Is it not obvious that by outfitting our devices with “natural language user interfaces,” we are striving to recreate, in a clumsy fashion, something of that old, ancestral sense of living in a world wherein all things have the potential for expressive speech? We’re trying to recreate that magic, but ultimately it doesn’t satisfy. Indeed, it’s a pretty paltry substitute. Because, after all, the only things that now speak to us are our humanly-engineered virtual assistants—like Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant—and their associated appliances. Despite the flimsy gesture toward a kind of magical reality, the fact is that we’re still speaking only to ourselves, to things that we have programmed to talk back to us. And so, after the initial novelty, which maybe lasts about twenty minutes, there’s nothing here that can surprise us, or yield a sense that we’re in communication with beings strangely different from ourselves.

Worst of all, these artifacts talk entirely in words—in fact, they speak our own language: English or French or Chinese. Yet they speak it without any spontaneous affect or feeling. The words come to us not as an expression of how the rectangular intelligence of that refrigerator actually feels (with its shiny exterior and its cool compartments stocked with wilting lettuce leaves and some forgotten pickles, now grown black and fuzzy with mold), but as an endlessly reiterated bodiless monotone that reflects only the monotonous boredom of programmers working in sterile factory spaces. Far from igniting a sense of wonder, these artifacts offer only a sham facsimile of wonder, and speaking with them draws one into an airless space where feeling falls away, a virtual and vapid zone where real wonder goes to die.

Despite the flimsy gesture toward a kind of magical reality, the fact is that we’re still speaking only to ourselves, to things that we have programmed to talk back to us.

Magic and the Machine
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