It's insane to me that anyone would bug their own house for the convenience of shopping with your mouth. Yet Amazon had sold over 100 million Alexa-enabled devices by January of last year; combined with Apple's HomePod and Google Nest, millions of homes have offered better self-surveillance than the NSA could've cooked up in their wildest dreams.
Now MSCHF, a subversive company that creates viral moments and products (for the former, that "Keep your finger on the app" contest; for the latter, Jesus Shoes, which were Nike sneakers filled with Holy Water), is taking on the Amazon Echo. Their Alexagate product, which debuts today, is like a hat that sits on the Echo and jams it on-command with ultrasonic waves.
Like a good design school graduate thesis, Alexagate comes with a manifesto. Here's an excerpt:
The Amazon Echo records everything it hears in your home, 24/7, and archives it to Amazon's cloud storage.
The Always-On Evil Microphone is cartoonishly villainous yet wholly unsurprising. Perhaps you don't subscribe to the notion that Facebook always listens through your phone's mic, but ask yourself at least this in all honesty: Do you think the Echo "mute" button really does anything?
Alexagate is an adversarial retrofit. It is useless without the context of an Amazon Echo, in the same way that a phone case is useless without a phone. Unlike a case, meant to preserve the device it holds in as close to a factory-direct state as possible—or, variably, to compensate for poor cell network receiver architecture, or to shore up the hubristically poor structural integrity of a too thinly milled aluminum unibody - Alexagate specifically hamstrings the Echo manufacturer's intent.
The Amazon Echo has one fatal flaw, that is (still) shared among all Internet Of Things devices: It is a physical object. This inescapably allows users certain affordances-among them that the Echo can be forced to interact with other physical objects. There may be No User Serviceable Parts Inside, but conversely, there can always be a company-inaccessible part on top.
Alexagate is hardware hacking to reduce functionality. Though "human-centered design" is at this point a meaningless jargon term to fill space in decks and design firms' About pages (Alexagate's relationship to humans is up to the user), we might at least term it "anti-corporate design." Alexagate retrofits UX to meet a different set of priorities.
Perhaps the talking toaster is now an inextricable part of the human futurist psyche. So too, we hope, are the tools to break it.