If These Walls Had Ears

In early 1896, the Lumière brothers exhibited one of the first motion pictures ever made: THE ARRIVAL OF A TRAIN AT LA CIOTAT. With a run time of less than a minute, THE ARRIVAL OF A TRAIN isn’t long. It also has a straightforward premise: the movie consists of a single stationary shot of a steam train pulling into a station, and the subsequent disembarkment of passengers. The shot is composed so the camera points down the track, with the locomotive coming towards it. You can see the film here:

THE ARRIVAL OF A TRAIN is famous not just because it was the first movie shown in public; it’s also famous because of the legend that’s grown around it. Supposedly, the first showings caused audiences to panic, with some people scrambling to the exits. Unaccustomed to moving pictures, these early movie-goers somehow thought there was a real train barreling towards them, and ran for their lives.

Whether this happened exactly as described is inconsequential. The story speaks to the power of the motion picture medium to conjure illusions and has therefore become enshrined as the founding myth of cinema. It also speaks to how information can alter our sense of place, especially when we’re interacting with it in novel ways. As such, it’s a good analog for some uncanny experiences we are encountering today.

Recently, a Portland woman named Danielle received a call from one of her husband’s employees. “Unplug your Alexa devices right now,” this person said. “You’re being hacked.” The employee then described in detail a conversation that had happened earlier inside Danielle’s home. Apparently, the family’s Amazon Echo device was recording their conversations and sharing them with others.

In the subsequent investigation of the incident, Amazon’s engineers concluded that somebody had uttered a particular set of phonemes during the conversation that the Echo interpreted as its activation command, followed by a command to send a message to the person who then received the recordings. In other words, it wasn’t a hack; it was an unintentional triggering of one of the Echo’s features. (You can read about this story on The Verge.)

I can’t help but wonder ​how this incident has altered this family’s relationship with the physical environment​ of their home. When people first experienced THE ARRIVAL OF A TRAIN at the end of the 19th Century, they had never seen anything like it — except in “real life.” The first audiences were inexperienced with the new information delivery medium, so it’s understandable that they felt confused or even panicky. Whatever their reaction was, undoubtedly their experience of being in a particular place was radically transformed by the experience.

Even now, over 120 years later, it still is. Think about the last time you went to a movie theater. The experience of sitting in a movie theater is very different before and after the movie is playing. How long does it take for you to stop being conscious of the physical environment of the theater as you become engrossed by the film? (This is one of the reasons why contemporary movies are preceded with reminders to turn off your electronic devices; you’re there to draw your attention away from our physical reality for a couple of hours, and you don’t want anything yanking it back.)

Always-on smart devices such as the Echo, Google Home, and Apple HomePod change the nature of our physical environments: They add an information interaction layer to the place that wasn’t there before you turned on the cylinder in the room. Unlike a movie, however, these devices aren’t designed to capture your attention. In fact, these devices are designed to be unobtrusive; you’re only meant to be aware of their presence when you summon them by issuing a verbal command.

One can only assume that the form of these things is a compromise with the constraints imposed by current technology and the laws of physics. The ideal form for this class of devices is completely invisibile; we want them to be perceived not as devices at all, but as a feature of the environment. But is this really the ideal? Is it desirable for our physical environments to be always listening to us in the background?

Partly due to their design, we’re responding to these smart cylinders in a way that stands in stark contrast to how we received THE ARRIVAL OF A TRAIN. Instead of panicking and running out of the room, we’re placidly deploying these instruments of contextual collapse into our most intimate environments. What does the possibility of inadvertent broadcast do to our ability to speak frankly with each other, to rage with anger, to say sweet, corny things to each other, to share with our kids the naughty delight of “pull-my-finger” jokes?

Those panicky Parisians of 1896 would run out of the theater to a perfectly ordinary street, no threatening locomotive in sight. I bet they initially felt like fools. Soon enough, the novelty would pass; eventually, they’d be able to sit through — and enjoy — much longer, more exciting film entertainments. What about us? Is panic merited when we discover our rooms have ears and that others can listen to anything we say? Will we be able to run out of these rooms? How will we know?