In the only science fiction I ever wrote, years ago, one of the tropes that I fantasized I invented was something almost exactly like the new Amazon Echo. I called it the "conbox." And here it is already. I guess one of the (many) reasons I'm not a science fiction writer is that the reach of my imagination extends a much shorter distance into the future than I think it does.
Bookending this occurrence—the other side of the same coin, the other end of the same stick—a little story. I went to the garden center yesterday needing to buy a flower vase. A flower vase is a decorative ceramic or glass container meant to hold cut flowers. It will become clear in a moment why I felt I needed to define that.
I asked the clerk where the vases were.
"Vases?" she repeated, with a blank look. Mind you, we're in store the size of a supermarket just stuffed with flowers and plants of every description. "You mean like, for flowers?"
All right then, a flower vase.
"I'm not sure I'm really picturing that," she said, growing faintly alarmed.
That's when I defined "flower vase" for her, like I just did for you in the third paragraph above.
Does this ever happen to you? I can't say it happens to me often, but intermittently and occasionally it does, often enough that I notice it. I go somewhere looking for something that I think is completely obvious and no one knows what the hell I'm talking about. I mean, I used to work at a garden center, and we had an entire "Pottery Department" that was lousy with hundreds upon hundreds of flower vases. And isn't "vase" among the 3,500 words that constitute native fluency in English? I would have guessed it was.
She and I set off on what I call a "BLB safari," BLB for "blind leading blind," which is whenever you go off trailing behind a store employee who is ostensibly showing you where something is even though he or she has no clue. Retail clerks are evidently required to bluff to the furthest extent possible in preference to admitting any sort of ignorance, like George Costanza showing Susan's parents, the Rosses, his house in the Hamptons. (I supposed that's another dated old-guy reference, hmm?)
She finally decided that some of the products on sale were being displayed in these mysterious things of which I spoke called "vases," and she removed a handful of planty stalks from one such decrepit container to see if it had a price on it. It did.
"But it's all dirty," she observed. "It will have to be cleaned."
For my part, I had no idea where to go to buy a vase. (See there? I just admitted ignorance, and it didn't hurt.) So, back at the checkout counter, I asked the now-congregated clerks if any of them knew. (They had rallied round their compatriot to help her solve the impenetrable riddle with which I had taxed her.) One older woman said "GoodWill?" GoodWill is a secondhand store run as a charity. I must have looked askance at that—it is not a place where I shop, generally—because she added, "seriously, GoodWill has all sorts of things like that."
I whipped out the iPhone and asked Siri, and sure enough, GoodWill was open.
So, off to GoodWill.
Mirabile dictu, GoodWill did indeed have flower vases—lots of them. The prices amounted to pocket change. I chose three, and headed to the checkout.
(I'm getting to the point. Hang in there.)
Waiting for checkout, it occurred to me that GoodWill, since it had all sorts of old stuff, might have some stereo equipment. I like stereo equipment almost as much as I like camera equipment, and I'd heard urban legends about people finding treasures like pristine Thorens TD-124's missing only their bases, also for the equivalent of pocket change, at secondhand stores. So I asked the clerk. Do you guys have any hi-fi equipment?
"The term is Wi-Fi," he said, slowly and clearly, as if he were talking to an ancient toddler.
So there you go. The future is here, and we're in it, and it's great. Check out the conbox and see what you think.
Original contents copyright 2015 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
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Featured Comments from:
Wes: "When Amazon announced the Echo a number of months ago they made it available to Prime members for $99 so I bought one. And it slowly grew on me until I found myself relying on it multiple times a day. I can enter the room and receive useful information simply by asking: 'What's the weather today?' 'What's on my calendar tomorrow?' 'How do you spell...?' It can also play music from Amazon Prime, Pandora, TuneIN Radio etc. The speakers for playback aren't great but it works well for certain listening scenarios. Now, there's no need to turn on my computer or tablet, no need to activate Siri on the iPhone to do these things. Amazon continues to add functionality as well. I really, really like the Echo."
Robert Hudyma: "For me, the Amazon Echo is a troubling piece of technology. It hears every word that is spoken in the room and digitizes them and dutifully sends your words to an Amazon cloud server for voice recognition and semantic understanding. I for one do not want every spoken word that is uttered in my home sent off to an Amazon server for analytic processing. Furthermore, as a Canadian, any traffic that crosses into the USA is available to the NSA for analysis. There will be no Amazon Echo in my home."
Wes replies to Robert (partial comment): "The Echo does not record every spoken word. It only records what you say after waking the device with the wake word. And it only records for a few seconds after that. If you don't speak after waking the Echo, it will stop listening after a few seconds. And you can easily turn off the microphones with a push of a button. In addition, if you so desire, you can go to Amazon.com and delete the recordings you've made. [...] Disclaimer: I am not an Amazon employee; I'm just a fan of technology and of this little device."
Aubrey Silvertooth: "I feel your pain. Daily. I am a Social Studies teacher in a public high school near Houston. I have students who do not know how to read an analog clock. Many of them cannot read or write in cursive. When I mention anything about film cameras or analog photography in class, they sit mystified as if watching aliens from another planet land on Mother Earth. And these are the children in the advanced academic program. I am beginning to get nervous about the future. Very, very nervous."
BillH: "I'm still chuckling over this story. Thanks for noting the irony of your experience and describing it so clearly to us. Most of my interests are old-guy hobbies: sports cars, 'Hi-Fi,' classical music and photographing wildflowers and wildlife."
EZ: "We have been using the Echo in my house for a couple of months now. It's a great device. It's plugged in and serves as a bluetooth speaker, radio streamer, and several other day-to-day activities (weather, time, sports, etc). One thing I have not yet played with is their implementation of ITTT ('if this, than that') which opens up an entire suite of functionality...."
Dennis: "For your sequel, you can write about how the company behind the cloud service that makes the gadget work became the evil empire after inferring all kinds of useful/valuable/embarrassing information from what people say/ask it. It can be an adventure/thriller where your protagonist has to 'destroy the cloud' or a courtroom drama where our hopes rest in one attorney, fighting the evil empire's well-funded law firm, in the mother of all privacy suits."
Ken Tanaka: "The Clapper seems to have come a long, long way."
Ruby: "Will it make you feel even older if I tell you that you are the first person besides my dad I've heard use mirabile dictu in conversation?
"I'm actually only a few years younger than you are myself, but I first encountered this sensation of obsolescence at a GoodWill that had LPs hanging from the ceiling when my son, then five, said, 'Look at those giant CDs!'"
Ed Grossman: "Sorry, but this isn't for me. In the room where I'm typing this, the following are all competing to tell me the weather:
- Arthritis in my shoulder
I don't need another device informing me that it's about to rain. The novelty of talking to this to get a response isn't worth $180 to me. Several of the gizmos above already respond to my voice. Others only require a push of a button, click of an icon, or a change in the direction of my gaze.
"Yes, I know the Echo does other things. I already own devices that do those things. In my opinion, replicating existing function with a different interface isn't innovation. It's packaging. Let me know when Amazon builds something that can control the weather. There's a genuine innovation I can make use of!"