Let’s not be too quick to jump on the surveillance capitalism bandwagon

I’m deeply suspicious of smart speakers. The endless stream of alleged privacy violations  and vulnerability to hacking and manipulation means that I will never, ever have one in my home, and their increasing ubiquity worries me.

But they’re clearly here to stay, and just as with social media, charities need to make sure they’re not missing the boat. Charities should invest in ways to engage with donors and beneficiaries via voice assistant technology…

…shouldn’t they?

I see two key questions that need answering.

What is the problem that voice skills solve?

There are two potential audiences for charities using voice skills: beneficiaries and donors.

Examples of voice skills for beneficiaries include Cancer Research UK’s Alcohol Tracker and Breast Cancer Care’s Taking Care of Your Breasts. Both provide valuable health information to users. However, I question whether this is the right format for people seeking this information, and whether it reaches people that weren’t already accessing it. Mobile apps for alcohol tracking already exist, and I expect the health information provided in voice skills like these is readily available online.

Voice skills for donors focus on enabling verbal donations. Examples include the British Heart Foundation and NSPCC. Perhaps there are donors who would give this way. However, downloading and installing a voice skill requires a decision and an action. If any donor was that committed to the charity and felt they would be donating often enough to use a voice skill, wouldn’t they simply set up a regular gift?

It’s impossible to find stats for usage or resultant donations online. However, the number of ratings and reviews in the Amazon store gives a clue. Admittedly, this is all relatively new to the charity sector, but I couldn’t find a charity voice skill with more than 20 ratings.

The problem of low uptake isn’t limited to charities. No voice skill has really taken off, and the most popular uses of Alexa have been simple tasks such as playing music.

So I am not convinced that investing in voice skills will enable charities to reach people they are not already reaching via other means. But if anyone has evidence that proves me wrong, I’d love to see it.

How do the sector’s values align with the values of smart speaker providers?

There is a tendency, that I’m sure is not limited to the charity sector, to jump on new, exciting-sounding technological “solutions” that aren’t. Remember the fuss about blockchain?

Perhaps we all get excited about a new technology, spend a bit of money on it, and then it doesn’t work out. We should embrace attempts to innovate, and the failure that sometimes accompanies it. What’s the problem?

Well, I don’t think the outcome is neutral. There are myriad ethical issues related to smart speakers that go beyond privacy and security: gender, race and sexuality bias, for example, and concerns about the impact on children. A charity that invests in tools for smart speakers is implicitly supporting companies such as Amazon, which wants Alexa to be everywhere.

Surveillance capitalism is becoming such a powerful force in our lives that I believe we need to take a stance on it. Just as charities have donation acceptance policies, we should consider the statement we are making when committing to developing tools for products built by mega-corporations. Our values should drive our decisions.

Think carefully before jumping in

I’m not arguing that we should never invest in technologies such as smart speakers. However, the conversations across the sector that I’ve witnessed have not appeared to consider these two questions.

As I have argued with blockchain, if our service users and donors don’t benefit, there’s definitely someone else who does.