Despite the fact that there are now somewhere around 120 million smart speakers lurking in kitchens, living rooms, and bedrooms around the United States, most people do not need Google’s Assistant or Amazon’s Alexa in their lives. In fact, I thought I’d never own one of these devices, out of principle. Why, after all, would anyone willingly install a corporate surveillance device with minimal features in their most intimate spaces? I don’t know, but somehow my house now has three of them. And I have to admit, I’m kind of into it—but not for the reasons I could have anticipated.
As part of an ongoing experiment in smartening up my house, I have a Google Home Max in my kitchen, a Google Home Hub in my bedroom, and a Google Assistant-packing Nest camera. Most of the time, they just sit there, pinging Google’s servers with bits of data about me and my wife Jennifer’s lives. But there are always some moments, mostly in the evening, when we summon them to life. “Hey Google,” we’ll say, “what’s tomorrow’s weather?” Or we’ll ask it to play music from Spotify, or to look up the number to the veterinarian. These little requests aren’t much, but they add up to something resembling useful. More than what they allow us to do, however, is what they allow us to avoid: picking up our phones.
We’re not one of those households with strict no-phone hours (we have no children and we’re not maniacs, so why would we?) But given that both Jennifer and I work long hours in front of various screens, we do our best to actually hang out with each other when we’re lucky enough to be home and free of obligations. The thing is, until recently, doing our best usually meant failing miserably, sitting on the couch next to each other while our attention was miles apart, sucked into an Instagram binge or Twitter hole or whatever complete waste of time our phone addictions commanded.
Then came Google’s Assistant, and we found that adding this internet-connected device to our home actually made us use the internet less.
After just a few weeks of having the Google Homes, we realised that we were hanging out more. We’d sit and chat at the dinner table for an hour or more after finishing our meals without a phone pulling one of us away. We’d watch TV together, uninterrupted. We’d read books and magazines—an activity that, for whatever reason, doesn’t induce the impenetrable zombie-thud-brain a phone seems to inflict upon its users.
This wasn’t intentional. We weren’t trying to use our phones less. It’s just that, pre-Google Home, checking the weather or asking the internet some random question meant picking up my phone to do so. And then, inevitably, I’d check a text, or Slack, or Twitter, or whatever little icon happened to grab my attention. And then I was gone, into the high-definition abyss of my iPhone.
When you can just holler some command at Google, however, you can get what you’re looking for and just go back to whatever else you were doing, no phone needed.
Those little moments when you need to use the internet, in other words, are a gateway to a full-blown phone binge. At least they are for me and Jennifer. And they probably happen more often than you think. By using a smart speaker instead, you avoid getting sucked online unintentionally. You don’t expose yourself to the full force of the internet’s tractor beam, and thus have more control over how you spend your time without having to actually give anything up. It’s a handy trick, if nothing else, and one I’m grateful to have discovered.
As far as I can tell, science hasn’t yet figured out whether too much time spent on a phone is bad for our health. (Although it is probably bad for your kids.) I work online and lack the option to log off entirely all the time—sometimes, I need to be on my phone during off hours, and that’s okay. Other times, I just feel like fucking around on Twitter or looking up motorcycle parts on Craigslist, or figuring out what the hell TikTok’s deal is. But I do know that mindlessly spending time on my phone when I’d honestly rather be hanging out with my wife and pets bums me out. And I certainly hate the feeling of looking at the clock on my screen and realizing hours have gone by without me noticing.
Is this reason enough to buy a Google Home or Amazon Echo? Maybe not. The features they offer aren’t exactly dazzling, though I do find them useful for controlling other smart devices. But for the most part, they do a few of the things your phone also does without you having to actually be on your phone. And for me, that’s exactly enough.