When Silicon Valley* Shapes Our Social Culture

(Amazon Echo Dot Kids Edition. Image from Amazon.com)

Back in 2015, I was working as a technical consultant with an IT company. As a consultant, my job is filled with writing proposals, filling the Statement of Compliance, drawing up some IT architecture diagram, carving out the Gantt Chart of the project management and most importantly, submit it before the deadline. Usually 12 p.m. Submit at 12.01, you might as well throw it into some big garbage bin because it won’t be accepted, no matter what’s your excuse.

So after one big, huge proposal for a network integration project initiated by one federal government in ASEAN, I decided to switch to my crazy mode and did some overland adventure in Thailand. No, nothing to do with some pickup truck or jungle-trekking whatsoever. I just took a bus from Hatyai to the one of the most spiritual place in Thailand, where people from all four corners of the world flocked there, and some even decided to stay there for good.

My destination? Phuket. Specifically, Patong Beach and Bangla Road. OK it’s not really a spiritual place but I’m sure the the rest of the sentence is correct. And to really get the feel for my sacred journey, I chose a bus instead of i.e plane. So there I went, 6-hour bus ride during night time from Hatyai to Phuket. So how it went? It was good, albeit with few minor culture shock for me as below. FYI, this bus was manned by 4 person. A driver, a lady assistant (to enforce ensure seat assignment amongst passengers) and 2 porter boys, not more than 15-year old each, to handle the baggage. And no, there was no second driver, at least for as far that I could see.


Culture Shock #1

Although the seat assignment was explicitly stated on the ticket, once I got on board, all kind of seat number assignment process went out of window. You’re at the mercy of the lady assistant where she would see your ticket (written in Thai of course) and just mumbled ‘Your seat there’. I swear I never found any number assigned to any seat, and yet this lady just assigned me to one. Seems like other passengers (mostly local Thais) didn’t make any qualm, so I just obliged and took my seat.

Maybe she’s psychic.


Culture Shock #2

Instead of a nice, cozy hotel, I opt for a hostel. A backpacker hostel. Just for the sake of experience.

This hostel was located right smack in the middle of Bangla Road itself, the red light district (as I was too broke to go to Amsterdam) of Phuket. And I can actually hear the music (duh!) even at 2 a.m. Well, it’s my fault for choosing that hostel anyway, so I just had to bear with it for the whole week of my stay. And my dorm room (there was 3 double-decker bed and I got the top one) was a mixed room, so there were gents and ladies sharing the same room. I was the only Asian, the rest are American (1 guy) and Scandinavian (2 nice ladies from Denmark and they visits Asian countries together, another was a couple from Sweden). Being Asian, of course this shocked me a bit when my roomies nonchalantly hanged their bikinis at the bunk ladder at night or occasionally hangin’ around the room with nothing but a towel.

Don’t bring your kids here. You’ve been warned.


Culture Shock #3

Remember the Swedish couple I mentioned above? The guy is a pretty quiet dude yet friendly. It’s his girlfriend that I found amusing (I was in a ‘think-positive’ mode. Either that or she’s just plain rude). So here’s pretty much our (me and the dude’s girlfriend) conversation.

Girl : So where are you from?*

Me : xxx (insert my country’s name here)

Girl : Huh? Never heard of it? Where is it? Is it far from here?*

Me : (Tried to explain the location of my country in my best behaviour)

Girl : OK. So what’s good in your country?*

Me : We have YYY (insert one our favourite local dishes here). It’s very popular and delicious.

Girl : Huh? Maybe I should go to your country and try it. So what else is good in your country?*

*all in a very patronising and condescending way, attitude and even body language

There’s a lot more to our conversation, but I think I’d just stop here. To be fair to her, maybe that’s how her culture (or attitude) like, and me being Asian always being emphasised with good manner, behaviour and respect. But don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Europeans or Americans are rude or has no manners (I met several nice Spanish guys when I stayed in Santa Monica years before that, and they were friendly and hilarious), only the definition of good manner and respect might be different from one culture or place to another. I don’t want anyone to impose their definition of right culture towards me, and neither do I.

I guess the clip from Russel Peters below quite nicely explain the differences in language and cultural understanding.


Kids, Meet Your New Nanny. Just Don’t Shout “Miss Fine!”

So when Amazon announced Amazon Echo Dot Kids Edition in May this year, which according to Amazon “designed with kids in mind”, it piqued my curiosity. I’m sure the developers or designers of Amazon Echo are not people with minds like some spoilt brats running across the room and mess with things whilst thinking “Hey, how could we further enhance the Amazon Echo and Alexa?”, rather they were thinking how their product can benefit our youngsters. Et voila, an Echo Dot that have a features suitable for youngsters, where theoretically the parents can decide if Eminem songs are a bit too much for their younglings.

So not only they put some parental controls inside it and make it bright and colourful, it also comes along with several kids-friendly contents and skills like alarms,  intercom, toothbrush timer, reminders and weather. I’m sure the list is growing as you read this article.  The best part? If your kids say “please” to Alexa, it will reply with “Thank you for asking nicely!. Although I’m not sure if my kid (right now he’s too young to use it) asking “please” like 20 times, will Alexa answer the same or will it become annoyed and just scream. I hope not the latter.

Great isn’t it? A smart speaker that can nudge our kids some manners.

For me, the basic idea that nudges our kids to ask appropriately is good. After all, I don’t know or remember any culture that associates “thank you”or “please”(or something similar) as something less than appropriate. We always want to teach our kids to be in good manner, and it’s even better if we have some assistant that can remind our youngsters from time to time. And I’m sure Amazon Echo developers are already in an improving mode, try to make it even better in instilling good, appropriate behaviour to our kids. Soon it might be able to tell whether our younglings is studying or spending too much time on Nickelodeon or Netflix, and enforce appropriate time and gap when when should be studying and when they can watch some TV series (kid-appropriate content of course).

Should Silicon Valley (or Beijing) Define The ‘Appropriate’ Culture?

But just like in the YouTube video I mentioned above, different society has different culture, and obviously different definition on how one can be considered as inappropriate or outright rude or slacking off.

What will happen if some Hungarian-descent kids in Alabama trying to have a conversation with other kids or even Alexa, and end his or her conversation with “OK bye. Pussy, pussy”? Will Alexa realise the language and cultural differences and recognise that that word means “kiss” rather than some explicit or not-appropriate-for-kids word? Can Alexa or any other smart assistant for that matter identify the kid’s family root in the first place? What if that Hungarian-descent kid mingling around some American kids? Will Alexa flags everyone as inappropriate and nudge them accordingly?

Cultural differences and biasses may seem as a little nuances for now. After all, the smart speaker market is still not matured yet, unlike smartphones. However, if we take the example of biasses in AI, we can see that even AI can have its own biasses because most of the sample data is based on historical, selected few, just like in article here. It already show that because the historical data is skewed to certain gender or race, it derives to a wrong conclusion and failed to understand that the data is not correct. And if we already have similar problem with AI, should we ignore similar bias with smart assistant application, especially the one used by kids? Will they grow up and think whatever the answer given or nudged by those smart assistant is correct and appropriate, even though that smart assistant is not smart enough to understand its own biasses? Should we let Silicon Valley becomes our morality police?*

Take another example, the one where smart assistant becomes mainstream. Two kids. One in Finland, another in Hong Kong. If the kid in Finland studies too much, will Alexa flag the kid and tell him or her something like “You should get out more” because education in Finland is not exam-driven? But the kid in Hong Kong, raised by tiger parent, may actually expect their kids to study more, since they have high expectation towards their kids and pay more attention towards academic subject and less towards i.e sport activities. One can say that one day smart assistant would be smart enough to know its location and advise the kids accordingly, but what will happen if that particular family migrated to Finland or vice-versa? Will Alexa remains according to geographical or cultural?

Of course, this is way too much thinking from me, but as this site is all about, it’s a discussion or opinion about what’s the future technological’s unintended consequences and how we may behave towards it. The last thing we should expect is some technology giant(s) decides not only what we can do but also how should we behave. If smart assistant failed to address the cultural differences, once our kids grow up we could end up having only two different kind of culture on this planet. One is shaped in Silicon Valley and another in Beijing.

Let’s hope those who develops the smart assistant realised that cultural differences is one of the key feature that can affect whether or not the technology would really go mainstream. I’m excited to know what more those funky gadget can do. Hopefully if won’t end up like Microsoft’s Tay.

Until then, have a pleasant day. Pussy, pussy**.

* I’m referring Silicon Valley as icon of technological innovation, not geographical. So that includes the one like in Beijing, Tel Aviv and other technology hub around the world 

** the actual spelling is ‘puszi’ but it’s pronounced close to ‘pussy’.


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