A Body’s Invisible Tether to Home
After several weeks of use, the Echo quickly faded into the background of daily life. Unlike screen-based and touchscreen technologies, Alexa’s invisibility and ubiquity within interior spaces is designed not to capture attention but to be easily forgotten and taken for granted. Unlike the “dramatic” machine that the user cannot live without, as Mark Weiser writes of in his treatise on ubiquitous computing (1994), I grew to experience the handsfree and “invisible” design of the Echo as “a computer so imbedded, so fitting, so natural [... that I used it ...] without thinking about it” (1994: 1). The device immediately felt comforting and calming, not only for my eyes, which stare at a computer screen for hours on end at work, but also because it helped me unplug from media and the screen while unwinding at home. While this is partially an illusion, as I remained connected to the internet through Alexa and continued to consume movies and TV before bedtime, I still felt remarkably detached from my smart phone, which I would have otherwise used frequently to pull up music and news media, perform simple internet searches, and set timers or alarms while cooking meals, doing laundry, and performing a variety of other domestic tasks. Instead of reaching for my phone and looking at it with every impulse, I simply called out to Alexa and listened to the response without missing a beat in accomplishing the task at hand.
This had an unanticipated consequence that I acutely perceived after several weeks of habitual use. Having acquired a familiarity with the device, I began to viscerally anticipate conditions of global voice-activation. In other words, my use of the technology engendered an embodied expectation that all objects at home would be animated with the same kind of digital interactivity afforded by the Echo. This occurred both in the context of daily routines (e.g., getting ready for work in the morning) as well as during periods of “free time” in the evenings and on weekends. I kept noticing the impulse to activate and control a variety of objects and other technical devices in my home that were not connected to Alexa, such as the bedroom lights and window curtains. This phantom vocality developed as my body anticipated basic smart speaker affordances, just as I had learned to stop my arm from reaching out from under the covers in the early morning to snooze or stop the alarm clock. Thus, sonic interaction replaced not only visible interaction with objects (e.g., swiping/scrolling on the phone) but also embodied interaction with household objects. I even found myself outside of my room and away from the device when an impulse for voice-activation would strike, such as to turn on the stove or open the refrigerator door in the communal kitchen or even to toggle the toilet flush handle in the washroom. Although any of these tasks can be delegated to Alexa in a properly outfitted smart home, I had not configured this on any IoT devices. Interestingly, not once did I observe the same visceral phenomena when I was away from my dwelling unit, leading me to conclude that a strong personal association had formed between smart speaker affordances and the conditions of being at home. Even if one is not consciously aware of the device’s presence, it seems that one’s body can remain implicitly aware of the possibilities that the device opens up in a particular environment. Smart speakers, then, shape not only one’s habits and domestic practices but also one’s expectations and impulses at home. Early in my use of the technology, I experienced a feeling of sensory liberation through “unplugging” from visual media and ocular technologies. I now recognize that an invisible tether was concurrently formed, connecting me as a user to media, objects, and the acoustic environment in mundane yet powerful ways.
Our AEHs are about how we, as users, are connected to their homes through their actions, habits, and aural associations. The tether formed between one’s body and smart speaker technology might prompt the user to further “buy into” the smart home ideal: the more voice-activation becomes integrated into the home environment, the more one might be inclined to purchase a smart speaker for each room or purchase a suite of compatible IoT devices, including thermostats, switches, lights, appliances, security systems, and TVs. Conversely, perhaps my anticipation of global voice-activation at home is not entirely the result of my gradual aural habituation to the Echo but rather a symptom of my prior exposure to imaginaries of consumer technology that accompany the domestication of smart speakers. In other words, perhaps the phantom voice-activation that developed during the period of research was shaped by marketing discourse, advertisements, and various forms of online user-generated content – such as product reviews and unboxing videos (Neville 2020b) – all of which tend to extol the interactive affordances of smart speakers as an element of the IoT and ubiquitous computing imaginaries. In all likelihood, AEHs are not formed in a domestic bubble – isolated from the public world – but are mutually shaped by dwelling experiences and domestication discourses about specific devices and larger sociotechnical assemblages, one example of the latter being the smart home imaginary that portrays the user and domestic environment as seamlessly connected to devices and cloud network infrastructures. While this trajectory of inquiry exceeds the scope of the paper, future research could further examine how emergent AEHs are normalized or even “pre-domesticated” (Humphry and Chesher 2020) by actors outside of one’s household. For example, “warm experts” (Bakardjieva 2005), online influencers or “micro-celebrities” (Marwick 2015), and industry spokespeople may have the ability to shape individuals’ and groups’ perceptions of the relationship between sound and experiences of dwelling through, for example, the promotion of the acoustic boundary control affordances of smart speakers.