Almost two years ago, I bought my mother an Alexa Show. Recently, I’ve been thinking about it and how it played a huge role during my lockdown, alongside other technology.
The Alexa Show is the one with the screen; it lets you drop in unannounced on the owner, without them having to touch anything, and you can talk to them via an app on your phone from wherever you are in the world. A nightmare idea to most – being dropped in on without warning! – but as someone less mobile, slightly less technologically savvy and more lonely, the Alexa Show answered a need for my mum. Sure, it was an invasion of privacy, recording you when you didn’t want it to and learning your habits from every interaction . . . but it served a purpose and seemed a compromise worth making. And then, six months ago, lockdown happened, and my purchase seemed like a divine intervention – a technological saving grace in an otherwise unbearable time. I could drop in on my mum and talk to her a couple of times a day, chasing my daughter around the flat, trying to get her to join in. For months I did that instead of visiting, explaining to my mum each time that I couldn’t come to visit because it was to protect her. When the curfew was finally lifted, I visited her one last time in person in her flat. Sadly, within a week of that, she had a stroke and, a week or so later, she passed away.
So I’ve been thinking about the Alexa Show and how it played a very particular and unexpected role in my coping during this period. Lockdown has added a surreal, novel-like quality to the experience of something that is grossly real. Day to day, it is hard to deal with the emptiness of not having those calls to make any more. And I’m sure it’s the same for the thousands of others who have been bereaved during this time.
Technology has played a pivotal role for many during this time, from our personal lives to the workplace. I’ve also felt it in my work on Faber Members – Faber’s online programme for readers. We increased our offering and engagement with members across the world, aiming to provide them with cultural comfort to cut through the ambiguous expanse of time. The pivot to a solely online marketplace for books during those three months has no doubt sped up engagement with the digital discovery of books, amongst readers and publishers alike. And one positive thing to come out of this expansion of reach in promoting books online will undoubtedly be larger and more diverse audiences for all literature. But we should also not forget those for whom access to technology and the internet is still limited, both in the UK and globally.
Lockdown and since has also been a truly special opportunity to spend more time with my three-year-old daughter, Frida. In the thick of it, my partner and I would divide childcare with work, juggling our meetings with homeschooling activities to keep her occupied: learning to count with screws, developing technological prowess through ordering on the Deliveroo app and developing logic skills by watching old episodes of "Law & Order". Day to day, now that she has returned to nursery, the lack of commute means we can all have breakfast together, and an early dinner, which is very sweet. It’s only in the sudden jolt of this time that I’ve questioned why I thought there was no solution to being mashed up against strangers in the tube twice a day, five days a week.
I now have mixed feelings about the Alexa Show. I think it was amazingly helpful in a way I could never have predicted, allowing me to see my mum so regularly and to remind her I cared. But I also feel kind of tricked – tricked into feeling that technology was enough. I’m simultaneously grateful and perturbed that I can still go onto the Alexa app and listen to my mum trying to get it to play things. She was a very private person and we have very few videos of her, which seems impossibly stupid of us now, but the Alexa has her recorded in snippets. Her accent, coupled with the slur of words from a previous stroke, meant the machine often wouldn’t understand her and she’d have to say the same thing over and over again to get it to understand.
So now, when I am missing her, I know I can just go on the Alexa app and listen to my 72-year-old Sri Lankan mother say ‘Alexa, play Britney’ again and again, whenever I need to.
Hayley Sothinathan is the manager of Faber Members, and a Bookseller Rising Star 2020.