I made sure that Mom was one of the first people to own an Amazon Echo when they first came out a few years ago. Her vision had been steadily deteriorating for a long time, and I knew that the convenience of her being able to play music by simple voice commands would be more than worth the purchase price by itself. Being able to ask for things like weather forecasts and other basic information was a bonus, and the bits of personality that Amazon injected into “Alexa” (as Mom called the Echo) when you said things like “good morning” to it just tickled her to no end. It was one of the best purchases of my life, and even though I don’t have much use for it since Mom passed away (since so much of my own life is tied up with Google products and services), that Echo will probably remain a deeply sentimental object to me for a long time.
Beyond the sheer utility of the Echo, it also allowed Mom and I to go back to an important part of my first years. Back before we had cable, and we were limited to the four television stations we could get in Toledo (and, on rainy days, the occasional hazy signal from Detroit or Windsor), Mom and I bonded over reruns of the original Star Trek. She’d been a huge fan of the series when it first aired (in part because, bless her occasional lack of taste, she always had a huge crush on William Shatner), and I quickly took to it as well, although I was the big Spock fan of our family. For all the advances in technology that Mom lived through, she hadn’t been able to enjoy many of them due to her poor eyesight; she was fascinated by the smartphones that we had, and the things we could do with them, but she couldn’t use one. The Echo gave Mom the closest experience to interacting with a Star Trek-like computer she ever had, and every time she said “Alexa,” I couldn’t help remembering when I used to watch the show with her.
For my part, the fact that my family bought so many early computers, and I had lots of time to tinker with them (because I never had anything resembling a social life back then), meant that I quickly became a technology enthusiast myself. We actually bought a very early home automation system that was supposed to work with one of our old Radio Shack TRS-80 Color Computers (yes, we had more than one of those wimpy-but-charming things), but we never tried to hook it up, leaving me to just read through the instruction manual over and over again to imagine its possibilities. When I got into anime in the mid-nineties, the designs of all the futuristic places that were depicted, especially video screens and video walls seemingly everywhere (especially in Bubblegum Crisis 2032, the first series I ever bought), hooked me instantly, even though I didn’t think that I’d ever see anything like that in my lifetime.
The revamping of Times Square a few years later made me realize that I was quite wrong with that estimation, but what happened to New York City at the turn of the millennium made me more sad and angry than awestruck. Beyond the fact that the renovations were presided over by a mayor who was a racist money-grubbing asshole (among other things), the shrine to capitalism’s excesses that was built in place of all those old adult entertainment venues managed to make Times Square even more perverse than it had been before, and nothing I’ve seen out of there in the last two decades has changed my mind one whit about that.
Maybe that was when I stopped feeling such a strong attraction to technologies that felt like they were straight out of science fiction. Maybe going back to college, and then fighting to establish both my teaching and writing careers, preoccupied my mind too much. Maybe I just developed a pragmatic streak that made me realize that even though waking up to a whole wall in my bedroom displaying a video of some kind (as in Armitage III) would be really cool, it would also be highly impractical since I’d only be able to see a fraction of the screen at any one moment. Whatever happened to change my mind, being an active participant in all those technological advances just didn’t appeal to me nearly as much as it used to.
It’s not like I became some kind of Luddite in the meantime. I got my first smartphone in 2010, as soon as the crappy prepaid cell phone service I was using at the time started offering them, and I pre-ordered the Google Home because I knew that I could make good use of it. I still find myself wishing that the new technology that’s coming out would work better for me; for example, I really want Google to release an app for the Chromecast that would let it simulate the display of the new Google Home Hub on my television, even if I wouldn’t get the Hub’s touchscreen capabilities. All in all, though, I find it hard to feel any kind of enthusiasm for all the new technological advances that have happened these last few years.
The primitive home automation technology my family bought back in the eighties pales in comparison to all the things I see advertised these days, of course. I can’t use most of it right now, simply because I’m renting an apartment, but I feel like I’ve lost whatever desires I might have had for a lot of that stuff. Security monitoring has obvious value, but I don’t see myself ever getting a video doorbell because no one ever visits me at my apartment (and, especially with all the reading and writing and teaching preparation I need to do here, I’d kind of like to keep things that way). Waking up to freshly-brewed coffee might be nice, but on top of all these new single-serve coffee machines being incredibly wasteful, I strongly prefer using a French press on those rare occasions when I have a hankering for hot coffee.
Colour-changing lighting, despite its lack of usefulness, still kind of appeals to me a little, I guess. I don’t think that I can install colour-changing bulbs in the fixtures here (I have a colour-changing desk lamp, but its only settings are yellowish-white to bluish-white to aid with different tasks), but as I was poking around online the other day, I saw that there are portable lights that can be programmed to any colour imaginable, and that run on internal batteries to boot. I looked up some videos of them on YouTube, and the idea of bringing one of those lights around with me as I do various things in my apartment seems like, for lack of a better word, fun.
I don’t think I’ll ever buy one of those lights, though. Beyond the lack of practicality, I just feel like as wonderful as the idea is, and as much as I can see myself using a light like that to shower by, it won’t live up to the ideas I have in my head. It feels like a novelty that, even though I can afford it now, wouldn’t be worth it to me. Twenty years ago, I would have snapped up one of those lights in a heartbeat. Now I just go “meh” whenever I give serious thought to buying one, and that makes me sad, because I feel like not only am I losing touch with my younger self, but I’m deliberately creating distance there, and that’s something I’ve fought against doing for nearly all my life.
Technology is sure to get even more Star Trek-esque in the years to come, and after the crazy year I’ve just had, I may yet reach a point where I’ll own a home of my own that I can outfit with all these new home automation devices. With the way televisions have been growing in size lately, even those insane video walls from my favourite anime series might not be that far off. Maybe I’ll feel differently about that stuff if I ever get an opportunity to leap into it with both feet, but for now, I think I’ll be okay with my desktop computer, my smartphone and tablet, and a good speaker for listening to music. I’m not happy with it, but I’m okay with it, and that feels like all I can ask for right now.