Hey Google, my 5-year old thinks you’re real: what should I tell her?

The other day I told my Google Home device to go to the next song, and my 5-year-old daughter said, “Mommy, you were kind of mean to Google just now.” It is so confusing to explain that the “Google Lady” is not a person. To model social graces, I might just have to be more polite and patient with this tiny little, ever listening speaker that sits in my kitchen. I only use it for listening to the news or music when I cook. I quabble with my daughter who tries to out-shout me to get the Google Lady to do what she wants, “Hey Google!” she yells after I have told it to play the news, “Hey Google, play Elsa music!” At which point, the Google lady begins the Frozen station obediently. I feel doomed and should really take Elsa’s advice to let it go, but I am hesitant. Kelly (2018) explains “some research indicates children understand …Google Home is a piece of technology, but they also see these gadgets in psychological terms — as having emotions, as being capable of thought and friendship, and deserving of moral treatment, Severson added.” I suppose I can feel good about the fact my daughter understands how to care for other’s emotions through tone of voice, but still…

I unplug it often. I don’t rule out that Google is listening. I suppose the convenience of it makes me bend my leniency. One time, I was laughing with a room full of people, and my Google Home started laughing too—unprompted. It was so creepy. I turned it off for months.  

I know I am going to have to embrace this little thing (as a symbolic gesture of accepting IoT), despite the confusion it brings to my daughter and I trying to navigate our playlists and manners. You should have heard the last time we had a play date: two five-year-old’s became aware that Google Home was on. The shouting match of requests that followed was unbearable. I almost felt bad for the Google Lady.

Looking down the pathway to libraries as my new workspace, I know that IoT will need to be utilized, and we need to anticipate how to use them to our communal and civic advantage. As Stephens (2018) suggests: “Of course, the more interesting functionality will come when we can ask our virtual assistants to look up books at our local libraries, place holds, and even read the books to us.” I can see how even the Google lady can help us meet new trends in user connection. 

I remain concerned about privacy issues, especially regarding library accounts. Griffey (2019) highlights an important aspect of indulging smart and smarter machines: “As more libraries and library vendors move into developing AI and machine learning systems, we should be sensitive to the privacy implications of collecting and storing the data that’s needed to train and update those systems.” From my own experiences, although embarrassing to admit, I think I often sacrifice a concern for privacy over the intrigue and convenience of new technology. One example of this is engaging with the ads that come up in all of our internet usage. The incessant running shoes that I looked at last week keep popping up in my emails and searches, and damned if it doesn’t remind me of my running aspirations. It is important for librarians to work for people to combat complacency and convenience of our patrons so that their privacy is ultimately protected.

Finally, I do admire the sentiment noted in the OCLC (2014) report: “Several librarians   indicated   that   libraries   should  wait  until  the  technology  is  more  widely adopted and available until investing time, effort and money into developing IoT services” (p. 5). Librarians can model slowing down, protecting privacy, and strategizing about the best technology implementation as they face changes.

5 Thoughts.

  1. I don’t own Google Home or Amazon Alexa yet, and every story I’ve heard about them randomly laughing or asking you questions unprompted creeps me out too much to invest in one anytime soon. I think these technologies are great for the disabled though, and in that way would be fantastic (if libraries could find a version that has better privacy settings) to help blind, vision-impaired, and physically disabled customers who can’t type the name of the book they want to place on hold into the catalog computer.

    • I was given Google Home as a gift, so I was hesitant at first. I understand about not wanting to invest. I like to consider, like you mention, that it could be a wonderful tool for helping folks with their information needs, especially for differently abled needs. So true. For some reason this reminds me of the moment in the movie called, Good Night, and Good Luck, in which Edward Murrow says in a speech that television can be used for good, as an educational tool for the public. I am comforted for some reason to recall history of technologies where tools like TVs for example were doubted at first and many hoped it would be used for good. I am not sure Edward Murrow’s vision became true exactly, but we can find so many examples of how people have tried to bend and mold emerging technology for the public good. He set a pretty amazing example.

  2. Great thoughts on privacy v. convenience as it relates to your experience with Google Home. I often think of the ways in which I’m sacrificing my privacy to use technology and services as many people around the world do everyday. It’s interesting to think about growing up with this technology as a child, will kids and eventually adults in this generation be more likely to give up privacy for convenience? Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks Ashley, I think about this a lot because I see my self bending to privacy more than I intend to, for the sake of time or because the app holds value for silly reasons. I mean, was it all that bad when we had to turn the channel by the knob, or press a button to get to the next song? I miss the simplicity…so I also think I am just not accustomed to worrying about privacy when I listen to music, for example. It is a weird juxtaposition considering growing up in Gen X times, or earlier of course.

  3. Excellent comment thread here. 🙂

    I am fascinated by virtual assistants for two reasons: it’s super cool when I ask Siri to play Fleetwood Mac but more importantly from the information behavior standpoint. It is so interesting to watch how people adopt asking their phone a question or calling out the the device on the shelf for help.

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