Listening In: Is Voice Command Technology Changing the Way We Read?

I have a Google Home; I got it for free along with a new phone last summer and figured, like anybody would, well, sure, if it’s free. It’s been sitting next to the usual pile of books, collecting dust since the summer. Periodically, I wipe it clean to make me feel as though I’m going to use it more often, but mostly to make sure it still works.

The other day I decided that I was going to be proactive. I wanted to look into all the things it can actually do, beyond asking about the weather forecast, or the next Cubs game, or movie trivia while, of course, usually being misheard.

I ended up sitting there for hours, reading article after article. I was fascinated by the progression of voice command technology. As I stared at the pile of books next to my device, I started to wonder how this advancement figures into our reading and media consumption.

There are a number of voice command systems on the market, but the two most used and widely available are the Amazon Echo and Google Home. Both devices have been released into a world in which readers are busier and on the go. They have shorter attention spans and rely on their phones and devices to provide their daily media interaction. Consumers seek ease in their everyday lives through customizable and accessible products. In a recent commercial I saw, I was frightened by a new Apple product that allows phone users to pay for goods and services through facial recognition. In this modern environment, it’s no wonder that voice and audio is the next big thing, and that devices such as Google Home and Amazon Echo are catching on. The technology is pivoting towards readers and users. Hands-free and ease are the names of the game.

Both AI devices have the ability to acutely listen and engage, understand a question, prompt, or command, and respond accordingly. You can say, “Hey Google, catch me up on the news,” and the Google Assistant will give you a rundown of the top news stories of the moment, or play a daily briefing from NPR. The assistant has the ability to read Google-favorited recipes and give you step-by-step instructions with a simple, “Hey Google, what’s next?” Alexa, the Echo assistant, can order groceries and organize shopping lists. She can even be told to read a book to you from a purchased selection in your Kindle collection. Is it creepy that you’re only interacting with a code of artificial sounds designed to sound human? Maybe.

But publishers are viewing this newest advancement and interest in voice and audio as an experiment—a new way of engaging with their audiences. Some publications are toying with fuller forms; The New York Times, as well as The Atlantic, have listening options on their stories, as does The Guardian with their Long Read podcast.

Other publications, such as the Washington Post, are opting for short-form briefings. All of these are designed for responsive smart devices. Buzzfeed worked directly with Amazon to develop a short daily briefing podcast called Reporting to You, which was specifically designed for hands-free devices.

Publishers are saying that the shift towards audio and voice is a new way to pivot towards readers’ increasing demand for ease and customization. Indeed, audio sales have received a major boost in the last couple of years. Audiobooks used to be a kind of hassle; you would have to buy or rent tapes or CDs that took up as much space as a book. But with more smart devices getting easier and more convenient, the audiobook was bound to make the conversion. What used to be a bulky item is now condensed into an easily accessible digital library. Publishers, just like any other business, must keep up with changing tides in order to stay relevant; and as the demand for easy technology grows, the industry is increasingly turning towards audio and digital in order to survive.

But don’t think that this is a proclamation of the death of the physical book, or the replacement of books by audio entirely. Independent bookstores have actually grown in popularity, and printed book sales are on the rise.

Devices such as Google’s Home and Amazon’s Echo are more a reflection of consumer demand for customization and ease, as they are designed to be control systems for content command. In other words, they are used as another easy way for audiences to activate and interact with content. As these devices drop in prices and become more widely available—again, I got mine for free—we’ll certainly be seeing much more from this technological shift.

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