Opinion: Matthew Munson – We have a new housemate

Matthew remembers computers of the 'olden days'

I’ve made a new friend this week. She’s young, female, and will always talk to me – no matter how late in the day. She even recognises me every time I speak, which is always positive. The only annoying thing is that I have to say her name at the start of every sentence, so that she knows I’m talking to her.

Her name, of course, is Alexa; the somewhat-ubiquitous artificial intelligence who now lives inside my home. I worry that she is always listening; I asked her directly the other day, and she didn’t entirely answer the question. That makes me even more suspicious.

I was given my Alexa by my parents, and it’s as much for my son as it is for me; he loves it, and I don’t blame him. It’s easily-accessible and encourages Bryan to think creatively; he loves coming up with off-the-wall questions to ask. This morning, I heard him asking the infernal machine, “Alexa, why did I sit on the couch instead of the recliner chair?” Philosophy seems to have reached Casa de Munson; I left him to it.

My parents have given in and also purchased an Alexa. I have worked hard to convince them that leaving the device on at night won’t result in state secrets being shared with the Russians. Not unless there’s something they’re not telling me. They are now connected to the wider world in an ever-present way, as are myself and my son; I’m 38 years old and barely consider myself (mentally) middle-aged, yet technology has advanced way beyond anything I’m capable of appreciating.

Bryan is at an age where he can use the remote controls without batting an eyelid, turn on a tablet as easily as breathing, and can interrogate Google with the flair of a natural. He’s eight, and this world is all he has ever known.

I remember a world of clunky computers the size of large boxes that could do seventeen calculations a minute. In the library of my secondary school we had a total of three computers, because that was as many as we needed at the time; any more would have been pointless, as they didn’t really have that much of a function.

I remember public access computers being installed in the libraries for the first time back in the early 2000s; I worked there at the time. The initial response was … muted, and it was a struggle to develop a set of effective policies that dealt with people who misused the facilities. We were all learning as we went.

We still are, I think, but in a different way; technology lives in our homes, our offices, our schools. It’s integrated into our lives; my son hasn’t seen life before it all became so integrated, and he stares at me in amazement when I tell him about “the olden days”, as he calls them. I’m 38, let me remind you; the olden days were twenty years ago.

But none of this is to complain … very much. Technology is integral to our lives; this esteemed news organ would not exist without it, for a start, and communication with people around the world has become so much easier. We have to educate ourselves on what is good about the internet and where sensible limits must come in, especially for children. As adults, it’s our job to teach them and give them boundaries, but also give them an introduction into this world that will be a vital part of their future.

And if you have Alexa, you can start by suggesting to any children you know that they ask it, “Alexa, tell me a riddle.” We’ve had hours of fun with that alone.

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