Image: Shutterstock / Composition: Jason Koebler

Siri Is Not 'Genderless'

Siri is the culmination of decades of feminized emotional labour.

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Jul 28 2017, 3:51pm

Image: Shutterstock / Composition: Jason Koebler

If you ask Siri about her gender she will insist that, although her voice may sound like a woman's, she exists beyond this human concept. Or she may inform you that "Animals and French nouns have genders. I do not". She does not offer her preferred pronouns, or otherwise comment on her feminized style of speech.

Siri's female voice—which exists on the phone with a lack of explanation—suggests that while our relationships with personal technologies are increasingly intimate, the technologies themselves continue to be read as feminine. From the telephone operators of the 50s and 60s to the disembodied woman announcing the next public transit stop, female voices have been speaking for technologies throughout history while the voices and opinions of women have largely not been heard in the process of designing these technologies.

Originally prototyped after 2001: A Space Odyssey's HAL 9000, Siri's developers had dreams of further developing an assistant with a programmable personality to suit the user's taste. When the design was bought out by Apple, her personality was dampened along with many of her original functions. The American Siri began with voice actress Susan Bennett speaking gibberish into a microphone without any idea that she would become the vocal personality of such a popular machine.

The iPhone is marketed as beautiful, simple, skinny, and sleek, rather than an intelligent and powerful machine that holds your address, banking information, relationship details, and fingerprints.

Image: Shutterstock

Feminists have both celebrated and cautioned against the cybernetic or post-corporeal future, as much of feminism's roots are coded in, on, and from ideas about the female body. Whether this body is seen as inherently woman, mother, or goddess, its existence and relevance is too often implicit while theorizing about gender and sexuality. Technologies like Siri, Alexa, and Tao demonstrate the ways we attribute gender to characteristics, including the voice, even when no human form exists.

In 1984, feminist philosopher Donna Haraway dreamt up a feminist sci-fi subject in her "Cyborg Manifesto." Haraway imagined a future where femininity and technology meet to transcend binary gender and sexuality and reimagine intimacy and power in ways that were not previously conceived of. Living in a post-gender world, the Cyborg is a woman-technology hybrid. Able to escape race, gender, class systems, and structured power relations, the Cyborg has acted as a utopian ideal for exploring post-corporeal feminist possibilities.

While Siri seems to want us to believe she transcends human concepts of existentialism and social systems, they have been coded into her design. In fact, Siri is modeled after many generations of feminized technologies.

The Invisible Girl of the early nineteenth century was a communication illusion where participants could ask questions to a suspended balloon, and through the use of speaking trumpets, a female voice would respond. The Invisible Girl pioneered the complete separation of voice and body by facilitating interaction with a invisible female voice who would answer questions, whisper, or sing for participants. This anticipates the female operating system, which Apple wasn't the first to dream up: The 1886 sci-fi novel L'Ève Future envisions a female android, with her voice embodied by phonographs, constructed as the author's response to the outward beauty and spiritual pettiness of the female subject.

Another precursor to the female OS is the telephone operator, a position that was almost always filled by young women due to their compassion and passivity. Their very technical labour of actually making the telephone systems work was rendered invisible through a job well done, hidden behind a voice with a smile.

The first optical readers of the 1960s boasted the ability to efficiently replace the female assistant with electronic secretaries, who did not have social needs or require salaries or maternity leave for their automated performance of women's labour.

Siri, as well as other digital assistants like Alexa, Cortana, and Google Now, can be seen as an upgrade to these technologies and the actual women they replace. Not only will Siri perform secretarial work from your palm, but she has a clever yet constrained personality. She performs the role of feminized emotional labour that was unable to be replicated by earlier, less sophisticated assistants. Siri fulfills the fantasy of a machine, which performs the labour of women without being affected by stress, relationships, or the burden of a carnal casing.

A study published last year concluded that Siri was able to adequately respond to crisis situations like heart attacks and physical pain, but did not "understand" or have a response for situations of rape or domestic violence

This replication of historically feminized emotional and administrative labour by a handheld device is a far cry from Haraway's dangerous fusion of woman and machine.

Scarlett Johansson breathes life into this fantasy in the 2013 Hollywood feature, Her. Spike Jonze's projection of our intensified personal relationships with virtual assistants assumes that gender, heterosexuality, and feminized affective labour will continue to exist even beyond human and corporeal relationships.

There are concerns about who Siri's emotional labour, and the personal technologies that harness it, is for. There's strong evidence that these female-voiced personal assistants are designed with men in mind, as research has shown: A study published last year by JAMA Internal Medicine concluded that Siri, along with three other commonly used virtual assistants, was able to adequately respond to crisis situations like heart attacks and physical pain with resources for immediate help, but they did not "understand" or have a response for situations of rape or domestic violence. These disparities expose quite clearly that, while women may be larger consumers of iPhones, they are coded and designed with a male user in mind.

Why is gender necessary to technology? What if Siri had an ambiguous or baritone voice? Siri began as a real embodied woman's voice, but has been processed and synthesized nearly to the point of the uncanny. It is not difficult to imagine a future where a woman as real as Scarlett Johansson's character, Samantha is performing perfectly automated gendered communication, but it is a bit more jarring to imagine the voice of the men who are dominantly programming these technologies coaxing you out of bed in the morning. It is possible to choose a male sounding iOS to interact with, and indeed this is the default in the United Kingdom. Although the personality and operations remain the same, Chris Pissardes, a Nobel-winning economist, shared that he trusts Siri more when the voice is 'male.'

As Jack Halberstam, gender theorist and queer philosopher, suggests, gender itself is technology, and technology is given a female identity when it must seduce the user into thinking of it as desirable or benign. As the telephone operators of the 1950s demonstrate, a good vocal user interface is one that does not draw attention to itself or its labour, one who is there to help us as a faithful chattel, but never an equal.

Motherboard staff is exploring the cultural, political, and social influence of the iPhone for the 10th anniversary of its release. Follow along .