“Alexa, please play Five Little Monkeys,” I speak out to no person in particular.
We’re in the midst of one of the countless feeding-a-toddler episodes that parents know too well. Our 15-month old is getting restless on his booster chair and is kicking off the tray while trying to push his belly out of the seat’s buckles. Another second and he would demand, not too politely, to get out and play, ditching my well-prepared plate of broccoli, pasta, blackberries, and eggs.
“Got it. Playing Five Little Monkeys by Super Simple Songs,” Alexa, the lovely faceless friend contained in an Amazon contraption the size of my hand and wrist, responds to me.
The music plays, and my toddler breaks into a smile. He sways his torso forward and back in a mini-dance, amused at the music or the reaction he’s getting. Almost on cue, he resumes interest in the steamed broccoli floret in front of him. (If that sounds weird to you, you have not lived with a toddler.)
Should I be encouraging dancing to music while eating? Am I creating the wrong kind of learned behavior? I question my decision. I find that mothers like me do this all the time: this trying to do-it-all now and then question-it-all after the fact.
But this is a toddler meltdown and starvation that I’m trying to curb. For sure, I am justified? Right this instant, and in many instances past and future, I don’t really care.
“Alexa, what’s the date today?”
“Alexa, what’s the weather tomorrow in New Hampshire?”
“Alexa, what are 10 ounces in cups?”
“Alexa, please tell me a Thanksgiving joke.” “Alexa, come on. Please tell me a better joke.”
“Alexa, how old is Bono of U2?”
“Alexa, please play songs by Bill Crosby.”
“Alexa, please play Christmas songs by Jose Mari Chan.”
And just like that, I conclude that I talk to Alexa more than I talk to my real friends now. My son Bo points to Alexa when he wants to hear a song and then “dance” to it.
I would read Eric Carle and the image of a sun on a page reminds him of the song. His eyes turn to the little black thing and he gets ready to dance. Dutifully, I then say, “Alexa, please play “Mr. Golden Sun.” And dance to it, my son does.
Alexa knows what to do, and she’s fast becoming this thing that my son points to and responds to. He loves music, and Alexa provides it tirelessly.
And then it hits me. This thing is perfectly normal to my toddler: this world where you can speak out a question or a command and you get your response in 5 seconds, at most.
For now, the dependence seems to be quite tame, if I say so myself. We ask for some music to be played and we ask simple questions that we’re becoming too lazy to look up.
Over the years, I can see artificial intelligence like Alexa evolving, multiplying, and becoming even smarter. I believe it’s happening as we speak.
Yuval Noah Harari seems prophetic when he said that humans have become so good at creating an algorithm for almost anything that it’s pushing some human skills to extinction. An algorithm is inarguably becoming more dependable than human memory, if it isn’t already.
I am pushing back here a little bit. Albeit guiltily enjoying the benefit of technology (as proven by my laziness to perform manual conversions when reading recipes), I normally have gnawing whispers of reluctance to raise my child in a way that is almost too foreign from how I grew up.
I still want my son to be writing special letters by hand instead of dictating everything to a computer and then saying “Send.” I would love for him to solve problems without constantly seeking a quicker way, i.e. asking Google, Siri, Alexa, or whoever else comes around. I hope that he will be able to spell words correctly without fully and mindlessly relying on auto-correct or some software to correct his words as he types. I hope he will think thoughtfully of a response rather than resort to GIFs.
But will he really need to? My husband and I engage in small debates about the relative importance of learning long division, having good handwriting, understanding a map, being mindful of grammar rules, etc. even if there are calculators, computers, smartwatches, smartphones, GPS, and all sorts of apps to easily address these tasks.
I would argue yes, even if this becomes a battle I might have to keep fighting. Begrudgingly, I seesaw in my stand, finding myself helpless on the road as a resident in a foreign country and as a traveler without Waze or Google Maps. I am not the only person in my generation who is seriously incapable of following a map, am I?
If technology is there and it’s good, use it. Perhaps I am a digital native and a social media user as much as the next millennial. I have apps for everything, more so now that I live in uber-convenient Dubai. This lifestyle was always perfectly fine and sensible…until I became conscious of how my technology-assisted world is the norm that my son is growing up in.
Tomorrow’s world? I admit that I am mildly terrified of it. I over-worry about what the future looks like and if we are raising our son to be fully equipped for it.
I am raising a child in the age of Alexa, in the era of artificial intelligence, in this Technology Revolution. I can not and do not necessarily want to stop it from happening.
I just need to take a moment to write down the things that I need to be mindful of, things that a technology-surrounded life may forget to teach. Please allow me to share some of them:
- Being bored and having to wait. He will need to manage his responses when things don’t go efficiently and quickly as expected, just as we need to model this as parents. I try to remember that what people do when they’re stressed, bored, and asked to wait eventually turn into revelations of who they truly are.
- Connecting authentically. And I mean really listening to people, asking more than talking, understanding, respecting, and being deeply interested in another. I hope that we can be a family of countless conversations where we don’t frequently jump to each notification from our phones and watches when we should be looking each other in the eye. I know that I will need to be reminded of this.
- Failing forward. Any parent will struggle with a child failing but I need to embrace this as a necessary evil. Ultimately, I want him to know the value of asking for help without developing learned helplessness. I hope he will easily admit mistakes and say sorry. I want him to expect more from himself but to act graciously when things don’t go his way. For me and my husband, we will need to know when to stop ourselves from “saving” him and allowing him the gift of learning “to fail forward or to fail better.”
- Anticipating and managing uncertainty. In this age of rapid technological change, we can make tons of predictions but our data-based outlook will still be limited. Uncertainty will keep us company more and more: how will my son handle it?
- Living mindfully and gratefully. Everything seems to be changing but we can choose to be quiet, to take a deep breath, to be kind, to be grateful for the here and now, and to live with grace and compassion no matter what happens around us. This takes a lot of practice, and this demands that we live like this so that our son knows what it looks like.
Even in a future belonging to Alexa, I think the importance of these essential skills will endure. My husband and I have a big job of raising our son to be the best that he can be.
I need to take a deep breath (while I secretly wonder if I can link a meditation app to Alexa).