Caution… old dude writing. Reading this essay requires a basic knowledge of the TV show Star Trek.
Star Trek is the first show I remember watching. I’m talking prime-time now, not shows in the time-slots dedicated to reruns. When I was a kid, you could watch cartoons on TV every morning except Sunday. And an hour in the afternoon was devoted to reruns of fifties sitcoms like Father Knows Best. Sure, Bugs Bunny has been with me as long as I can remember, but sitting down as a family to watch a show? That was Star Trek.
I was born in 1962. To give some perspective on just how long ago that was, shows were still being filmed in black and white. Around 1966 or 1967, they made a point of advertising that the shows were now in color. I actually remember this; we told my father we needed a color TV. But no one had a color TV yet. At least not in my neighborhood.
I know I watched other shows during the sixties: Bewitched, Gilligan’s Island, Green Acres, the Monkeys. Funny shows, silly shows—enjoyable. But I remember these shows from reruns throughout my teen years. Star Trek is the one I remember waiting for each week.
My father likes systems. Outcomes. Measurable goals. I grew up with the clean-the-plate-club. Each meal that was completed—I mean really completed—earned me a checkmark on a scoresheet. He kept track on a piece of loose-leaf paper taped to the inside of a cabinet. When I got twenty checks, I got to go to the drug store and buy a toy. Yes, I said drug store. I cleaned twenty plates for a prize that was intended to be an impulse buy for a mother shopping with a whiney child.
In my father’s world, I also had to pay to watch TV.
Each week I got an “allowance” of ten poker chips to keep on my dresser. If I wanted to watch a half hour of TV, my dad would charge me a chip. Star Trek, at two chips, twenty percent of my weekly TV, was always in the mix. It was that awesome.
Much has been written over the years about how Star Trek pretold the technology that ultimately came to pass. The Enterprise’s “communicators” look exactly like the flip-phones that were popular fifteen years ago; junior officers walked around with computer tablets for taking notes; video conferencing was the normal means of communication; and Bluetooth headsets were everywhere.
All very cool gadgets and invented by Star Trek. But what I want to write about is the computer. Whenever the Enterprise ran up against a problem that the crew couldn’t solve, Mr. Spock—the ship’s first officer, resident alien, and all around coolest guy in the galaxy—would engage the ship’s computer: “Computer, compute to the last digit the value of pi.” (This is an actual Star Trek quote).
And then the computer would talk back.
My family received a Christmas gift on Saturday. Late in the game, on Christmas Eve, Sophie decided that the family should have bought me an Amazon Echo for Christmas. A quick trip to Staples proved fruitless, they were completely sold out. So, like any millennial, Sophie ordered it on the internet.
Here’s something interesting. As a family, we bought the majority of our gifts on-line this year, primarily from Amazon. We’re not prime members, and we never pay for expedited shipping. All of those orders came within a week, and usually in three or four days. All except the one item that Amazon actually manufactures, the Echo. That one took ten days.
Have you seen the Echo? It’s an electronic assistant. A Wi-Fi device that searches the internet to answer your every question. To engage the Echo, which Amazon has named Alexa, you simply say her name. “Alexa!” Blue and teal lights swirl around her top edge letting you know she’s at your service. Ours is the smallest version, the Echo Dot. It’s the size of a hockey puck. You talk to it, and it talks back. Just like Mr. Spock’s computer. While Mr. Spock communicated with his computer to repeatedly save his and his crewmates collective asses time and time again, Alexa is mostly a toy.
Alexa, play “Crazy Train.” Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay
Alexa, play Twenty Questions. Is it an animal, vegetable or a mineral?
Alexa, sing a rap song! And she does. Seriously.
She also does some useful things like forecast the weather, read off my calendar, and keep our shopping list, but so far, she’s mainly a good-natured, playful addition to our family.
After the first twenty-four hours I made the Star Trek connection. When I was a kid—and even after I was an adult—if there was anything on Star Trek I ever thought was hokey, it was the talking computer. It all just seemed so… unlikely. Voice recognition seemed like the sort of sci-fi you would find in books with outer-space scenes on the cover. Not in fiction based in science.
It’s not a surprise that talking computers finally became widespread so many years after flip-phones and video conferencing. It’s tough technology. Of course, we still haven’t figured out how to travel great distances by disassembling and reassembling our molecules, but I’m sure we will.
I’m under the impression that you can somehow change Alexa’s name. If we had a family member or a dog named Alexa, it would be a nightmare. This afternoon, Susan was in the kitchen listening to Ed Sheeran on the Echo. I said to her “Did you ask Alexa to play pop music?” The Echo heard “Alexa, play pop music” and she cued up a mix. If my daughter’s name was Alexa: “Alexa, did you empty the dishwasher?” Confusion!
Since you can change her name, I began to lobby my family. I wanted to give tribute to the originator of the idea. As a nod to Star Trek, I asked if we could rename Alexa to “Computer.” Then I could finally complete my fantasy of being as cool as Mr. Spock. “Computer, recite pi.”
Actually, I just asked Alexa to do that… and she did!