A man orders a ‘smart home speaker’ to do things for him like tell the weather forecast and set a time alarm for the stew he is going to make. Nothing out of the ordinary, right? Only it’s the 1970s and with computing the way it was then, his brand new device is nothing less than lifesize. Alex is a wry short film that doesn’t just imagine what a 21st century digital device would have looked like in the near past. It also asks some questions about the nature of surveillance and human relations.
Levi Verspeek and Roman Strijbos wrote and directed their 7-minute film for Dutch broadcaster VPRO’s Home Smart Home series. The actual ‘Alex’ machine (interior and exterior) that was made for the film was later displayed at this year’s Dutch Design Week conference. It’s large enough to fit a human being… and that’s exactly what Levi and Roman did to tell the story of bachelor Peter and his new, well, housemate. Noticing his serious habit, Alex tries to get Peter to quit smoking and is forced to take more drastic measures when that doesn’t work.
‘You can show certain things when you set a story like this in the past, that would otherwise remain elusive,’ Levi explains. ‘What happens when you’re online and someone is always looking over your shoulder? We were able to visualize that idea much better by going back to the seventies, when computers were much larger. There is more humanity in smart devices than we realize. We know something is tracking everything we do, but we don’t really know what’s happening. With Alex, we wanted to show that you’re being watched. Everyone knows there’s something dodgy about that, but on the other hand we can’t live without these devices anymore.’
What happens when you’re online and someone is always looking over your shoulder? We were able to visualize that idea much better by going back to the seventies, when computers were much larger.
A man with a white beard in a supersized ‘smart’ speaker is also pretty funny. ‘We didn’t know that Guus Dam, the actor, had that beard when we cast him. When we saw it, we were taken aback for a second, but then we thought it would be great for the film. Most smart devices are voiced by women, but when we named our machine Alex, we knew it had to be a man. We also wanted to explore that aspect of friendship.’