My oldest friend Sean Langan came to lunch last Sunday and, rather disappointingly, he seemed more interested in playing with our Amazon Alexa than asking me what I’d been up to. Sean is a documentary filmmaker who spends a lot of time in war zones — he’s just back from Syria —and he often reminds me of that Japanese soldier stranded in the Philippines who didn’t realise the second world war was over until 29 years later. The technological changes that occur while he’s in some god-for-saken hellhole are a constant source of wonder to him. I half-expected him to stop dead in front of our TV in amazement: ‘You mean to tell me the pictures are actually in colour? Whatever will they come up with next!’
Alexa is an internet-connected virtual assistant that looks like a large, black tin can. She sits there, dormant, until you say her name, at which point she comes to life. ‘Alexa,’ you say. ‘Is it going to rain today?’ She will then do her best to answer, sometimes accurately, sometimes not. People use it to make shopping lists, listen to podcasts, even control their heating. After an initial flurry of excitement, I mainly use her as an egg timer.
‘Alexa,’ I said, when I grew tired of Sean’s endless fascination with her. ‘Who’s Toby Young?’ ‘Toby Daniel Moorsom Young is a British journalist and formerly the director of the New Schools Network, a free schools charity,’ she said.
‘What’s the point of asking her that?’ Sean scoffed. ‘We all know who you are.’ My wife Caroline smiled to herself, guessing what I was up to.
‘Alexa,’ I said. ‘Who’s Sean Langan?’ ‘Sean Taro Ono Lennon is an American singer, songwriter and actor,’ she said.
‘Hang on,’ said Sean. ‘She clearly didn’t hear you properly.’ He went over, leaned forward and spoke slowly, as if addressing a particularly dim child. ‘Alexa, who is Sean Langan? S-E-A-N-L-A-N-G-A-N.’
There was a pause while the rim turned turquoise, a sure sign of an exhaustive internet search. Sean whipped round and flashed a triumphant smile. ‘I’m sorry,’ came the reply. ‘I don’t know that one.’
‘Hang on, hang on, hang on,’ said Sean. ‘It’s clearly not working properly. Are you sure it’s connected to the wifi? Let’s try again. Alexa…’
Before he could get the words out, I interrupted: ‘Alexa, who is Jay Rayner?’ Sean has felt a keen rivalry with Jay since they were both teen-agers growing up in north London.
‘Jay Rayner is a British journalist, writer, broadcaster, food critic and jazz musician,’ she said.
This was too much. Now Sean really had the bit between his teeth.
‘Alexa, who is the Bafta-nominated documentary film-maker Sean Langan?’ Surely, she’d be able to answer that one? Once again the rim flashed turquoise, but once again Alexa drew a blank. Sean began to rage, calling Alexa a ‘useless tin can’.
By now, my four children were falling about with laughter. They took turns to rattle off the names of obscure YouTubers and grime artists, all of whom Alexa knew instantly. Ludo, 13, picked up a copy of the Sunday Times and asked Alexa about the first byline he saw. It was Eleanor Mills, and Alexa rattled off her details.
‘Alexa, Alexa, Alexa,’ Sean interrupted. ‘Who was the Bradford and Bingley Financial Journalist of the Year in 1993?’ That was Sean’s first-ever award, dating back to his personal finance column in the Guardian. It was a large block of quartz that we used as a doorstop when we shared a flat in Shepherd’s Bush. ‘Sorry, I don’t know that,’ she said.
At this point, 14-year-old Sasha began to feel sorry for Sean. She’s our ‘Alexa whisperer’, with an almost supernatural ability to get Alexa to help with her homework. She asked Sean to name one of his films, then asked Alexa if she knew who the director was. As the turquoise light came on we all held our breath.
‘Here’s something I found on Wikipedia,’ she said. ‘Sean Langan is a British journalist and documentary filmmaker. Langan works in dangerous and volatile situations; including environments noted for war, conflict and civil unrest.’
We all cheered and Sean let out a sigh of relief. On the front line in Syria, Sean is a living legend, an old hand whom the other journalists look up to with something approaching awe. But back in Britain, cocooned in our virtual echo chambers, you’re nobody if Alexa doesn’t know your name.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.