The first time I met Alexa, the A.I. robot voice inside the wine-bottle-size speaker known as the Amazon Echo, I was at my friends' house, in rural New England. "Currently, it is seventy-five degrees," she told us, and assured us that it would not rain. This was a year ago, and I'd never encountered a talking speaker before. When I razzed my friend for his love of gadgetry, he showed me some of Alexa's other tricks: telling us the weather, keeping a shopping list, ordering products from Amazon. This summer, Alexa decided again and again who the tickle monster's next victim was, saying their children's adorable nicknames in her strange A.I. accent.
One thing I've noticed since moving to San Francisco is that my cohort in the tech world doesn't talk that much about the industry's past. This is understandable: it's easy to forget that tech has a history. Just as old hardware is regularly tossed and replaced, the Web washes itself clean. But a few months ago, while researching early hacker webzines, I found myself in the backwaters of Wired's online archive, reading technological forecasts from 1993. A few moments later, I was on eBay, where I started to bid on strangers' dusty collections of early issues of Wired, all from the years 1993 to 1995.
On a Friday night in February, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Billy Eichner, the thirty-seven-year-old star of the sui-generis pop-culture game show "Billy on the Street," was sitting in a director's chair on the set of the sitcom "Difficult People." That show, about two struggling performers, a straight woman and a gay man, who are harsh about the world and affectionate with each other, was created and is written by the comedian Julie Klausner, with whom he co-stars. Eichner has excellent posture, even when looking at his phone. "I was a'Jeopardy!' question this week," he told me. He held up a screen shot of the clue: "GAMES OF THIS COMIC'ON THE STREET' INCLUDED'WOULD DREW BARRYMORE LIKE THAT?' & 'IT'S SPOCK! On "Billy," now entering its fifth season, Eichner startles New Yorkers on the street and gets them to play games and answer questions, for weird prizes and small amounts of money. Sometimes Eichner runs around surprising people with a movie star in tow, like Zachary Quinto, of "Star Trek." ("It's Spock! He creates fanciful obstacle courses, such as "Leah Remini's Escape from Scientology," in city parks and paved lots. He has made viral videos with Madonna, Julianne Moore, and David Letterman. Joan Rivers was a friend and a fan. "I am responsible for something rare, which is three seconds of complete and utter silence on national television," Eichner said, in reference to stumping the "Jeopardy!" "You won't see that on'Fresh Off the Boat.' " You won't see that on "Billy on the Street," either. Eichner is hyperliterate in the language of pop culture, asking rapid-fire questions about Kaley Cuoco or Meryl Streep before his guests know what's happening to them.