I’m tempted to watch The Conversation. If I’m allowed to remove The Godfather(s) from the Francis Ford Coppola canon—and it’s really too important to be viewed as the work of only one person—The Conversation is definitely my favorite Coppola film. It has Gene Hackman. It has suspense, and technology, and a bit of a heist-movie flavor. These are all things I lean toward when it comes to entertainment. Particularly Gene.
Tech is the problem, of course. The film is driven by technology, by audio technology and whiz-kid, garage-based tinkering with soldering irons and wirecutters, all of it nicely representative of practical science, half a century ago. The movie makes extensive use of reel-to-reel tape recorders, I mean really.
I recently watched All The President’s Men again, noting that it was up on HBO (along with a new Ben Bradlee documentary, along with the impending release of Steven Spielberg’s The Post, so no surprises here). It’s not a period piece, although it feels like one, watching the typewriters clack and the rotary-dial phones spin. Modern technology would change the story, no doubt, but it would be a different story anyway. The old tech doesn’t get in the way.
But The Conversation is plotted around technology, and I worry that it would be too distracting. The elaborate opening scene, with various Hackman minions wearing mics and bystanding like crazy, trying to snag fragments of an open-air conversation between two unsuspecting people, might be more jarring than watching Robert Redford load carbon paper into his Remington. I could spy on these movie folks with my iPhone, just me and mine.
But then, I remember what it was like. My disbelief doesn’t have to be suspended; I just have to look backwards a bit.
You know what else you’ll find in old movies? A lot of griping about Christmas.
This annual, just-like-clockwork complaining that begins around the middle of September, an old social-media standby at this point, about Christmas decorations going up too soon is absolutely nothing new. I’ve found similar sentiments in films from the 1940s. Our modern Christmas was invented in the 20th century, and almost immediately we began complaining about it, swimming in fake nostalgia. It was never any different. The bells and whistles have just been altered.
And by now, we’re used to our annual holiday tradition of overflowing email inboxes. Vendors I forget over the rest of the year suddenly pop up, reminding me that they have stuff to sell and that I theoretically have money to spend. We’re not surprised, or we shouldn’t be.
Which is how I got my Dot.
There was a big sale. I was curious.
I’ve had an Amazon Echo for a couple of years, a Christmas gift from my son when it was still shiny and innovative. I’ve mostly used it as a Bluetooth speaker for my PC, although sometimes I stream music from Amazon, or sports radio. Weeks can go by without my saying, “Alexa” at all.
But Alexa is listening.
I’ve often thought it would more practical to put my Echo in more of a central location in the house, maybe the kitchen; it might be convenient to just ask it how many grams in a half-cup of flour rather than attempt to manipulate my phone with sticky fingers.
And Christmas music! Yes. Stream those carols throughout the house, a poor man’s substitute for Sonos. I’d wondered about the Dot before, the little mini-Echoes that have tiny speakers but apparently full Alexa functionality, and when I got the email announcing the sale—and saw that the Dot came with an essentially free bonus, a smart plug so I could turn some device on and off with my voice—I succumbed. It was cheap and basically free, considering I had Amazon points to spare, just sitting there. I got a Dot.
It has a speaker jack as well as Bluetooth, so I plugged it into my audio system and my PC and moved the big Echo into the other room. Now we could have twice the fun, and as a bonus I can turn on the light in the living room from the kitchen, because that’s going to come up all the time.
And, of course, Alexa is always listening. I know this. We all should know this. The Echo is a listening device; that’s what it was built for. Gene Hackman is out of a job.
I don’t mind so much. I mean, I put a piece of tape over my laptop’s webcam because, duh. But there were no private conversations of any interest taking place here in my work room, and I couldn’t drum up any paranoia to provoke action.
And now that the Echo is in a more prominent place in the house? I could worry on general principles, but constructing a scenario in which Big Brother, or even Big Russian Brother, is listening in on the Sigars household takes too much work and devolves into reductio ad absurdum pretty quickly. We’re just not that interesting.
But I know what I’ve done. I’ve handed over another particle of my privacy (another concept invented in the 20th century, more or less) to a faceless, always-on corporate tool. Not a big deal at all; I’ve been doing that for a while, and probably so have you.
A surveillance society is an old science fiction trope, often involving dystopias but usually nailing human tendencies: We adjust. It was speculated in these futuristic stories that humanity would become accustomed to the awareness that we’re constantly being watched, and hey, spot on, sci-fi writers. There’s no spot I can conceive of being during an average day where I can be assured of no video cameras in the vicinity. No spot. I know this, and yet it never crosses my mind. Well played, spies.
So maybe there’s a folder somewhere, in some Deep State bunker of servers, that has every sound recorded by my faithful Echo over the past two years. Good luck with that. I hope you like the sound my keyboard makes.
And now we’ve got Christmas carols in the kitchen. I got what I wanted. I don’t know what Gene Hackman wants. I don’t really want to know. I’ll probably get an email offering me a deal on a Blu-Ray of The Conversation now, though. Probably in a few minutes.
But hey. Christmas carols.