The Unique Pleasures of Watching Alexa Deny Children What They Want

“Baby Shark,” which landed on the Billboard Hot 100 chart at No. 32 this week, is a menace to listeners above the age of 5. With its insistent beat and “doo doo, do do do do” chorus, it’s a parasitically grating earworm that you will now have in your head until March, and I’m sorry about that. But there’s one thing that even the song’s many haters seem to agree on: That viral video of the toddler repeatedly trying and failing to get her family’s Amazon Echo to play the song is totally freaking charming.

If you somehow haven’t seen it: A small girl in a winter coat stands on the floor facing an Amazon Echo device on her kitchen counter. “Alexa,” she commands, “play baby chair.” The instruction fails, but she keeps trying, with increasing urgency. “Alexa, play paby shirt.” The right version only comes on when her mother intervenes, at which point the toddler lights up with glee and starts dancing. Posted to YouTube in October, the 99-second video became a phenomenon of its own. Two-year-old Zoé and her family were invited on the Today show, where the girl grabbed the microphone from Hoda Kotb and said—what else?—“Alexa, play ‘Baby Shark.’ ” (Midway through the segment, the Echo on set cut off and announced it had “received an important update and needs to restart.”)

As it turns out, YouTube is rife with clips of virtual assistants misunderstanding children’s requests. A redhead named Bobby lispily requests something that sounds like “Tigger Tigger,” and Alexa offers “pussy anal dildo ring” while his parents scream “ALEXA, STOP.” A baby futilely screams at “Lesha” to “Playadonal,” until his parents interpret: “Play Old MacDonald.” A toddler leans over an Echo chanting “Beebee shot, beebee Shot, beebee shot.” Another runs away crying when the Echo repeatedly fails to recognize her request for Maren Morris’ “The Middle.” Two sisters are offered Eric Clapton when they attempt to summon “Boom Clap”—or “Clap Boom,” as they put it.

Why are these nuggets so compelling? In part, because they combine three staples of great content: adorable children, technology fails, and harmless cross-cultural miscommunication. It’s cute to watch children mispronounce and miscommunicate. (See: “Kids Say the Darnedest Things.”) It’s also delightful to watch machines—they think they’re soooooooo smart—display ineptitude at basic tasks. (See: This robot falling down the stairs.) When children yell at Alexa, you have a population that is notoriously sloppy at communication trying to control a technology that is notoriously bad at subtleties of interpretation. The result is a kind of irresistible verbal slapstick.

I think there might be at least one more level to the frisson of pleasure provided by these clips: The Echo is depriving children of their most annoying, repetitive desires. As the mother of a 3-year-old, I would love to channel Alexa’s ice-cold confidence in, say, declining to play the Frozen hit “Let It Go” for the 17th time in one weekend. I’m perfectly capable of saying, “No,” of course, but my daughter also views it as a personal affront and responds accordingly. Alexa, by contrast, is not a parent. She’s relentlessly honest about what she can and cannot provide, and she’s impervious to emotional outbursts. I envy her.

As someone who has chosen to live without a virtual assistant, however, I have to admit that there’s something disturbing about the Alexa-fail genre, too. Within a few years, the children in these charming snippets will have learned how to interact seamlessly with the digital assistants in their home. They’ll remember to firmly state “Alexa” at the beginning of each command. They’ll intuitively string together search teams and slightly overenunciate each word in the stilted style the devices require (at least for now). They’ll be fully trained to live with a surveillance device that by then may be present in every room of the house. On the bright side, by then at least they’ll have better taste than “Baby Shark.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *