My mom met Alexa at our house at Christmas. She listened as I asked Alexa about the weather and as my grandchildren told Alexa to tell them a joke and play “Eye of the Tiger.” She heard Alexa read a Wikipedia article about Camp Nelson in Kentucky. And she kept trying to figure it all out. How did all this work since Alexa didn’t have a brain. Or did she?
“How nice,” my mom said another day when she stopped by our house, “to be able to just ask Alexa, instead of typing it all out on a keyboard for Google.”
So on her ninety-third birthday, Alexa seemed a perfect gift. And when she opened the package, it seemed we were right.
It was after Alexa was installed on her kitchen counter that we ran into trouble.
“She’s just not listening to me,” Mom said on the phone one day.
And when I stopped by her house, I found why. As I walked in, I thought she was chatting with someone on the telephone. Her voice was conversational and leisurely and pleasant. But there she was, standing in front of Alexa with a puzzled look.
“I’ve asked her nicely,” Mom said. “But she just doesn’t understand.”
“Be more direct,” I told her, “more bossy.”
But I couldn’t figure out how to cure my mom of being nice.
Not until one day when I was researching horses for a book I’m writing. When you command a horse, I read, use few words and make them short and crisp.
“Hey, Mom,” I said, “talk to Alexa like you’d talk to a horse.”
She knew all about horses from her long-ago childhood, having driven them to cultivate corn and gather up pea vines. She had used short, crisp commands—get-up and gee and haw and whoa—to bring horses in from pasture and to urge them up and down the hilly fields of western Maryland and to turn them into the next field row and stop them at the end.
This analogy worked. My mom might not be sounding so nice these days. But she’s getting Alexa under control.