), a friend tells me that Alexa listens even when you are unaware. She said, “One time I was cussing while watching a basketball game on TV and she told me my language was inappropriate.” My wife has expressed similar concerns about this potential eavesdropping, but I’m okay with it. If those nosy Russians are amused by me searching for lost remotes, I’m glad I can brighten their day.
Another friend sent me pics of the holiday outfits her sister makes for Alexa, decking her out in an Easter outfit, a Christmas sweater and a Halloween costume. I believe she sent the pics so I wouldn’t think her sister was crazy. Well, that strategy backfired.
Teachers have to be on alert with homework assignments, because even second graders are savvy enough to get Alexa to do their work for them. She knows ALL the answers.
I also heard from a friend who got Alexa for his 95-year-old mom, because she’s interested in weather. The next time he visited her, she asked him about the forecast. He said, “Mom, all you have to do is ask Alexa.” She replied, “Well, I don’t want to bother anyone.” He said, “Mom, it’s not a person, it’s a computer!” She paused and said, “Oh, there’s a person connected to it somewhere, and she might be busy.”
Finally, a word to the wise: although these chatty devices can be your friend, they can also embarrass you. For instance, your car’s driving directions app might speak up at an inappropriate moment.
This is a true story. A man was rushing to get to a funeral, listening carefully to the step-by-step directions on his phone, with the volume cranked up above the music. He arrived just in time to rush into the church as the preacher was beginning his eulogy about the dearly departed. The preacher solemnly asked, “When dear old Uncle Oswald entered those Pearly Gates, do you know what the Lord said to him?” There was just enough of a pause for my friend’s phone to loudly reply, “You have reached your final destination!”
David Carroll, a Chattanooga news anchor, is the author of “Volunteer Bama Dawg,” a collection of his best stories. You may contact David at 900 Whitehall Road, Chattanooga, TN 37405, or firstname.lastname@example.org.