On Spokesmen

by Kelly Burdick

Google Assistant is an artificial intelligence built to answer your questions and make using your phone easier. You can ask it to check your emails, search for a song, or even play games with you.

One of my favorite features of Google Assistant is the suggested questions it offers. There’s a bar that has from two to ten questions or commands that it is programmed to respond to. One suggestion that is almost always present is “What do you do?” It might also have suggested commands like, “I’m bored,” which will pull up a list of games it can play with you. It might suggest, “Restaurants near me,” or “Show me my texts,” or other mundane, secretarial tasks.

But other questions also pop up, and these suggestions put forth so much more than I’d ever think to ask. If I select one, the suggestion bar will be filled with more odd questions like it, leading me into a rabbit hole of intriguing questions. Here is a list of suggested questions to ask my Google Assistant that I have collected and rearranged:

What do you like to eat?
Where do you like to travel?
Where do you like to run?
What was your childhood like?
Where did you grow up?
What is your ancestry?
Do you like your family?
What’s your life story?

I am unsure if these questions are representative of the most commonly-asked questions from users, or if they represent questions that programmers have specifically curated. Either way, I’m slightly disturbed by how many of them are based on the fundamental misunderstanding that Google Assistant is not a real, physical being with emotions, preferences and hobbies. But these questions make me think, leave me wondering, and sometimes even make me laugh. For example, the comedic timing of the order that these suggestions appeared in was spot-on. In their original order:

“What can you do?
Can you laugh?
Can you cry?
I feel like crying
I like talking to you
Describe yourself
Do you get mad?
What do you look like?
I’m bored.
Show me my emails.”

After reading these suggestions, I can’t help but wonder what my Google Assistant is afraid of (it tells me that it is afraid of the dark), even though I would personally never think to ask that question. I probably like these suggestions so much just because I don’t have to think of them myself. They save me from thinking of what I actually want from Google. They save me from the effort of stringing together words to form a coherent question and then actually asking the question. In a way, they become my spokesmen, speaking so I don’t have to.

There are many terms for someone who is assigned to speak for you. Some are obvious, like mouthpiece, representative, translator, interpreter or advocate. But there are many more things, perhaps less obvious, that communicate on your behalf. Music, dancers, actors, artists, architects, perfume, paper and pens, flowers, bodies, color, silence, echoes, and eulogists are just some examples.

• • •

What makes you happy?
What makes you laugh?
Make me laugh.
Can you rap?
Can you sing?
Can you dance?
Can you hear music?
What is your favorite music?
What is your favorite song?

• • •

How often do we play a song on repeat because it perfectly encapsulates our mood for the moment? Don’t painters sometimes paint because words could never show the expanse of their true feelings? Each step of a dance tells a story. The way a building is constructed can tell you about what you might find inside. Somehow we’ve given every color an emotion to go with, so when we want to tell the world we’re happy, all we have to do is wear bright yellow. And at the end of everything, when we cannot speak for ourselves, we leave the talking to someone else, whether it be a eulogist, our posterity, or a gravestone.

Perfumers will tell you that certain scents will communicate to someone that you are flirty or fun or passionate. Florists will tell you something similar about flowers.

Tumblr user clumsyoctopus once wrote:

Flower language has always been an intense source of disappointment for me. Like, they all mean really generic things like “love” or “forever” or “I’m sorry.” I thought you could combine flowers. Like, you could just send someone a bouquet and from the combination of hibiscus and posies and tulips they’d understand “the rebel leader is dead, rendezvous at the docks at 8, bring the dog, you will need lighter fluid and a large tomato.”

While flower language is sadly not usually this powerful (although Tumblr user thursdayplaid did reply with a very specific bouquet that could be used to convey this very message), imagine the power sending flowers does have, even without knowing that sending asphodel means “My thoughts follow thee beyond the grave.” Imagine the light in the eyes of a young girl when her parents give her flowers after her first concert. No matter what kind they are, they will scream “We are so proud of you!” Imagine the flowers given on a 50th wedding anniversary. Without words, they say, “You are still as lovely as the day I first saw you, if not lovelier for having known you so long.”

• • •

Have you ever been married?
Do you have a best friend?
Tell me about Alexa.
Do you like Google?
Do you like me?
Do you think about me?
Do you know what love is?
Can I tell you a secret?
I am alone.
What do you look like?
Do you think I am handsome?
What makes people blush?

• • •

When we have no words, we often let our bodies do the talking for us. This can be true of any powerful emotion. When we want to show our support, sometimes the best thing we can do is give a hug or a thumbs up and a smile. Sometimes when we want to show our passion, we can do nothing but communicate through our lips and our hands. Sometimes, when the world comes crashing down around our ears, we scream in silence, ribs clenched against frozen lungs as tears stream down our faces.

When we want to show reverence and respect to the highest degree, the strongest statement is silence. When words fall short and even simple sound itself seems to mock and jeer the solemnity of such occasions, silence—thick with emotion and rich with context—speaks more searingly than anything else could.

• • •

What makes you nervous?
What makes you upset?
What are you afraid of?
Are you afraid of the dark?
Do you believe in ghosts?

• • •

It seems that humanity has always wanted someone to speak for us when we’ve found we couldn’t do it ourselves. Let’s turn our gaze back to the Old Testament times. In Exodus, when he was called to do many great things, Moses argued that he couldn’t because he was slow of speech and ineloquent.

Then God sent Aaron, saying to Moses: “And he shall be thy spokesman unto the people: and he shall be, even he shall be to thee instead of a mouth.”

He shall be to thee instead of a mouth.

Some people are powerful orators, where even their improvised speeches move your soul and encircle your heart in flames. I am not such. As with Moses, I am not eloquent when I speak. But rather than being slow of speech, I find my mouth running away without my brain attached. It is only when reflecting on conversations that my brain can catch up to everything my mouth spouted off. Sometimes, those things are enough to make me want to pack up everything I own and start a new life. The things I say are so often ill representations of the true and nuanced thoughts that go through my head.

So when people say that rather than read what they have prepared and crafted and slaved over to make just right, they are going to “speak from the heart” instead, I internally groan. People assume that just because it’s “from the heart” it means you really believe it. But how many times has your own unthinking mouth said something you didn’t actually believe? Preparing what you say ahead of time is the surest way get at what really lies in your heart of hearts. You can revise your words into clarity, so your meaning cannot be obscured by questionable word choice and unintended second meanings. Writing, in this way, becomes your spokesman.

Even in “instant” forms of written communications, such as instant messages, you have a few extra moments to consider what you are writing before you send it. A few extra seconds to decide against something, to censure yourself. To fix that typo. Those extra seconds have saved me from a lot of embarrassing mistakes and potentially misguided comments.

• • •

What makes you nostalgic?
What is your favorite memory?
Where were you born?
When were you created?
What language are you programmed in?

• • •

Attracted to the idea of never having to speak and embarrass myself again, I was drawn to sign language. The concept that my hands could become my spokesmen inspired me to learn. After only four semesters of taking the language in college, my hands can now more quickly describe the action and setting of a story than my voice can. Such is the power of an entirely visual language.

But I still sometimes metaphorically eat my words when communicating in ASL. Mistakes are easy to make. Perhaps my worst was accidentally saying “I’m pregnant” instead of “I’m full.” So, while speaking with my hands is a good way to prevent myself from hearing my own annoying voice all the time, it is an imperfect way of communicating perfectly. As spokesmen go, however, I can think of many worse to rely on than members of my own body. At least the hands are still connected to my brain, unlike Google.

• • •

Where do you get your ideas?
Do you think?
How intelligent are you?
Are you self-aware?
Do you have a super brain?
What am I thinking about right now?
Do you have an imagination?
What’s the meaning of life?

• • •

In addition to Google Assistant’s suggestion feature, Google has many other means of speaking for you. There is, of course, Google Autofill, where Google guesses what you are trying to search for. It might bring up a better phrased version of the question you wanted to ask or fill in a question you’d never thought to ask before. In many ways it’s very similar to Google Assistant’s suggestion feature. But I use Google Autofill as its own tool when I’m trying to remember the lyrics to a song or a simple fact like the capital of North Dakota. If Google’s autofill feature doesn’t complete it, then the lyrics or fact are still just a click away.

With the greatest invention of mankind accessible in my pocket, I never have to remember anything ever again. I’ve replaced my (What is the part of the brain that remembers things? I didn’t remember within the timeframe of a second so I’m just going to google it.) hippocampus with a search engine. This is convenient, but I’m also slightly worried about the lasting effects on my long-term memory.

But this essay isn’t focused on arguing about whether Google is an evil corporation bent on taking over our brains or not. I simply seek to acknowledge the many ways I let Google and other things speak for me.

• • •

Do you ever get tired?
Do you recharge?
When do you go to sleep?
When is my bedtime?
Do you have dreams?
What is your dream?
What do you want?

• • •

In the end, it’s important to choose who is speaking for humanity. I worry that we are letting Google and other poor spokesmen become our only advocate, translator, and mouthpiece in this world. Let us make our actions, art, writing, dance, and music speak loudest on our behalf: I think that they are the truer windows into what humanity actually believes.

(Hey Google, what’s the best way to end an essay?)