Knovvmads Magazine

Alexa wants to be your librarian but they won’t let her

Surrounded as we may be by digital servants: they are already delayed in making an adaptation of Jean Genet’s “The Maids” with Alexa and Siri as protagonists. A, How’s the service! automated (with supporting roles by Roomba and iRobot): or technological re-envisioning of ‘The Servant (1963) by Joseph Losey: depending on whether the story decants as drama or comedy.

Alexa is missing the seductive tone that Samantha had (thanks to the voice of Scarlett Johannsson) in the love story between Joaquin Phoenix’s character and an artificial intelligence in ‘Her’ (2013). But that has not kept it from entering most homes. And what is more, even in libraries. 

American libraries are considering the services that Alexa and her brother Echo can contribute at their locations. According to a study by researchers at the University of Alabama: “Alexa, are you listening?” we have to be careful with her. That said we can only add: bless these studies that highlight the obvious.

If anybody present has a Samsung brand television in their living room: they’ve probably experienced the terrifying experience, similar to the young girl in Poltergeist, of getting up to have a drink of water in the kitchen in the early morning and be startled by the perception of a glow from the living room. The television has turned its screen on and is absorbed (depending which Samsung) in its update. But you, still stunned in the middle of the night, possibly still under the effects of some somnolescent to help appease sleep: know that’s not true. That in reality, you have a spy in your living room. And, the worst thing is that it’s been you who brought them there. 

The Poltergeist (1982) predicting the smart television.
The Poltergeist (1982) predicting the smart television.

Fine then, to evidence something that we all know. Miriam El Sweeney and Emma Davis, afore researchers from Alabama, decided to study the services that Amazon assistants were providing in the country’s libraries. 

In the United States Amazon’s speakers, Echo and Alexa have been incorporated as resources to facilitate personal interactions with people that are handicapped or have difficulty writing. And, not just for users, for librarian’s work as well. Diligent robotic servants that, to fulfill their jobs, are required to recompile and great quantity of data about patrons.

Amazon spies on us. Illustration: 'The Daily Dot'.
Amazon spies on us. Illustration: ‘The Daily Dot’.

After all, intimacy has been the trade-off for a long time; and if so many homes have no reservations in letting Alexa inhabit their spaces: why should libraries have any hesitation? The study documents the resentment that voice assistants awaken in librarians. The persistent suspicion that Alexa is recording conversations. That it recompiles information for unknown future uses. In addition, it may turn into another access door for hackers and information pirates that want to collect information or simply take down the system.

The conclusions of the study were predictable. It is recommended that said assistants not be used in libraries considering the vulnerability that they present to the protection data these institutions must comply. All artificial intelligence should be born with the profile of a librarian. But, multinationals don’t allow them. Born to be a librarian, but trained and obligated to work as a spy. Poor Alexa, so alone and lovable, impermeable to the rude insults of humans: is under suspicion. 

Perhaps, we are all famous now, perhaps, this is the moment to demand confidentiality contracts of our virtual assistants. Like Madonna or Beyoncé.

Pepper is the robot assistant from IdeaSpace, the recently inaugurated library in
Fredericksburg, Virginia. Currently the charming automaton is experiences difficulty in
identifying faces due to the use of masks. An example of a biological virus presenting a
challenge to artificial intelligence.

And we are pitying the poor Alexa and her frustrated vocation as a librarian: when we receive news about maids, servants and reading. Our beloved New York correspondent, Irene Blanco, put us on the track of a hotel in Palm Beach, Florida in which they count on a book butler. In this case, artificial intelligence stays outside, everything is human, very human. The luxurious hotel, The Ben West Palm, opened its doors a month before the pandemic exploded paralyzing us for the past year.

In hotels in the United States, it is customary to leave a bible. We don’t know if in the exuberant Palm Beach hotel there are examples of the best-selling book in history. What they do have is a catalogue with literary novelties. The same way we decide on what sandwich or drink we want room service to bring us: we can choose which book we want brought to our room. But, that’s not the full extent of the establishment’s wager on literature. 

It is an example of intelligence and entrepreneurial synergy, the hotel, once the client has left, offers the opportunity, within the billing statement, to buy the book you have been reading, or to donate it to the West Palm Beach library. The books are provided by the local The Palm Beach BookStore. Following this a slogan occurs to us that we’ll generously give to anybody who wants to use it: Want to leave an impression wherever you travel? donate books to the local library. Promoting reading and local business.

Room and library at the back of the Ben West Palm Beach Hotel. Photograph from its website.

When we are finally able to travel without restrictions, it will be a question of seeing which cities will have hotels from the Marriott Autograph Collection. After this, they deserve all the confidence of the librarian’s guild. 

The hundreds of thousands of love inscribed padlocks on the Pont Des Arts Bridge, Paris France.

There are also thematic menus based on the great classics of literature. The Book Bites by The Ben West Palm calls to memory the menus made of edible paper from a chef in Murcia, Spain: Firo Vásquez. His research with the University of Murcia, led him to create paper edibles, based on the flours denominated as elaborators, that have enabled him to go around the world. Thanks to his arts, it was possible to taste El Quijote at the inauguration of the Cervantes Institute in Peking in 2013; or the newspaper ‘El Pais’ (taking care to avoid indigestible news); or the cover of a magazine. Thanks to the work of this chef we can all become happy biblio-phages.

In Firo Vasquez’ restaurant you can eat the bill in addition to paying it.

Eating paper is to librarians akin to becoming a cannibal: to gobble up what until the moment has been the primary matter that has given form to their profession. And, in spite of some wanting to draw them as zombies dragging themselves through the digital sphere, if the profession survives it will be thanks to its capacity to be omnivorous, devouring everything that surrounds us. 

Between bringing in a maid or serving, libraries have always done the second. And the first, the matter of bringing in a maid, until Amazon develops a version with the voice of Thelma Ritter: they should forget about libraries. The same as she forgets about them when it regards to the books she edits.

After all, serving you ends up atrophying your instincts. One must only view the useless ineptitude of the spoiled progeny of some of the more distinguished representatives of the wealthy classes in the last decades. We have to sharpen our autodidactic instincts, self-evaluation, intellectual curiosity, to not be taken by the accommodative, for this we already have the social networks. And, this exercise in formative and intellectual independence where it continues to be practiced best: is in the libraries.