Thus spake the speakerJanuary 29, 2022 16:01 IST
What’s the point of a talking device if it can’t tell you what you need to know?
There are a lot of dumb ideas out there. Most of them thought up by techies. One of them is that you can make new friends by sitting alone in your room staring at a screen. Another one (really big in India): convert people into unique numbers, forget that those numbers are actually people, and then tell the people who are not yet numbers that they won’t be treated as people unless they become numbers.
But the dumbest of all is whoever woke up one day and said, “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if we could have conversations with inanimate objects?” No. It would not be. I’m told tech wizards are nerds with zero social skills. But that’s still no excuse for wanting to invent gadgets that talk. Even I don’t have great social skills — ask any of my colleagues, they’ll tell you. But I’ve never felt like talking to my refrigerator. Maybe, some people feel less lonely if they have a toaster to talk to. But most of these devices have no sense of when to open their mouth and when to shut it. And yet, ‘voices’ pop up in just about anything you buy these days.
Let me give you an example from my own nondescript existence. I’m no music buff but Wife is. We have an old music system purchased circa 2011 AD (Acche Din era). It’s not bad. It’s only failing is that it looks bigger than its sounds. Wife never liked it, and she began to like it even less after she saw one of those tiny Bluetooth speakers that punch way above their size. She wanted me to buy something that was light (can also be worn as a necklace), small (fit in her baguette bag), and powerful (if neighbours can also hear, then they will get a chance to become cultured through daily exposure to Rabindra Sangeet). But with all the Omicron nonsense going on, I forgot all about it.
Little black thing
And then, one afternoon, to my utter dismay, an Amazon package landed on my desk. I wouldn’t have minded if it was a known brand like Marshall, Bose or Lala Lajpat Rai. Instead, it was a local brand I’d never heard of but which was, according to her, as good as any of these ‘Bose-Ghose types’ while being 100 times cheaper.
I am no expert on sound equipment. But I was sceptical of this little black thing the size of a coffee mug. I kept turning it around in my palm looking for the buttons until I eventually found one, pressed it, and nearly jumped out of my skull.
“POWER ON,” the speaker said in a deep male voice. “BLUETOOTH MODE.”
When Wife checked her mobile phone’s list of ‘discoverable’ Bluetooth devices, the speaker’s ‘name’, for some reason, showed up as Tiwari.
“Who is Tiwari?” I said.
“How should I know?” Wife said.
“BLUETOOTH CONNECTED,” Tiwari said, and Wife started on her Spotify playlist. I was pleasantly surprised by the sound quality.
Next day I had a Zoom meeting. My laptop was down with a sore throat (it tested negative for COVID though) and its speaker wasn’t working properly. So I tried pairing it with Tiwari. But my efforts were in vain. Every time I tried, Tiwari would announce, “BLUETOOTH CONNECTED.” Two seconds later, he’d say, “BLUETOOTH DISCONNECTED” and that was that.
“Why?” I asked. “Why do you keep disconnecting from my laptop?” Tiwari wouldn’t say. What’s the point of a talking device if it can’t tell you what you need to know? Idiots.
That evening, Wife brought the speaker to our bedroom. She wanted to listen to a Bong band called Chandrabindu-Chandamama something. I wanted to play my own playlist but Tiwari, who had earlier boycotted my laptop, now ignored my mobile. I thought the Bluetooth might connect if I changed the name from Tiwari to, say, Omicron — which connects with everyone so easily. But Wife, who is a bit superstitious, objected. I finally gave up, and at some point, we fell asleep.
In the middle of the night, Wife woke me up. “Did you hear that? There’s someone in the room.”
Our building has weird acoustics. If someone bangs a door three floors below, it feels like the sound is coming from under your own bed — enough to set Wife’s imagination on fire.
“It’s nothing,” I said. “Go back to sleep.”
Then I heard someone cough. “You hear that?” Wife said.
I was wide awake. All senses on alert. I fumbled around for the light switch and nearly toppled the water bottle.
“Is your cricket bat still under the bed?” Wife whispered.
“Of course not,” I hissed. “You gave it to the raddiwala 13 years ago.”
Then we heard that weird cough again, and Wife screamed as a voice spoke from somewhere under the blanket, “BLUETOOTH MODE. PAIRING.”
“Calm down,” I said. “It’s only Tiwari.” I was too disoriented to register that he had finally made friends with my phone.
G. Sampath, author of this satire, is Social Affairs Editor, The Hindu .