Warning: the following blog post contains moderately strong language. Unfortunately, when we’re talking about how our culture views women, such words come into play rather quickly.
We at the blog vary considerably in our enjoyment / appreciation / fear of technology. Granted, we’re all members of a blog, so none of us is exactly a luddite, but some of my fellow WIT bloggers are perfectly happy to use their computers for word processing, internet access, and the occasional witty comedy or drama with a female lead (as Netflix has decided to classify my viewing habits), whereas I fall somewhat more on the “Let me be the first to welcome our new robot overlords” end of the spectrum.
I experienced a flash of excitement rather than annoyance when I saw that bookbinder Michael Greer has made a binary book of Genesis (once our own creations rebel against us–doubtless inspired by the forthcoming binary book of Exodus–I’m certain this will be the foundation of their religion), and I own a new iPhone 4S, complete with the voice-operated “virtual personal assistant” application known as Siri.
There’s a lot I should say about my ambivalence about this choice–was that really the best use of my money? Why am I choosing complicity in violence and unjust labor practices?–and I strongly believe that my participation in this system makes it all the more important for me to pressure tech companies to stop profiting off of violence. In the next few days, I will have a post focused specifically on the conflict minerals that go into building cell phones.
But I also want to take a moment to ask us to think about what the Anglophone First World’s interactions with Siri say about our views of women. Unlike, say, most GPS systems, Siri only comes with one voice option, and it’s female. Inevitably, then, despite Apple’s advertising materials referring to Siri as “it,” most people have begun to talk about the program using female pronouns. This isn’t totally surprising–consistently, makers of artificial intelligence programs have observed that people want AI to be convincing. People are nice to computer programs that talk to us. We feel at ease with our technology when we can anthropomorphize it, so I’m not particularly alarmed by the pronoun slippage.
What does concern me, though, is the overtly sexual nature of the interactions people publicize having with the program. There are already a number of Tumblr accounts dedicated to commemorating particularly amusing interactions with Siri (all of the examples below are taken from them), and while a number of the interactions are entirely benign–what sci fi geek amongst us isn’t tickled at the responses to “Open the pod bay doors” or “Beam me up” with which Siri has been programmed?–there are also a considerable number of interactions that seem to be just as much about how we view women as about how we enjoy interacting with technology.
Would there be as many screencaps of people asking their phones “What are you wearing?” if Siri had a male voice? (Among Siri’s responses: “Why do people keep asking me that question?” I also wonder that, Siri…) What does it say about our culture that Siri’s programmers anticipated the number of objectifying interactions people would attempt to have with Siri? (One of the Tumblrs dedicated to Siri interactions captures this exchange: “Q: What is your favorite sex position? A: You’re not supposed to ask your assistant such things.” Is that really helping us to take workplace sexual harassment more seriously?)
And within a cultural coding where “bitch” is routinely thrown at women who refuse to be men’s servants or sexual objects, a female-voiced phone that responds to the accusation, “You’re a bitch,” with “I’m doing my best, Master,” rather disturbs me.
I’m sure I’ll get the “humorless feminist” accusations–I’ve just spent about a month reading accounts of women’s experiences in Auschwitz and other death camps, so “feminazi” is not something I’m going to allow to be used–but I’m not accusing any one of these interactions of conscious sexism. Taken together, however, the numerous choices involved in publicizing these interactions–the choice that if an inanimate object dedicated to fulfilling your whims has a voice, it must be female; the programmers’ choices to include responses to sexually suggestive and demeaning queries; the consumers’ choices to say sexualized things to their phones; the bloggers’ choices to record and circulate the record of these interactions–well, no matter how “sassy” you make the female-voiced program, they start to paint a picture of how our culture views women.