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Trading Control for Convenience

Last week I was listening to music on a PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) radio station when, during a break, an announcer said, “Tell your smart speaker to tune to PBS.” Evidently these little electronic servants have become so commonplace that PBS just assumes that their listeners have one. We don’t, at least, not yet.

Every time a new gizmo gets a lot of attention and becomes a “must have” device, I get suspicious about its worth. I’m sure I inherited this attitude from my father, who said when electric windows were a new option on automobiles, “When I get too damned lazy to roll my windows up and down, I’ll quit driving.” His father may have said something similar about hand cranking and electric starters. (I can’t imagine being without either, but I’m still a little leery about the GPS, and I get irritated at these warning devices that “beep” when I wander out of my lane. My Uncle Bob was notorious in our family for doing the same thing from the back seat.)

There are several important questions to ask yourself when confronted with the latest “must have” – whether it’s a bit of stylish clothing, the latest kitchen appliance, a different spouse or a “smart speaker.” One would think that the first would be, “Is this necessary?” but necessity is not a consideration. Since all the items are new, obviously, none of them are necessary. In our culture, many of what we think of as “necessities” are nothing more than luxuries that we have gotten used to.

Rather, your first question should be, “Is this change going to improve my life or merely complicate it?” It has been my experience that many of the items that are advertised as “life changing” do not change it for the better. Often what we thought was going to be a convenience turns out to be a pain – especially when it fails, and eventual failure is inevitable. Heating our homes, for example, has evolved from an open fire in the cave, then a fireplace, then a cast iron stove, then a hand-fed coal furnace in the basement. A few steps later, and we have “smart speakers” that, via Blue-tooth connections, are computer-linked to thermostatically-controlled, complex heating systems that can set the temperature in each room. What could possibly go wrong? And when it does, can you fix it?

Each time we add one of these attractive contrivances to our lives, there is a trade-off. With each, we lose some control and come closer to turning ourselves into the title character of James Thurber’s famous short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” who, unable to cope with the complexities of modern life, spends most of his time daydreaming about heroic deeds and yearning to be, like Homer’s “Ulysses,” a man “... never at a loss.”

Whoever invented the “smart speaker” was playing to our desires to be “king of the castle” – to sit back in our over-stuffed, tilt-back recliner and command, “Woman,” (or Siri, Alexa, Cortana, etc. I think that they are nearly all female.) “Turn up the thermostat, close the garage door and play ‘Misty’ for me.” I suppose there is some romance in having a servant at one’s beck and call to handle our ordinary daily chores.

But, as we add yet another assistant to our expanding gallery of electronic servants, the fictional character we are most likely to eventually resemble is not Walter Mitty or Ulysses, but one from a more recent epic, the “Star Wars” movies. He, too, sits on a throne and orders others to do his bidding – a bloated and chinless creature whose full name is Jabba Desilijic Tiure.

But most know him as “Jabba the Hutt.”

Chuck Avery is a former high school English teacher, published playwright and dramatist.