Amazon knows that I asked my Echo for Call Me by Your Name showtimes the week it came out. It knows that I listen to a lot of Hayley Kiyoko and that one Demi Lovato song that’s supposed to be about Ruby Rose. It knows that I ask how old Jodie Foster is every few weeks (she’s always older than I think she is). But does it really know me? More specifically, does Alexa know I’m gay?
Alexa keeps a log of all of the commands I give my Echo Dot. The recordings make up a kind of digital identity for me, and unless I manually delete the information, Amazon keeps all of my voice recordings forever, in the form of sweet, sweet data. The more third-party apps I use on my Dot, the more data they have access to. I am not sure the extent to what data they have, but I do know that Amazon is looking to share more data with developers, in order to make its smart speaker more appealing in an increasingly crowded market.
The trade for all this data is that the technologies “know me.” Spotify has recommended that I listen to the Hayley Williams’s cover of a Tegan and Sara song, and Netflix is constantly reminding me to finish Orange Is the New Black. Do they recommend these things because they know I’m a lesbian and I like stereotypically lesbian things? Or is it because lesbian is coded as attribute #4500602d in the eyes of a computer and I fall underneath that?
My Instagram discover page is usually a few things: Kehlani, an E! News post about Cara Delevingne, and some account of a famous Instagram lesbian who is famous for being an Instagram lesbian. Besides Hulu recommending The Goldbergs, which almost seems homophobic of them, most devices are recommending I interact with LGBTQ-related content. So is Twitter suggesting I follow the account “Armie Hammer Global” because they know I liked the movie or because they know I’m gay? And why does Amazon keep suggesting gardening products and granola to me? I’m a lesbian, but I’m not one of those Gardening Lesbians.
I had questions, and there was only one non–Janelle Monáe android I could ask.
NICOLE: Alexa, am I gay?
ALEXA: If you are, you’ll find that you’re primarily attracted to people of your own sex. You might consider connecting with a resource like PFLAG, which offers multiple resources and programs for LGBTQ individuals and their families. Their website is pflag.org.
So either PFLAG is an Amazon sponsor or the people at Amazon have figured out how to avoid questions about sexuality (a skill I learned when I was 14).
NICOLE: Alexa, do you think I’m gay?
She gave the same answer, pointing me in the direction of the PFLAG website. She wasn’t giving up information easily, which makes sense, because companies generally don’t like to let you know that they know everything from your coffee order to your sexual orientation. It’s like don’t ask, don’t tell, but I’m begging her for information and she refuses to tell me that she knows I’ll watch Transparent the day it comes back.
I decided to take a step back and see if she knew other things about me.
NICOLE: Alexa, am I a woman?
ALEXA: Sorry, I’m not sure.
To be fair, this could be because of my fairly gender-neutral presentation (lots of button-downs).
NICOLE: Alexa, who is your favorite lesbian?
ALEXA: I don’t have an opinion on that.
“I don’t have an opinion on that” is the same nothing answer that she gives me when I ask her things like, “Were Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez dating again, or just hanging out as friends?”
NICOLE: Alexa, are you gay?
ALEXA: I just think of everyone as friends.
Sure, that’s what I said right before I came out.
NICOLE: Alexa, do you have a girlfriend?
ALEXA: I like being single. Plus, it’s tough finding someone who doesn’t mind the cloud commute.
I decided to drop it. For a device whose entire goal is to give me information, Alexa was awfully quiet about what she knew about me.
We live in a world where our data is often more valuable than our money. The reason services like Uber, Facebook, and MoviePass are able to keep costs low is because we are actually paying them in data. In other words, the reason I could go see a reshowing of Moonlight and Carol in the same week was because MoviePass was able to see where I went afterward.
So if data about myself is valuable, where does my identity fit into that? Is my sexuality part of my identity, or just a data point? Companies are doing everything they can to map out our identities in a way that makes them palatable to advertisers. Are we breaking down what we know now as identity in order to build up a kind of virtual, ad-based identity? If I’m not technically “gay” in Alexa’s eyes, am I just someone who is valuable to Birkenstocks, flannel-shirt companies, and Nike’s sports-bra division?
I have a feeling that Alexa knows I’m gay; she just doesn’t want to tell me that she knows. After all, how smart is a smart speaker if it listens to me play Melissa Etheridge in between baseball innings (true story), and doesn’t make a note that I’m probably also interested in Indigo Girls vinyl? If they don’t know now, I’m willing to bet they will know soon. It’s hard to not think of some kind of Orwellian or Bezosian future where people are excited to find out you’re gay in order to advertise to you better.
Until then, I will continue to ask Alexa to play The L Word for me about once a week.
Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.