Phones and computers are the ultimate companions: They connect us with our friends and family; they provide endless streams of entertainment; they supply… well, you know, when you’re feeling a little lonely. But despite their limitless devotion to our every need and want, we treat them like absolute trash. We rarely (never) let them rest; we rarely (never) clean them; and we rarely (never) update them, even when they politely ask us to do so.
Some people have even admitted to being in abusive relationships with their virtual assistants. In one recent article titled “The Terrible Joy of Yelling at Alexa,” the author details her fondness for mistreating the friendly digital assistant living in her kitchen:
“I love to scream at robots. At my robot Alexa in particular. She lives in the Amazon Echo in my kitchen. I call her terrible names when she plays the wrong Pandora station. I roll my eyes in her general direction when she can’t figure out how to turn the light on. Sometimes I roll them so far back they flit over to the actual light switch across the room on the wall, which I can’t be bothered to stand and flick myself.”
These aren’t uncommon instances, either: Experts have estimated that as many as half of the interactions we have with our digital assistants are in some way abusive.
Much like dogs, then, I’d argue that we really don’t deserve our trusty digital companions. But the real question is, as always, why are we like this? Why can’t we just be nice to the devices that (mostly) never talk back to us while doing their best to meet our every need, no matter how strange?
The answer harkens back to our earliest childhood desires. “They become extensions of ourselves that are supposed to function as superhuman, something we can’t be even if we wanted to,” explains psychologist Jeanette Raymond. “We imbue these objects with that superhuman quality and expect them to perform in that way, without needing care, rest, cleaning or refreshing — all the things we have to do for ourselves in order to function, and that can be annoying. It’s almost as if these devices embody our wish to have something that’s totally reliable without having to work at it.”
“The fury we get into when they cease to function, or when they do their own updating and we have to wait for them to be ready says it all,” Raymond continues. “Our infant selves want to rely on something that’s permanently available, on-demand, never complains and rarely needs filling up. It’s precisely because they do so much for us that they become the ‘good breast always full of milk’ when they do what we want, when we want. Then, they become the ‘bad, empty or bitter milk breast’ when they go wrong, crash or do things in the background that we didn’t ask for.”
In many ways, then, the relationship we have with these constantly-giving devices is similar to the one that babies have with their mothers. “We have a love-hate relationship with them, just as we do with our mothers when we’re utterly dependent on them, loving them when they anticipate our needs and provide just what we need, and hating them when they tell us to wait, or if they’re in a bad mood and aren’t giving so willingly,” Raymond says. “The parallels are stark.”
IT expert William Sipes adds that the pervasiveness of these devices — in 2017, for instance, a whopping 92 percent of people in the U.S. between the ages of 18 and 29 said they owned a smartphone — can make us take them for granted. He also points out that our work devices are oftentimes treated even worse, since people are less likely to feel a sense of ownership over them, and feel no qualms whatsoever about neglecting them.
All of which is to say, when the inevitable happens and these devices take over humanity, we’re gonna deserve everything we get.