Amazon Echo news feature renders users uninformed

In Opinion
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Amazon Echo’s Alexa Voice Service will read the news aloud on command, but it only gives shallow descriptions and soundbites that leave listeners uninformed. Not only that, but listening to information versus reading it contributes to problems with memory retention.
(Photo Illustration by Katie Albertson / Daily Titan)

In 2016, Amazon released a device that embodies just how much technology has progressed in its ability to make life easier for the everyday person. Amazon Echo is “a hands-free speaker you control with your voice,” according to Amazon.

While it has many features–such as playing music, ordering food, telling you what’s on your calendar–the one causing controversy is Amazon Echo’s news relaying feature. The way Amazon Echo reads off the news is troubling because it only offers “micronews.”

Amazon Echo uses Alexa Voice Service, which is the assistant software that comes with the Echo similar to the way Siri comes with the iPhone. What makes Alexa problematic is that it is encouraging many users to have their news relayed to them through that computerized voice rather than processing the information through reading.

Surface details may stick when being given a news briefing from Alexa, but more often than not, people won’t be paying close attention and therefore won’t be able to recall many of the details. When one reads an entire article online or in a newspaper, it requires the full attention of the reader in order to process what has been written.

Echo only gives people small news snippets and soundbites, so not only are people less invested in paying attention to the information given, they’re also not given all the information available.

This is not at all an evil feature, in fact, it is quite convenient. However, in Neil Postman’s nonfiction novel, “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” he says the current role of entertainment media is just another step forward in terms of making information too easily available and attained.

To quote Postman’s analysis of Aldous Huxley’s science fiction classic, “Brave New World,”: “As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”

There is nothing wrong with small news bites, especially if the listener intends to read in depth articles after the fact. The problem is that this often becomes the main course as opposed to an appetizer with which to whet the mind’s appetite.

This kind of mindset is already affecting the way people read news stories.

“When people land on a story, they very rarely make it all the way down the page. A lot of people don’t even make it halfway,” according to an article in Slate.

Many of these same visitors, who don’t read the full article, are viewing all of the information that has already been put into a visual medium for them–the videos and photos.

The issue with Alexa is that it’s only going to make this problem worse. A person need only say “Alexa, give me the news,” and receive a brief, overview response that doesn’t activate any kind of critical thinking or devotion.

Not only is the information given a hollow shell of what the news actually is, but it is given auditorily. There is a key difference between listening and reading in the way the brain absorbs the information given.

A psychology study at the University of Waterloo in Ontario found that when compared to people who read information, people listening to information are more prone to distraction and mind-wandering, not retaining the information presented and not displaying any sort of interest in that info.

A Pew Research study found that 79 percent of Americans were reading a book in any format for 2011. For 2016, 73 percent claim they were reading, showing a 6 percent drop in five short years. A device like Amazon Echo will contribute to even more falling percentages in the future.

“It seems as though just listening is not as engaging as when people read,” said Daniel Smilek, co-author of the study’s paper to Co.Design. “The way we’re thinking about it is that the more your body’s involved in the task, the less likely you are to be disengaged and mind-wander.”

Amazon Echo demonstrates the amazing advances in technology that are accessible to average people. However, the masses should be mindful of how much they might lose if they value convenience over actually reading and retaining any of the news they’re interested in.

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