A Friday Chat About the Surveillance State

Is Cayla listening? How about Google Home?

Photo credit: Ella Patenall, CC BY 2.0.

Megan: Nicole, I cannot believe we made it to the end of the week. But we did. Hello!

Nicole: Hello! Is anyone else listening to us right now? Siri? Alexa? Cayla?

Megan: OH MY GOD IT COULD BE ANYONE. Should I tape over the camera on my computer? Should I throw away everything with Bluetooth?

Nicole: I keep wondering about the laptop camera thing. But in my case they’d probably just see my face and the forehead wrinkles I’m grooving in as I read the news and get angry.

Megan: Yeah, I’m definitely not doing anything of interest, just furrowing my brow and typing forevermore. Wait — do you have an Alexa? Or a Google Home?

Nicole: I do not. When I plug my phone into power, I can activate Siri by saying “Hey Siri.” Otherwise I have to press the Siri button on my phone. I do use the “Hey Siri” feature relatively often. Like, I’ll be in bed and I’ll just say “Hey Siri, what’s the weather today” so I don’t have to pick up my phone and get sucked into all of the notifications that have arrived overnight or whatever.

Megan: I often forget that Siri exists, which is probably EXACTLY what they want me to do, but I realized that I only use it for setting timers when my hands are covered in crap from cooking. Like, that is the only time. I kind of want an Alexa, though. My dad has a Google Home and I yelled at it to put on music when I was home the other weekend and it was kind of amazing.

Nicole: I’ve found that Siri is really good for math, actually. I use her to tally up long lists of numbers, because unlike a calculator, she shows the entire list of numbers as I very quickly speak them into my phone, so I can double-check my work.

Also, yes, I want an Alexa too. I would use her for all kinds of things and then feel weird about it.

Megan: It never, ever, ever occurred to me to use Siri for addition. Ever. You may have changed my life. One of my old roommates had an Alexa and the thing with it was that I could always hear him, like, screaming at it? You have to be kind of aggressive or just sort of very clear. It always sounded like he was getting into an argument with a woman named Alexa, because the thing just wouldn’t listen.

I see how both Alexa and Siri have their uses, but Cayla…that snitching-ass doll. Get it outta here!

Germany Wants To Destroy Cayla The Talking Doll

Nicole: OR GO TO PRISON. I love that Germany is just so up-front about the consequences of having Cayla in your home.

Megan: I mean…to be fair, the Germans have every right to be extremely nervous about surveillance. And the Germans also have zero chill from what I can tell. But it’s nice that someone is up front about it! I also can’t see why you’d give your kid a doll that asks it questions, I don’t know. I’m hardly paranoid but that just seems insane.

Nicole: It’s a natural progression from Teddy Ruxpin and Speak & Spell, I guess. Plenty of toys have asked questions, starting with that red circle thing that said “What does the cow say?” and then you pulled the string.

Plus the idea of a kid having a robot friend has been embedded in our culture for a while as, like, aspirational. I guess no one really thought about how the robot would work.

Megan: Yeah, I forgot about Teddy Ruxpin. I always wanted one as a kid, though I did think it’s strange that he had a tape recorder embedded in his stomach. I guess I can see the appeal — I watched my friends put their daughter in front of a computer playing “Puffin Rock” for like an hour this past weekend and that’s kind of the same thing, maybe? Like a robot is just an evolved screen/distraction.

Nicole: Kid tech has always stressed interactivity. “When you hear this sound, turn the page.” Or that story about how James Earl Jones taught Sesame Street to leave pauses in their dialogue so that kids would respond to the television. It makes sense that we’d end up with a Cayla. It also makes sense that Germany would tell parents to destroy this doll with a hammer.

Megan: The image of a bunch of adults gathering their Cayla dolls from their children’s bedrooms at night and taking to the streets to smash them quietly under a streetlamp is delightful. If it were me, I’d let the kid do it. Maybe teaches them a lesson about both the surveillance state and the joy of supervised destruction.

Nicole: There’ll always be the one kid who figures out how to use Cayla’s parts to build something else, too. (Unless… do they have to destroy the parts?)

Megan: I think they said that they had to provide some form of proof that they had thoroughly destroyed the doll, like smashed it to smithereens or brought it to a landfill. Like they wanted to see a certificate of destruction.

Nicole: Well, then. The kids will learn about the psychological rewards of receiving certificates! No way that could go wrong.

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