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Technology at the fringes of Christmas

Another Christmas Day fed, lounged, movied, ate, and goofed off. It was all-around successful. No flare ups or emotional jags disturbed our family time. We had just the immediate family—daughter Sydney, son Nick, and Virginia and me. Gifts lay under the tree. Stockings hung on the sills of the living room windows. Sydney came over and spent the morning with Nick, Virginia, and me. It was nearly perfect.

Except . . . I perceived the constant creep of technology and robotics into our lives. Most of it lay right in front of our eyes. Others came in the gifts themselves. No one was really paying attention. But I was. As I sit in my favorite armchair, I watched as we invited—nay, ushered—more technology into our lives.

For instance, Virginia wanted a Roomba for the holiday. I almost dodged it but caved in and bought one of the allegedly benign robots. Virginia was very happy. She imagines our house will be infinitely cleaner with the device bouncing around our rooms like Woody Allen just awakened from his long rest in the movie Sleeper. And after a few days of use (she received it about a week early), the place does seem tidier.

But like all technology that allegedly makes our lives easier, the Roomba needs attention all the time. We have dogs. We have been sloppy in the past. After hiring housekeepers who come in monthly, we have not vacuumed as we should. The little bin on the device needs emptying every ten minutes or so. My long hair, which falls out in hanks these days, gets wound around the brushes. About twice or three times in the hour the Roomba runs around the house, I put it up on the counter upside down, remove the brushes, and pull nests of hair from its innards.

Other things aren’t so easy to identify. We don’t think anything of our phones—or, rather, “devices,” a better word because they are really sophisticated radios with which we communicate. As we opened gifts, we all set aside our phones but to take pictures. But as soon as the new presents made their appearances, we all picked up our devices and began posting pictures, looking up various subjects, and (for Nick) watching YouTube videos.

The pocket device has become so ubiquitous that we don’t even realize what we sacrifice for them. I wondered what kinds of closeness we missed due to our emotional and mental investments in the phones. What might we have said to each other instead of looking at screens. I ached for the quiet I once experienced around the Christmas tree, people who whose collective presences were enough.

Then, there were other presents that promised to exude more technology into our lives. Virginia bought me a Echo Dot. I don’t know what it does, exactly. It’s supposed to make life easier, though I can’t imagine how. I see myself dialing up my Pandora channels for background when dicking around on the computer or writing. But writing is mostly a solitary and quiet undertaking.

Allegedly, the Dot is supposed to allow us easier access to the grand range of Amazon products. It’s yet another example of weakening thee barriers that stand between my wallet and the free market. I can think of something I want, tell the Dot, and Amazon will deliver my dreams and wishes to my door. The company promises I can buy groceries and shoes, lingerie and books. The Dot even comes with a built in personality, Alexa. A pleasant-spoken program that will even make jokes with me.

What I’m getting at is that a moderately technologically connected house becomes even more so. We just hook all these things up to the internet and, bing, everything is at our fingertips or at the edge of our conversations.

I don’t fret over the privacy issues. I’m tech savvy enough to resist surrendering my soul to the companies who want to know my behavior well enough to anticipate what I might want or need even before I know it. Roomba’s transmitting our floorplan to iRobot, which collects that information and assembles it with hundreds of thousands of floor plans, issues, problems the Roomba faces, to make their product more amenable to the average home. What does it matter? I have nothing to hide. The architect’s plans are already public knowledge.

But that’s the insidiousness of the robotification of our lives. Isn’t that, after all, what the Roomba so obviously represents. To a lesser extent, Alexa robotifies my hopes and dreams. The pocket device and the programs I access with it automates my hopes and wishes. YouTube anticipates my preferences in videos. Apple, Pandora, and Spotify know my music preferences (which are pretty complex). They queue up songs I might like, and then I tell them if I like these melodies or not. This information goes into larger databases whose purpose is to anticipate the market.

It all gives me a distorted perception that the market is full of choices. It mainstreams my behavior and thinking. It makes me just another hole into which corporations pour their ciphers.

What does all this mean? Christmas wasn’t just about family and sitting around enjoying each other. It was about large corporations gathering information so they can make more money, not just off of us, but off the millions of people who sat around their houses indulging in entertainment, consumerist behavior, and surrendering their individuality to what is becoming a giant information blob that will tell us what we want and when we want it.

Then, my phone pooped out later in the evening on Christmas day. Then, I realized just how dependent I’ve become on my device. I expect a call from a job query, a follow-up from a phone interview. The people who interviewed me only have this phone with which to contact me. I needed to get it fixed or replaced.

I spent two hours in the sterile cell-phone store. I was surly, faced once again with another technologically oriented expense, which brings me to my last point. All this tech nickel-and-dimes the house. How much, I want to find out, do we spend on Amazon Prime, Netflix, cable, cell phones? I bet it’s close to $600 or $700 a month, maybe more.

It’s time for me to tally this up and show these people I live with just what automation costs us. We have a vague idea of what it’s done to relationships. What does it do with us in terms of work? Are we using thee tech to make our lives easier or are we working for another master?

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