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Amazon’s Alexa finds itself between Iraq and a hard place


Alexa wants to make your life easier, more meaningful, and more fun by helping you voice control your world — both at home and on the go,” Amazon
explains
. Certainly, that was true in our household, privacy concerns notwithstanding, until my son figured out that he could
make Alexa fart
and my daughter realized she could have Alexa play “Hamilton” every waking minute.

Still, that behavior can’t be blamed on Alexa, but rather on two particular preteens. Alexa was still the arbiter of information, able to settle quickly debates and answer questions that in my youth would send me to my school’s set of World Book Encyclopedias.

Amazon prides itself on cultural sensitivity. It was among the first big tech company to engage in blatant censorship when it
banned
When Harry Became Sally, a serious but critical study of gender dysphoria. “Amazon works hard to ensure customers have a great shopping experience, and access to the widest and most diverse cross-section of written and spoken word in retail today [but] we reserve the right not to sell certain content,” the company
explained
. (For the record, Amazon still sells Hitler’s
Mein Kampf
.)

Still, when it comes to Alexa, its self-congratulations on its multicultural pride is akin to an elementary school participation trophy: a feel-good token in dissonance with the reality of mediocrity.

I learned this the hard way last week, when I happened to have some friends from Baghdad over for a dinner with think tankers and Middle East specialists from across the political spectrum. I don’t often get to entertain more than the elementary school birthday, and so figured I would do things right: a halal Lebanese meal and, for atmosphere’s sake, some Iraqi music. For this, I figured I’d count on the good folks behind Alexa.

“Alexa, play Iraqi music,” I commanded. “Playing Egyptian music,” she responded. Frustrated, I stopped her, and rephrased. “Play music from Iraq,” I asked. “Playing music from Iran,” she responded. I tried it several times, always with the same result. I was careful how I spoke; the problem wasn’t just my Philly accent.

Now, Iraq has a rich cultural history, richer — many Iraqis would claim — than Egypt’s or Iran’s. That may or may not be true, but Iraq can certainly give either a run for its money. For the good folks at Amazon, however, it seems replacing Iraq’s cultural heritage with Egypt’s is close enough. That’s insulting enough to the average Iraqi, but conflating Arabs and Persians takes things to the next level. The first is like suggesting there really is no difference between the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys, while the second is akin to saying the Eagles and the New York Yankees are interchangeable.

The Middle East is not homogenous. For that part, neither is Africa, East Asia, nor Latin America. Each country has its patchwork of cultures, many of which America also reflects on the cultural tapestry woven by centuries of immigration. For the good folks at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters, however, the world is like Saul Steinberg’s famous 1976 New Yorker “
View from 9th Avenue
” cover art. Alexa, it’s time to put Iraq on the map. And maybe reconsider just how many editions of Mein Kampf you’re willing to profit from while you’re at it.

This article originally appeared in the AEIdeas blog and is reprinted with kind permission from the American Enterprise Institute.





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