According to folklore, when television sets first started showing up there were some older Americans who wouldn’t have one in their homes for fear somebody might be watching them through the machine. Any electrician of the era could have assured them that there were no cameras inside the set, and nothing that could transmit anything out to Uncle Miltie or anybody else, but there was still a lingering suspicion of newfangled contraptions. It now sounds quite ridiculous, but these days we all have machines that do have cameras inside and are quite capable of sending whatever they’re watching to any number of tech-savvy sorts, and some future generation will probably be laughing that no one seemed suspicious at all.
We’re not the paranoid sorts who have placed black tape over that little dot on the top of the machine we’re writing this on, even though sometimes late at night it does seem to be looking at us funny, but we do try to maintain a healthy suspicion of newfangled contraptions. A recent report in The Washington Post suggests you can’t even trust that cute doll you bought for your daughter.
Apparently the German government has warned parents not to purchase the “My Friend Cayla” doll, which looks from the photo to be an adorable blond and blue-eyed and pink-dressed girl with the same Converse sneakers we favor, and another selling point is that she’s rather eerily interactive. She not only talks, as certain dolls have done for some time if you pull the right string, but she’s connected to the internet through one of those ubiquitous Bluetooth devices and can converse as fluently as those Siri thingamajigs that everyone seems to have these days. The cute little thing also apparently transmits everything it hears back to a voice recognition company in the United States, so the German government has also decided to make ownership illegal.
One can only wonder why a voice recognition company in the United States would be interested in the conversations that very young German girls were having with their dollies, but by now we can guess at enough marketing and political and sexual perversions that are now possible to think the Germans are being prudent. For one thing, the technological marvel of a doll that actually has meaningful conservations with people is intimidating enough to us, and we shudder to think of the marketing and political and sexual perversion possibilities of this technology when it reaches a more adult level of sophistication. For another thing, and maybe it’s just too many slasher flicks and old Twilight Zone and Night Gallery re-runs, but there was always something about talking dolls that kind of creeped us out, and for that matter we think that machines in general talk too much.
Sometimes we’ll drive our beloved Pop around town in his exceedingly fancy automobile, and it’s always trying to tell us when to turn or change lanes or stop as if we don’t know the streets of this city better than any highfalutin computer. There are certain elevators in this city that tell us when we have reached our floor, which also strikes us as rather condescending. Far, far too often we find ourselves talking on our Star Trek-ish telephone with some machine or another, and we usually wind up thinking we’d have done just as well if we’d opted for Espanol, which we hardly habla at all. Some of the late night drive-thru restaurants around here now have a machine greet us at the window, and we expect there will be more of that if the $15 an hour minimum wage happens, and we lately notice a lot of other interactions that used to occur more pleasantly with real live human beings.
The machines seem to know more about us than we do about them, too, which is also kind of creepy. Too much of our time is spent delving into the vast sea that is YouTube, and every time they’re recommending the old Hee-Haw episodes with Ray Charles or the Boston Celtics of the ’80s or old Van Morrison songs or some similar stuff they somehow know we like. They’re always touting the latest Alex Jones “InfoWars” screeds and other assorted conspiracy theories, which we watch purely for yucks, so we sometimes worry they think we take that stuff seriously. We have no idea who “they” are, or why they would take any interest in our YouTube tastes, but pretty much everywhere in the internet some they or another seems to know where we are and provide advertisements for business located nearby, and those Wichita Symphony ads that keep showing up seem uncannily aware of our recent concert-going tastes, and by now anyone would shiver to think what else they, whoever they are, might also know.
In our case, and in most people’s cases, we can console ourselves that our interactions with both machines and human beings are too mundane to attract anyone’s attention. We can all still aspire to some significance, though, and it’d be a shame if we all went awry because of one of those arguably weird things we found on our machines. A cousin or second cousin or cousin once-removed of ours is a great guy and a very smart fellow who’s an engineer at a company in California that is figuring out how to have your morning coffee brewed when you’re awakened by a computer-run alarm clock and your car is revved up and the garage door open as you head to work and guides your right along the way, and he makes it all sound very promising. Still, somehow we can’t shake that scene in “2001: A Space Odyssey” where the soothing voice of the all-powerful machine tells the desperate astronaut that “I can’t let you do that,” or a recurring nightmare that the condescending voice on the elevator won’t let us off because it heard we’d been mean to that kiosk at the mall.
There’s no avoiding these newfangled machines, but at least there’s still plenty of the real life that our superstitious ancestors once enjoyed. The weather has been so nice lately we’ve been driving around with the top down and no machines telling us where to go and an old-fashioned cassette player blasting rockabilly and garage rock, and we’ve had some nice interactions with real live humans conducted in such places that no one would ever think to surveil, and we have a houseful of books including Mien Kampf and Das Kapital and Mao’s Little Red Book and The Federalist Papers and the King James Bible and Milton Friedman’s “Free to Choose” and tons of P.G. Wodehouse that no one can hold against us, and even in this modern age that’s the best of it. Machines have taken more jobs than China and Mexico combined ever will, they keep you in touch with anyone who wants to call you no matter where you go, and they’re increasingly bossy about everyone, even if they do occasionally give us a good tip to a Tom Waits song or an old MGM musical number. We’ll try to stay free of it as best we can, and hope those cute little German girls find their imaginary conservations with their mute but cute little dolls more edifying than talking to even to the cutest little machine, and that the human thing prevails.
— Bud Norman