How voice assistants are changing my speech and other parts of my identity

A basic sketch of a voice/virtual assistant with the text ‘Sorry. I didn’t understand that. Can you speak properly?’
Source: Author’s own

I’ve recently bought a virtual/voice assistant as I wanted to learn a bit more about them and how they could fit into my daily life(turns out mostly music and reminders). However now that I have it, I’ve noticed my accent changing a little…or at the very least, how I say things. And further to this it’s also affected the things I listen to. Not to mention from a machine learning perspective….am I training it….or is it training me?

I love how identity adapts and changes to those around us. For example maybe we see this through shared values or just speech patterns picked up in local accents. So what has been interesting is I wonder what this means for us during lockdown? Has the diversity of inputs been drastically decreased?Are we hearing less variety of voices…maybe even hearing hardly any human voices (especially human voices not through a digital device) for most of the day? So this brings me onto the idea of voice assistants.

In lockdown I have been chatting a lot to my voice assistant. Don’t worry, its not heading into ‘Her’ territory just yet (although when I was filling out a form for emergency contacts the other day…it was a strong contender). But it has started altering how I say things. Or at least, I have adapted the way I say things to help appease my new voice assistant. For example …artist names, film titles…I’ve noticed how the assistant says it and I’ve tried to respond accordingly. Changing how I say it to get the song to play. Now I don’t know which version of what I am saying is correct, but with the absence of other versions around me I have to make the best guess.

Further to this it is also seemingly affecting my ‘identity’ from the perspective of the things I am consuming. This is mostly by limiting my choices in some respect. Whilst the level of choice may indeed be large, I am largely relying on what is top of mind. So if we look at this from a music example. Previously, I would listen to all kinds of random music. Forever trawling Bandcamp, Apple Music and Spotify. However now, I tend to listen to things that are top-of-mind. Not that this didn’t happen before, as there lots written about concepts such as salience and mental availability etc. but I find myself just listening to the same few songs/albums, rather than visually scrolling through something like Spotify, Bandcamp etc. So I feel my ‘consideration set’ if you will has drastically been reduced. Or that when relying on having to request an album/song I find myself gravitating to ones I’ve listened to recently…out of some voice assistant induced panic…I feel a bit put on the spot. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of playing songs/albums on repeat, especially when writing. But it’s been interesting to see my variety reduced since getting the voice assistant. So can I really say I listen to a variety of music any more? And what effect could this have in the longer term?

I really noticed this when a friend asked me recently what music I had been listening to lately. And it was interesting to say it was a bit less eclectic than what it usually was. So again, from an identity perspective, was I changing my identity, or was it simply being limited by the voice search?

I’m also sticking to things I can easily say. So some of the more obscure names now tend to fall down the listen list. For example !!! dont get listened to as much now.

And also one of my fave writing albums PJ Harvey’s Hope Six Demolition Project also gets a bit less of a listen.

So it’s been interesting to see how when in this state of voice assistant panic I revert to things that are top of mind, but also things that are easy to say. I wonder if thinking about naming albums etc. going forwards, artists should try and think about being more optimised for voice search? Which brings us onto a question of should an artist really optimise their names/albums for search? Or should they just focus on their art?

So it seems my voice assistant is gradually changing me in some respect. Is this the way it is meant to be? I’m not sure. Shouldn’t AI be adapting to us, rather than us to it? Of course the question isn’t that simple, we will perhaps inevitably always be adapting and changing in regards to the technology we adopt. So in this instance it seems like a battle between who is going to ‘learn’ first. The machine, or the human. I think it’s safe to say I am the one learning at the minute. Although I have to say, we do have to be aware of the limitations of any AI, and I didn’t go into this thinking the voice assistant will magically adapt to my every whim and need. But did I expect my identity to begin changing as quickly as it did? No. I perhaps should have seen that coming.

But every day is a school day, and it’s surprising who you can learn from. Even if that ‘who’ is a voice-activated device. A voice activated device that I may, or may not, put down as my emergency contact.

Lecturer exploring identity, and specifically corporate identity. Lover of all things related to marketing and education.