Alexa says no … By Duncan Harley


Today’s news that Alexa’s Christmas message was a typical ‘Sorry, I’m not working’ or ‘I’m sorry, but I cannot order a hit on your previous foster-parents right now. Please try again later or press the re-set button’ led to a degree of speculation that the household assistant was either having a laugh or a festive day off. Yuletide recipients of the Echo Dot, a lookalike Alexa-clone reporting to the likes no doubt of both Google-analytics and the CIA, were experiencing similar connectivity problems.
Seemingly the fresh-out-the-box Dot and the beefier Echo were having difficulty understanding English never mind binary. Turning lights off and on and answering questions about the making of the perfect festive gravy seemingly proved too much for the spy-in-the-home devices which at up to £89 a pop are programmed to report our every move to those shadowy companies who track both our spending habits and our every behaviour.

In Christmas past the Mori Polls would send canvassers round the doors to check on our most intimate habits. Sex, Quality Street and Coronation Street were typical subjects. Then came the advent of the phone-survey.  Mori researchers would cold-call to ask a few lifestyle questions. What soap, what deodorant and what channel. Rabbit ownership, colour of shoes and favourite boy-band. Sock-size, brand of car, betting habits and type of herbal de-caf teabag.

Then came loyalty cards and loyalty reward points. Fortunes were made and the marketeers delved deeply into our most intimate moments. Favourite flavour of condom, boxers or Y-fronts, how much washing powder. Cat or dog food. How often do you buy flea powder, toilet roll, crotch-rot-anti-fungal-wax? And so, it goes on.

In some ways, it’s a complete mystery as to why either Alexa or Dot are subject to a hefty fee. Why pay mega-bucks to allow some crass algorithm to collect our most intimate moments after all? Surely these devices should be given away completely free. Maybe they should even be free along with the promise of some cash-back if we agree to keep them in our homes. If the marketeers want to track our movements then it should be at a cost to them after all.

I have to confess however that I am an early adherent – or perhaps victim – of such scams. A year or so ago I bought into a Hive.

For those who are uninitiated, Hive is a brand who sell stuff which claims to control your home. Heating, lighting and household appliances are on Hive’s list of conveniences. I got sucked in early on but fortunately only have a Hive central-heating controller. The boast was that for under a hundred readies, I could control my home heating from anywhere on the globe. The advantages were obvious.

Well maybe. That is unless you take into account connectivity. Over various weekends away from home, including an odd trip abroad, Hive has proved elusive. Often as not the app’ advises that the heating is off and a trip up into the loft to reset the receiver is required. Really?
I mean, who needs the hassle. In the golden days of analogue, the boiler either heated the house or it didn’t. No heat meant calling the gas engineer or the local plumber. Now, according to Hive, I need to return home from Hawaii or  far off Huddersfield just to flick a switch on the Hive power controller up in the loft. I don’t think so.
Today's Hive issue only proved, yet again, to be a false alarm. Rather than returning from Boxing Day to a frozen cat, the issue was one – yet again - of connectivity. In short the heating was in fact on and the cat was fine but the app’ and the Hive server were at fault. The server is probably in Norway and the writer of the faulty app' is now long retired to sunny Florida on the ungodly profits. How I long for a simple gas engineer.

Next year for Xmas I intend to e-mail Santa with a note saying something like “Dear Santa, can I please dump the digital stuff and return to an analogue heaven where stuff just works.”
But then, what would the algorithmic marketeers’ do with that information …

Duncan Harley is author of The A-Z of Curious Aberdeen plus the forthcoming Little History of Aberdeenshire

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