Our Stepford lives

I sometimes regret that I bought a new laptop a year ago, though I was forced into it.  The keyboard on my ancient Lenovo was falling apart; after the “M” key and the little red button beneath it abandoned ship,  I could no longer ail coherent essagesmkey

Only after acquiring my new machine did I realize how lovely it was to have all those no-longer-supported programs, because now I’m stuck with updated versions that want to do everything for me.  Everything.

I have recently begun using Gmail’s redesign, which includes a “Smart Reply” feature that automatically suggests possible responses to e-mails, whether personal or work- related.  “Great job!”  “Sounds like fun!”  “No worries!”  Select a canned response, send it and you’re done.

I’m not sure whether this is an improvement over emoticons, which communicate that you are not worth the effort it costs me to generate words.  Smart Reply says you are worthy of words, but not many, and only as long as I don’t have to form them.

The feature is based on a mostly functional but predictably imperfect algorithm; an early version reportedly responded using both “Sent from my iPhone” and “I love you”  with distressing frequency.  A Google spokesperson says Smart Reply works best “on emails that it can suggest optimal responses to,” meaning it’s not yet suited to complicated communiques with formerly intimate others.  (“Did you leave that poo on my porch?”  “I love you but also hate you!”  “No worries! I’m bringing bail!”) smart reply

I had not yet assimilated Smart Reply before I encountered a commercial for Amazon’s Alexa. It features a family struggling with the quintessential First World problem of finding the right remote control to increase the volume on their big-screen TV.  Installing Alexa relieves Dad from the onerous task of actually using his hands, which are wrapped around a large bowl of buttery popcorn.   I don’t know about you, but I think this is exactly the kind of thing couch-bound, overweight Americans have been needing.

All of this comes on the heels of re-watching the 1975 movie, The Stepford Wives, a still creepy and sadly salient story of men who replace their problematically human wives with compliant, anatomically appealing automatons who will clean their homes, cook their meals, tend their children and praise their sexual prowess. When the protagonist – about to be murdered by her robot replacement – asks the ringleader of the scheme why, he says simply:  Because we can.

sw posterI have the same creepy feeling about the technology that entangles our increasingly Stepford lives because it can, because we have asked it to. Labor-saving, uncomplaining, compliant to our every wish — everything humans aren’t.   It is possible, now, to conceive of entire “conversations” in which no thinking, feeling person is present, nor seemingly missed.  (You don’t need to imagine this;  just consider the Trump White House.)

As machines grow smarter – as we rely on them to think for us, to speak for us, to operate our homes and drive our cars – how can we help but grow individually dumber and lazier, our brains withering from disuse?

And what of our hearts, our emotional bonds?  If we routinely delegate simple human communication to impersonal technology, how can we hope to navigate with any skill the complexities of our relationships when they become truly difficult?   If we do not actually attend to each other in the day to day — which is, after all, the ongoing practice of being human — how will we help each other in the emotional trenches?

Alexa, change Mom’s diaper?  Smart Reply, talk my friend off the ledge?   Siri, speak to me not in the voice of an Australian woman, but in the voice of the loved one I miss, which  softens when it hears mine?

I’ve had this uneasy response to technology for a long time. The first bulk e-mail from a friend – my name in a long list of unfamiliar others – felt somehow like a wound.  Only later could I articulate what I felt: The method of communication had flattened the emotional topography between sender and recipients, made our individual relationships with her irrelevant.  The implicit “I care about you”  that motivates singular, personal communication had been subtly undermined by the dissonance of a bulk form that, in its preference for efficiency,  makes no one feel special.

Efficiency, ease, entertainment:  the gods technology serves at the expense of the unique human qualities and experiences it replaces.

I meant this post to be funny, but I can’t seem to write myself there.   I am too concerned about technology’s power to erode our humanity and weaken our personal bonds, at a time when we need our functioning minds, our engaged hearts  — and each other — more than ever.   Certainly more than we need ease,  efficiency and entertainment.

Maybe we can have both; maybe.  Yet so much seduction already has occurred;  who among us would have imagined even 10 years ago the pervasive presence of technology in our homes, cars, pockets? Who would have imagined that so much of the attention we once gave other would be hijacked by digital devices?  As a society, we are completely bought in, on board, hooked by the old gizmo and eager for the new — often more eager than we are for our own undistracted company, or that of another.

Me, I want to tell Alexa to go away.  Smart Reply to be quiet.   We made you, because we can, I want to say.  But we don’t need you.  We need ourselves, and each other.


SR close




  1. slukwago · · Reply

    My parents, who are in their eighties, have this thing they say about smart technology, cars and those sorts of things. The saying is in Luganda (bija kutulya) and translates roughly as “next thing we know they will eat us/or we will be eaten … and we won’t even know it” It is pithy and very funny when used correctly in Luganda. But it is exactly what you have said in this lovely funny blog.


    1. Apparently, wariness about technology knows no country! This is reassuring; thank you for sharing the Luganda saying. In whatever language, the situation amounts pretty much to the boiling frog metaphor, with relatively few of us — and mostly older — noticing that the water is getting a tad hot…


    1. Thanks.


  2. Maureen Connor · · Reply

    Thank you Cate and Catana. I am glad to hear that there are options out there for me when I go on a holiday next year to Yellowknife. I don’t own a cell phone, but need to bring some kind of phone with me when I go. I’d hate to have an emergency happen, say out in the wilds on the frozen lake while snowshoeing at -30 degrees Celsius/-22 Fahrenheit and no phone in hand to get help.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m with you and others here. I turn off all automated options in gmail and elsewhere. I have an old laptop that I’ve replaced the screen on and will continue to repair until the operating system is so out of date that it won’t work with any browser. I’m also ok to be excluded from a lot of online commerce – I prefer to shop local. This definitely resonates – I find myself shaking my head (and fuming) over some of the “conveniences” that are on offer.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. This is good to hear — pockets of local (individual) resistance — even if, systemically, the deed is done. Thanks for reading and contributing to the conversation.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Very good post – thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re welcome. Thanks for reading!


  5. Maureen Connor · · Reply

    I’m with you on this. I hate Gmail’s smart reply. Somehow, if I was to use it, it would feel inhuman and completely fake, not to mention wrong. For example, I received a reply to an email that I sent to a friend letting her know that the results of a biopsy done on a suspicious looking mole came out fine. She congratulated me on the good results and wished me a good weekend. What were the canned responses from gmail’s smart reply? 1) Thanks, you too. 2) Same to you! 3) Have a great weekend too! Gee, one out of three that made sense? Even if they all made sense as they sometimes do, I want real, not canned. Okay, I guess maybe I blew off a little steam here, but when I get a reply concerning me not having cancer, I do not want to respond with something that is not heartfelt and coming from my own mind.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m glad you got good results on the biopsy; a huge relief, I’m sure.

      I think “heartfelt and coming from my own mind” is generally a good standard. And while I’m glad we can turn off features like Smart Reply, many will leave it on, preferring the convenience and speed, because that’s what we’re continually being trained to prefer. And over time, a default setting that was only marginally acceptable in human communication becomes the norm.

      Here’s a link with instructions on turning off the Smart Reply feature: http://time.com/4785732/gmail-google-smart-reply/ May vary slightly depending on the device you’re using, but it’s under the “settings” tab.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Maureen Connor · · Reply

        Thank you for your well wishes, and yes it was a huge relief. I have removed the Smart Reply feature. I really hope that your thought about “…over time, a default setting that was only marginally acceptable in human communication becomes the norm.” doesn’t happen. I wouldn’t be surprised if you are correct though, but here’s hoping….

        Liked by 1 person

  6. At least it’s still a matter of choice. You can turn off Smart Reply (I did), refuse to buy Alexa or smart appliances, and ignore all the intrusive technology that no one asked for. But I did see a comment somewhere that it’s getting harder to find appliances — like TVs — that aren’t set up to watch you, report back, or tell you what they think you want to hear. Who needs Big Brother? Little Brothers are breeding like rabbits.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You are so right. I have noticed, too, that the cost of holding out is, sooner or later, being excluded from much of social commerce, not to mention the functional usefulness of online financial transactions. Nonetheless, it’s doable, if one values traditional experience more, and can live without every modern “convenience.” I am still happily without a smart (or even a cell) phone.

      Thanks very much for reading and commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You aren’t alone in not having a smart phone. I do have an old fashioned flip phone, but the only time I carry it with me is when I have a doctor’s appointment, and need to let my son know I’m finished and he can pick me up.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Same! I have a TracFone I use only when traveling, the flip style that happily recalls “Star Trek.” Nice to meet you, fellow Luddite. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Not quite Luddites, really. After all, we both use computers. I suspect you ask the same questions I do about adopting a new technology: Is it truly useful? Can the same things be accomplished more easily (and cheaply) with lower tech?

          Liked by 2 people

  7. Because we can…pretty much sums all of sexual harassment throughout the ages. #metoo Sorry to go there, but I couldn’t resist.
    I haven’t actually seen this movie, so I guess it’s going on the Netflix/Prime list for the weekend. Happy Friday!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You, too. Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 2 people

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