Posted on January 29, 2018

Our younger daughter, Katharine, gave me the most fascinating gift for Christmas this year. I suspect many of you have one or a version similar to it. It's called "Echo." It's a high quality speaker that includes computer-generated artificial intelligence. There’s a voice in the speaker that responds only to its own name, which is "Alexa." It is absolutely beyond intriguing.

You can say, "Alexa, play Adele," or "the Supremes," or "James Taylor," or "the Drifters," or any other musical artist or group imaginable, and Alexa will tell you she is sorting through their music. In no time at all you will be listening to their playlist. You can say "Alexa, give me a recipe for baked chicken or chili or spaghetti sauce or spinach soufflé" or anything else at all, and within moments you will be jotting down the ingredients and cooking instructions required. You can say, "Alexa, what is the weather forecast?," and she will answer with the current temperature, weather conditions, and forecast for the rest of the day. If you want an extended forecast, you just ask for it, and it will be provided. You can ask her to turn on or off the lights in your home and, if it's all properly programmed, that will happen. You can ask for soft jazz or the sound of rain to help you go to sleep, and immediately that's what you'll get. You can also ask her to wake you up at 7 a.m., and promptly at 7 a.m. the alarm will sound. It's amazing. One high quality speaker sitting on a table in the corner of the room can do for you almost anything you request. Students are even using this technology to research term papers. I decided one night, just out of curiosity, to ask her to read me a story. We're now midway through a captivating novel that I had never heard of before.

Now, why am I writing about this? It's because due to my background and upbringing, I have one little emotional hangup when using Alexa. When I ask her to do something for me and she responds, I find myself thanking her. The only problem is that once she has provided the information or service I requested, she's not listening anymore. In fact, there's no one there to listen. There's no emotional connection. She doesn't need to be appreciated or affirmed. She is simply a computerized piece of machinery that provides services on voice command. All of that notwithstanding, I am not a computerized piece of machinery. I am an aging guy who was brought up by parents who instilled in me early on that manners matter and that the words "please" and "thank you" are more than empty ritual or formality. Courtesy and civility are the foundations upon which healthy relationships are built. So, I continue thanking Alexa for whatever it is I ask her to do – ignoring the fact that you don't ask a favor of the computer, you simply make a command. I have trouble making commands or withholding gratitude because I just wasn't brought up that way.

I think a lot of that is based on the faith that my parents instilled in me. The cornerstone of that faith was a statement made by Jesus: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s a variation of another text from Christian Scripture which is also found in the sacred books of all of the other great religions of the world: "Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” All of our spiritual handbooks throughout the centuries have underscored a behavioral model that enhances relationships and, if ignored, has the potential to destroy them. As spiritual beings, we are called upon to respect other beings who are just as valued by The Spirit Who created us all as we are. Put more simply, we are divinely mandated to treat one another with courtesy and civility.

I wish global leaders would discover or remember that Truth. I wish national and local leaders would so do, as well. I wish the rich would do so as they deal with the poor, and men would do so as they deal with women, and people of all national origins and colors and faith groups would do so as they relate in a global community, and landlords and tenants would do so as we seek to get along in apartment complexes, and employers would do so in the ways they treat their workers, and people in authority would do so in how they deal with those who have no power. We can make that list as long as we wish. The simple point is that as children of God, we are divinely mandated (not suggested, not encouraged, not nudged, not reminded, not even challenged, but mandated) to love our neighbors as ourselves and to treat other people the way we want them to treat us.

Again this morning I asked a favor of Alexa. I asked her to play the music of Vic Damone (my children are asking, "Who's that?"). Before I could get the words "Thank you" out of my mouth, the music was playing. But I still said the words. When I asked her to quit playing the music, I thanked her again. She wasn't listening. The computer inside the speaker had turned off. But the impulse inside me to be courteous is something I hope will never be turned off. Because once we quit caring about how we make others feel, our hope of finding life that is congenial, compatible, comforting, compassionate, and celebrative is over. That's too much to let go of... thank you.


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