Stop Letting Technology Do Your Dirty Work

This week, Amazon added communication capabilities to its line of Alexa smart home devices. Now that it’s out, a number of outlets are reporting on what they term a “gaping privacy hole” or “glaring privacy flaw” in the new functionality: Amazon does not provide a means to selectively block people in your Alexa contacts list from contacting you on your Alexa devices.

I’d argue it’s not a gaping privacy hole so much as a failure to replicate what, in my opinion, are the worst features already present in other messaging technologies**. The features that facilitate thoughtlessness, cruelty, selfishness and cowardice to the point of making them convenient. To the point of making us feel cheated when we are denied the means to continue being thoughtless, cruel, selfish and cowardly, with no consequences, in every new communications technology.

**5/14/17 update — I’ve learned there’s currently a bug in the system that doesn’t allow for deleting contacts from Alexa messaging at all, which is definitely a problem and Amazon’s working on a software update to address it, but my point here is about communications features that fall short of completely deleting the contact.

Maybe I’m a Luddite in my views on this. Maybe my opinions are quaintly old-fashioned at best, insultingly judgmental at worst. You’re free to come to your own conclusions on that score, and you may very well be right. I’ll also admit I’ve been guilty of letting technology take the heat for me sometimes too, though I’m not proud of it. I’m judging me here, too.

Answering Machines: The Beginning Of Normalized Contempt

We started down this road with the invention of the answering machine. It was a very useful, time- and money-saving convenience when used as intended: to serve as a kind of voice bulletin board, letting people leave a message when you were out so you could call them back.

But it didn’t take long for our inner weasels to realize, “Wait…I can use this machine to routinely screen calls so I won’t have to have any uncomfortable interactions with people who want to talk to me! I can pretend I’m not home when I don’t want to have hard conversations! I can lie and say I never got the message to excuse my flakiness and failures to live up to my commitments and obligations! Who needs to take responsibility when you can blame it on ‘the machine’ and nobody can prove you’re lying?”

Before the answering machine, you had to have a personal secretary or very patient roommate to get away with that kind of bush league Machiavellian behavior. But with each iteration of new messaging technology, the level of granularity you can apply toward casually ignoring, manipulating, rejecting, devaluing and insulting people becomes more sophisticated. None of us likes to be on the receiving end of those behaviors, so we all know how wrong and hurtful they are. But heaven help the communications technology company that denies us access to them.

Alexa: Just The Latest In A Long Line Of Accomplices

I’ve asked those who are demanding Alexa contact blocking capabilities for examples of use cases that are not adequately served by existing Alexa communications control features (delete unwanted contacts, turn on Do Not Disturb muting, or revoke Alexa communication permissions). I keep asking: if you don’t want to communicate with this person, why are they in your cell’s Contacts list at all? Why are they there, but blocked, instead of deleted? And if you’re willing to keep them in your cell’s Contacts list without blocking, they can already call, text or email you, so why is it so over the line for them to contact you on your Alexa devices?

They seem hard-pressed to answer and maybe that’s because the most common use cases that aren’t being served by the initial release of Alexa communications aren’t anything to be proud of, like:

1. The ex who wants to be able to ping you at the drop of a hat anytime they’re feeling lonely or want a booty call, but don’t want you to be able to call anytime you feel like talking to them because they don’t really consider themselves to be in any kind of ongoing relationship with you.

2. The person who’s married or in a committed relationship but pretends to be single, and doesn’t want unexpected calls coming in from their unsuspecting side piece.

3. The passive-aggressive frenemy or family member who wants to be able to reach out and guilt, harangue or harass you whenever they feel like it, but wants to deny you the right to respond. The drive-by nastygrammers, if you will.

4. The “ghoster” who wants to vanish on someone they’ve just started dating or had a one-night stand with, but also wants to keep their options open to try their luck again with that same person if other prospects don’t pan out in the future.

I’ve heard the argument that in today’s social media world lots of people are in the habit of adding anyone with whom they’re acquainted online to their cell Contacts list, but would never want many of those people, who after all they don’t actually know, to be able to call or message them privately. So they block those people. As opposed to just not exchanging phone numbers in the first place, and not setting up the expectation that they would welcome a call from that Facebook friend or LinkedIn contact.

Are Trust & Honesty Things Of The Past?

Didn’t we used to use sharing our phone numbers as a type of social line in the sand, a demarcation for separating passing acquaintances from people we’d like to interact with on a more personal level? Now the only way you learn the truth about the other person’s level of interest in you is to call or message them and wait to see if they accept, or respond. Most of us are being set up for rejection most of the time.

This is the reality we’re currently living in, and maybe the saddest part is that we have accepted it as the new normal. Getting someone’s number is no longer a milestone, nor anything to get excited about. It’s an invitation to make yourself vulnerable, then wait hours to days to find out how much the other person values you. Most often rejection comes in the form of no answer at all, which is the cruelest type since it keeps both hope and self-doubt alive, while also withholding closure. In the past if you were going to be rejected at least you found out pretty much immediately. Even if you were given a fake number by a jerk or coward you learned the truth as soon as you called it and could immediately move on.

If the other person does respond and the two of you strike up a friendship or romance, the specter of ghosting is still always lurking around every corner and everyone knows it because it’s so commonplace. Trust was never easy, and we’re only making it harder.

Unfortunately, rumor has it Amazon’s already working on changes to more closely replicate the call/contact features of cell phones, like blocking a contact without deleting them. Hooray for digital henchmen.