Episode 19: "Siri, play me that episode about digital assistants. Please."
Hosts: Anna Reser, Leila McNeill, and Rebecca Ortenberg
Guest: Hilary Bergen
Producer: Leila McNeill
Music: Careful! by Zombie Dandies
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In this episode, the hosts discuss the historical figure of the secretary as the precursor to modern digital assistants and the importance of the female voice in these devices. Researcher Hilary Bergen joins the conversation to talk about how the use of female voices in digital assistants contributes to the erasure of women’s labor.
Women’s Work: The Feminization and Shifting Meanings of Clerical Work by Kim England and Kate Boyer
Amazon Alexa ‘Dad’s Day’ commercial
Why Do So Many Digital Assistants Have Feminine Names by Adrienne LaFrance
Engendered Machines in Science Fiction Film by Roy Schwartzman
Transcription by Rev.com.
Leila: Welcome to Episode 19 of the Lady Science podcast. This podcast is a monthly deep dive on topics centered on women and gender in the history and popular culture of science. With you every month are the editors of Lady Science magazine.
Anna: I'm Anna Reser, co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of Lady Science. I'm a writer, editor, and Ph.D. student studying 20th century American culture, and the history of the American space program in the 1960s.
Rebecca: Also you're now Dr. Anna Reser.
Anna: God damn it.
Leila: Dr. Banana.!Yay!
Anna: Oh boy. Oh jeez. Jeezy creezy.
Leila: And I'm Leila McNeill, the other founder and editor-in-chief of Lady Science. I am a historian of science and freelance writer with words in various places on the internet. And I am currently a regular writer on women in the history of science at SmithsonianMag.com.
Rebecca: And I'm Rebecca Ortenberg, Lady Science's managing editor. When I'm not working with the Lady Science team, I can be found writing about museums and public history around the internet, and managing social media for the Science History Institute in Philadelphia.
Leila: And just a quick housekeeping note this time. At the end of May, the 20th through the 27th, we're going to be running a week-long pledge drive. And this pledge drive is a big one for us because, if we reach our goal of $1000 in monthly pledges, we'll be able to raise our rates for writers. And not to give too much away, before we dive into the episode, but we're going to be talking about labor today, a topic that is really important to all of us here, and raising our rates for writers makes sure that we're supporting fair labor in action, and not just in talk.
Leila: And so that week we'll have some special content planned for you all, in which we'll be asking you for your money. So be sure that you save up a few bucks over the next couple of weeks. And so that you can shove some of that our way.
Anna: Okay. So, as Leila said, it's May. At the beginning of May is, International Workers Day is May 1. And this month, people all over the world celebrate the cause of labor and solidarity with the working classes. So, in recognition of that, our episode this month is about some of the ways that labor is changing in our ever always arriving digital dystopian future present.
Leila: It's the future. Ooooooh.
Rebecca: Also, I just realized, guys, we're recording this on the day that there's the Uber/Lyft strike happening.
Anna: That's true.
Rebecca: It feels like extra labor solidarity themed.
Rebecca: And also how the future is terrible themed.
Anna: Yes. Don't be a scab, just take a cab. Except I guess you can ... when you're listening this, but whatever.
Leila: Still don't.
Rebecca: Because it will be a week later.
Anna: Solidarity with everyone striking from ride shares today.
Anna: Okay, so we're talking about a specific kind of digital labor that is not ride shares, we're talking about digital assistants, artificial intelligence, and sort of the personification of certain kinds of gendered labor in these technological systems. So stuff like: Alexa, and Siri, and Cortana - those kinds of things that you'll all be familiar with. So actually later in the show, we'll be talking to a researcher and PhD student, Hilary Bergen about her work on the connections between feminist scholars Donna Haraway's idea of the cyborg and the disembodied digital systems of today.
Anna: But first I thought we should, as is our want, dig into some of the histories of these technological systems.
Leila: Yeah, so the obvious predecessors of the digital assistants, like Anna said Siri and Alexa, are obviously real human assistants. And specifically, we're talking about secretaries. Clerical work was one of the first entry points into white collar work for women, and like other professions that were once dominated by men before women entered the workforce - like computing, and we talked about that way back in episode - I believe - episode four on this show. This clerical work became feminized with women's arrival, and ultimately of course that work was marginalized with their arrival. So in the 19th century, office work itself was rare and so were the women in these positions. So the figure of the secretary is actually a modern, 20th century phenomenon. And according to Kim England and Kate Boyer's history of clerical work in the United States and Canada, clerks until that point had been men usually working in a family business, and their work was much more comprehensive and included aspects that we would typically associate as managerial work today.
Rebecca: As industrialization and urbanization ramped up, so did the demand for new kinds of clerical workers. At first employers tentatively turned to hiring women. Many of them thought that women would be potentially a distraction in the workplace, but they soon realized it was a good idea and the reason why would probably not be a surprise to anyone. It's because they realized they could pay women less. So of course, then it's totally like, yeah, fine, we don't care if women are a distraction because we can pay them less. As new kinds of technology like typewriters became popular in offices, the division of labor also changed. Clerical work could be split into discreet, repetitive tasks. And due to this perception that women had better manual dexterity and very suitable to repetitive work, they filled these positions like typing and copying.
Rebecca: Sidenote, from me the person who's like, "everything's the fault of the industrial revolution," this is basically the same reason that employers gave for hiring women in factories in the early 19th century. It's like, they are good at repetitive things and they are very good at manual dexterity so they should clearly do these things. And I feel like it's this ongoing tradition of work we give to women is just things their bodies naturally do, not skills that women learn.
Anna: [00:07:09]It just keeps going.
Leila: Yeah, it's amazing because that's the way they described the women who worked on the Manhattan Project. That they were differentiated from the men doing the science thinking, and they were the one doing the manual tasks. And they were actually called by the government as replaceable where the men were not. They talked about that in the space program, that women's hands being particularly suited to tasks of dexterity, this has a very long deep entrenched ... [crosstalk 00:07:44]
Rebecca: And you read about factory work in the 1820s, like women have dexterous hands so they can do these weird ass loom things. Women and children are good at this because they're tiny and have dexterous hands. It doesn't matter if I guess they lose their fingers in the process. Anyway.
Leila: Yeah, let's not get into the way small children were used for particular [crosstalk 00:08:07] Anyway, women enter clerical positions in greater numbers and the status of work is then lowered considerably in comparison to those male dominated clerical work clerks in the early 19th century.
Leila: The women who went to work in these clerical positions in the early 20th century were almost exclusively young, unmarried, white and from relatively privileged backgrounds. England and Boyer are careful to point out in their writing about this that although clerical work did have this lowered status it was still higher status than a lot of other jobs available to women who wanted or needed to work.
Leila: Clerical work was a white collar job and basically one of the only white collar jobs a woman could have. And so as a result if you were a woman who wanted to work, it's the idea of actively choosing clerical work would have been very appealing and considered pretty prestigious.
Anna: We'll put a link to England and Boyer's paper in the show notes because it's actually a really interesting and very sort of digestible history of the secretary, from the late 19th century all the way to I think into the 21st century. So we're going to kind of skip through that history a little bit but I really recommend it. I found it very interesting and very readable.
Anna: By the mid 20th century, the economic boom that was caused by the second world war meant that the role of women in the workplace expanded again. And in offices in particular women were beginning to take on jobs that had been the purview of men. So in the early 20th century, women would do the work that men thought was suitable for women to do, that they would not do themselves. And that started to expand again in the mid 20th century, things like book keeping, auditing, some kinds of management positions became more open to women at that time. And it was also in the post-war period there was another wave of new office technology, similar to the introduction of the typewriter, you have the introduction of the computer. This again changes the conditions of clerical labor and it means that women in clerical positions, they were at first involved with computers in terms of programming and calculation because that work as we've discussed on the podcast and then a lot in the magazine was considered menial, repetitive labor. Sort of the natural successor to using a typewriter, and those devices had become almost exclusively associated with women's work.
Anna: But as the prestige of computing increased, in the war in particular, and after, women were of course pushed out of this work and men took up these high status positions as programmers and technicians. So like I've said, we've covered this history of computing, including stuff like the feminization of calculation and they way that women were pushed out of the field a great deal. So we'll put up some extra links to that in the show notes, but I want to kind of then leap forward again suitably informed about the history of the secretary to thinking about these digital assistants like Siri or Alexa and how they kind of fit in to this history.
Leila: If the secretary is the historical precursor of the digital assistant I think we can readily identify some pop culture ancestors of Siri and Alexa. The figure of the female automaton or robot is really prevalent in speculative fiction. And it's one that comes with its own set of gender considerations that share some overlap with the digital assistants of today. And the one that comes to mind most readily, in part because it is disembodied computer voice, much like those that we're talking about is the computer in Star Trek. So like Alexa or Cortana it was voiced by a real woman, Majel Barrett, and she also played Lwaxana Troi ...
Anna: Yes, I love her so much.
Leila: ... they very saucy mother of Troi, and with her there was actually talk for a while of programming Barrett's iconic performance of the computer into systems like Siri. Which I kind of, I don't know, her voice is so iconic because of her role in Star Trek that I don't know, I would have enjoyed that.
Anna: I had an Echo dot for a hot minute, and I literally bought it because it was on sale and because they had changed the protocols for the wake words so you could wake it up by saying "Computer," and if you had the option to have Majel Barrett's voice, I probably would still have it. Just because I like to fantasize about being in Star Trek.
Rebecca: I feel like there is something wonderfully ... like especially when you think about the computer in star trek being a predecessor to Siri and therefore all the problems associated with these [inaudible 00:13:50] digital assistants that we're going to get into in a just a second, I feel like the fact that Majel Barrett played both the computer this disembodied women and Lwaxana Troi, this really confident, late middle aged woman who was very sure of her sexuality and just got in everyone's way. And was very physically present and a woman everywhere, in the Star Trek spaces, which you know, we're all big Star Trek fans, but there's something very coded masculine about so many of the Star Trek spaces. I love that she did both those things.
Leila: And she talked to herself.
Leila: When she was a character talking to the computer on the Enterprise, she was talking to herself.
Rebecca: There are all these beautiful, subversive things in just her existence in Star Trek.
Anna: I really love that point, Rebecca, just that Lwaxana's character in particular, it's not that she just played a human woman as well as a computer but that specific character, I love that. It's delightful.
Rebecca: Something that is interesting, I think is that's not the only example of a computer, there's the computer in 2001 Space Odyssey, HAL, which is the other version of the disembodied computer which is the one that's going to kill you. Which both in that and various permutations of that after the fact, that version of a computer is very masculine. And it is telling that that is fundamentally different than other things.
Anna: I was thinking about the difference between narratively the difference between the computer in Star Trek and the computer in 2001 and the computer in 2001, I guess correct me if I'm wrong, I've only seen that movie like two times because I find it absolutely terrifying. But HAL doesn't have a virus or a malfunction, HAL has just evolved to do whatever HAL wants, right? That's what's scary about it?
Leila: I haven't seen the movie, so I'm going to have to sit this one out, you guys. I know, I know.
Rebecca: So I've seen it once, a very long time ago. So this is terrible.
Anna: Oh god.
Rebecca: All of us people who study science and technology in society and we don't have a good grasp on 2001.
Anna: Well, okay.
Rebecca: But I think you're right, but I think that part of the thing is that there is no solution to like, Oh HAL got screwed up because of X.
Anna: Yeah, I could make that point without even referring to HAL, it's just that anytime the computer in Star Trek displays agency or subverts the control of the people in Star Trek, there's a reason for it and it's like a virus or it's been invaded by nanobots or the board of aliens. So there's always a solution to it, what you fear about the computer in Star Trek is it's vulnerability to these outside influences, not the computer itself. You know, if you're in Star Fleet, that you can trust that computer unless its been compromised. It isn't going to go rogue on you.
Rebecca: I think that it's interesting though that the computers voice in Star Trek has to be a particular type of female voice. So that it doesn't feel threatening, so that it doesn't feel "shrill." It doesn't feel childish, that there's a very specific maturity but also not severity that you have to reach for with the female voice in these systems in order to make them palatable for both men and women.
Anna: I think a good point is also that Majel Barrett's performance of the computer voice is so different from her vocal performance of Lwaxana. Lwaxana's voice wouldn't work in the same way that you're talking about for the computer.
Rebecca: And going back to the secretarial history, it invokes the very ideal secretary who on the one hand, there's this image of the young unmarried secretary, but then there's the image of the older retired woman secretary and in some ways that gives you even more neutral deposited feelings than ... I feel like young women in the work place has always had all this fraughtness around them because of women who are, who can be sexual being out and about. But older women are safe and so there's this other trope of the older woman secretary that I feel like both the computer in Star Trek and these digital assistants tap into.
Anna: I mean that's one of the big questions that I think is the focus of a lot of the conversations about these digital assistants is why do they have to be women? Or at least why do they have to have voices that we recognize as feminine voices? One of the first pieces I read about that was by Adrienne LaFrance in The Atlantic, and she poses this question and interviews a few people, mostly men in tech, and then just immediately blows up their answers. So she starts by asking about the voice and why do we have to have a feminine voice for these digital assistants. One person she talks to says that their justification is that there is research that shows that people prefer listening to a women's voice. Which I think when women who record their voices for public consumption would say that's just bullshit. Right?
Anna: But I've seen it happen a ton of times, just on Twitter with people I follow they go on NPR and they get this predictable tidal wave of hate mail because they have vocal fry or some annoying vocal tic that only women have, and they have to please their voices.
Rebecca: Yeah. And a lot of that discussion is that a lot of women ... vocal fry became more of a thing because women were told their voices ... cause there was the valley girl thing was the last thing that women were doing wrong with their voices, I'm doing my air quotes. There's some women who say well I was told that and then I over corrected and now they say I'm doing vocal fry and I've learned it's a trap, everything's a trap.
Anna: Yeah, the root of that complaint is that there's a woman doing something in public and I'd prefer not to have to pay attention to her. Why won't she go away?
Rebecca: But also getting to this idea, well why does it have to be a woman and I think that this link to secretaries is an obvious answer there and the idea that women are the ones that do this combination of menial and emotional and secretarial labor is part of that. And this where I'm going to bring up my favorite/least favorite commercial of all time, which I saw this commercial and I would yell at the computer a lot and my wife would be like, just go write about it for Lady Science and stop yelling because I want to watch TV, but it just embodies everything that the feminine digital assistant does and is in the world and all of the terrible gender politics around it.
Rebecca: So this was an ad that ran for a little while on ... I saw it on Hulu because I feel like I watch everything on Netflix and Hulu, and the other problem is I see the same commercial like 20 times in a row. And this was the one for a while. I'm just going to read the description for it, we'll link to it if you want to watch the whole thing, we'll link to it in the show notes but the description really says it all. It's Dad's turn to take the baby for the day, but that doesn't mean he has to be on his own, in the moments when he starts feeling lost, his Amazon Echo, oh it's Amazon Echo not Alexa. His Amazon Echo chimes in with reminders like where the teething ring is located and what time the baby's play date is.
Rebecca: As a side note from me, not only does it do that, it says whatever his wife's name is, "Mary reminds you da-da-dat-da" so it's literally his wife that's put her name in that's reminding him. Just when he's starting to look exhausted, Alexa reminds him that his wife loves him and he's doing a great job.
Leila: Yeah so you still need a woman to be doing your emotional labor for you. Even when an actual adult human isn't in the room with you, got it.
Rebecca: And not only does the bulky virtual woman represented by Amazon Echo and Alexa and the wife who is at work have to be doing the emotional labor for this dude who is just watching his own child, for a day. It's everything ... it's so bad.
Leila: Yeah, if I recall the commercial correctly, he's not doing anything that's particularly trying as far as taking care of this baby.
Rebecca: He's not taking it to the doctor, he's not even going to school ...
Leila: Just feeding it and putting it to bed. If that is what your day consists of with an infant, then what kind of infant do you have because it is not human.
Rebecca: Yeah, and he's just like very tired from having a normal human with a baby day. And the real thing is I feel like it's the melding of his wife and the device into the Echo and Alexa become an extension of her, because it's very clear the narrative is that she has programmed this for him to be as though she is the one who is there.
Leila: And this is something I was thinking about when I was getting ready for this episode was the difference between having a digital assistant that acts like a secretary that's kind of an extension of this historical thing of women and clerical work, and then an assistant device for your home that is a domestic setting. And it's still kind of an erasure of a woman's actual body and presence and corporeal form for it's feminine labor to do it for you. But that it almost does take on a different meaning or a different feel when it's home specific. So I have a Google Home and I was thinking about how I feel bad asking it to turn out my lights. Like I can get up and turn off my lights, but I think an even more example of this difference between a clerical assistant and a home assistant is exactly what you were bringing up with that ad, Rebecca, is that now it's being used as a stand in for the emotional labor that women perform in the home. As extensions of a wife or a mother.
Anna: We had also talked about how these assistants depending on the context in which you're using them kind of travel this space between what we think of as white collar and blue collar labor. So they are secretaries where in some senses where they help you take care of work stuff and file your emails or whatever, but then they also set timers for you while you're cooking and are this presence in your home which is subservient to you which is not a white collar job if a person were doing it, right?
Leila: Right, it's like a live-in maid. And it is a maid because the default is a female voice. You can change it but the default is a female voice.
Anna: Yeah, and there's all kinds of history there that goes back to slavery and you know the way we think about domestic labor, that it just feels really weird, like you said Rebecca, there's this blending of the wife and Alexa, there's this blending of these different types of labor and I think it kind of muddles our ... I don't know, I think it could kind of muddle the way we view that labor in the real world, where it applies to humans in a way.
Anna: Okay, well I think we made a good start on unpacking the figure of the digital assistant, but I am up for some professional help so let's welcome our guest for this episode, researcher and PhD student at Concordia University, Hilary Bergen.
H. Bergen: Thank you so much for having me. I'm really thrilled to be on the show.
Anna: We're very excited to have you. I'm wondering if you could just introduce yourself a little more fully and tell us a little about your work.
H. Bergen: Sure, so like you said I'm studying at Concordia University, it's University in Montreal, Canada. I'm doing an interdisciplinary PhD which means I have three fields - media, film, and communications. Yeah, it's a bit unusual, and for my dissertation I'm looking at a post-human theory of dance, which I won't get into here but basically in general I'm interested in the disembodied female presence in digital arts and culture.
Anna: So we're talking about digital assistants and that's an ideal disembodied female presence, so I guess could you just talk a little more about that disembodied presence that you're interested in and how that intersects with your sort of other research interests.
H. Bergen: Absolutely, so I guess I've always been interested in representations of the female body in arts and culture, but more specifically in digital era arts and culture, and in particular the process of disembodiment that accompanies those representations, once we enter the kind of internet and digital age. And I'm also interested in this idea that technological development is also seen as a kind of progress or improvement inherently. And I'm really interested in checking that assumption.
Rebecca: That's our kind of thing.
H. Bergen: Cool. One way I think of checking that assumption is to think about what kinds of bodies are used as pawns in this game called progress, right? And I think so often we see the female body and especially the commodified female body being used as a screen for these narratives about progress and improvement. And I'd also like to ask the question, what kind of bodies get to be seen, what kind of bodies get to act, and which ones disappear? Because so often the erasure of bodies is also connected to the erasure of labor, and importantly embodied labor that's often performed by women.
H. Bergen: To give an example of that kind of erasure, we all know Siri's voice, we all know that kind of measured, female, it's not a very young female voice, it's more of a kind of maybe almost like a motherly presence, very neutral. That voice is the voice of Susan Bennett, she is an American voice actor who has never been acknowledged by Apple as the voice of Siri. So she spent four months recording her voice for a software company called ScanSoft who she was hired by to do speech construction work. And so I guess they paid her for her work and sold her voice to Apple, and she's never been compensated, you'd imagine that her voice is so ubiquitous that Apple should be compensating her. Right? But they've never even acknowledged. So she didn't even know that her voice was being used by Apple until her friend, she did that recording in 2005 and then her friend called her in 2011 and said, Hey, I think your voice is the voice of Siri. So that's just one example of this kind of erasure that happens in these huge capitalist games.
Leila: We've sent you the article that we wanted to talk about with you that you wrote and it's titled, "I'd Blush if I Could: Digital Assistants, Disembodied Cyborgs and Their Problem with Gender." And in this article, you frame your discussion of these technologies and this embodied female presence with an analysis of Donna Haraway's classic Cyborg Manifesto. Can you give us a brief rundown of that theory of Cyborg Manifesto and how we can use it to interpret these digital systems?
H. Bergen: Totally. So, Donna Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto first published in 1986 has been super influential, not just in feminist theory but also in pop culture and a lot of the references we see in sci-fi to feminized cyborgs, I think a lot of that actually stems from Haraway's work much to her chagrin I'm sure and Haraway's has since moved on to other focuses in her research, she's much more interested now in things like compost and which is interesting, but her Cyborg Manifesto remains the seminal text. And basically in Cyborg Manifesto, she is laying out what she calls an ironic political myth. Manifesto, you know she uses that word in the title, clearly it's tongue in cheek in terms of playing with things like Marx's Communist Manifesto, or the various manifestos that have been put forward by male theorists over history. But it's also an imperative call to action in the way that a manifesto often is because she's responding to the radical feminism or the eco-feminism of specifically the 70s and 80s and that movement, it's associated with thinkers like Audre Lorde or Adrienne Rich, a very important movement but a movement that also return to the notion of gender essentialism and wanted to imagine that women were inherently tied to nature. That women were somehow more natural, more of a natural world than men, and therefore should have natural rights and claims over the reproductive bodies, of course all important claims.
H. Bergen: But Donna Haraway's issue with that is that it reinforces this binary of gender that is also tied to a kind of essentialist notion. And Haraway is especially interested in interrogating this idea of origins, so she writes that the cyborg has no origin and it wasn't born in a garden like Eve was. And so she's pointing to the myths that construct our western world, and the kind of sexism inherent in those myths. But she's also kind of interested in breaking down the binaries, and by that I mean the dualisms, the dual terms that stand in opposition to each other in our culture. So for example, mind on one side, body on the other side. Mind is often associated with masculine thought, body with feminine ... maybe hysteria, if we're going to go that route. We can talk more about that later maybe. And then the binary of animal and machine, or material and immaterial. So Haraway is interested in the cyborg as a kind of boundary rider, she calls it, a hybrid figure that breaks down those boundaries. And actually has much in common with the feminism of today, in terms of with the way that current day feminism see gender more as a spectrum than on two opposite poles. And that there's a pleasure in confusing those boundaries, or those binaries.
Rebecca: Just a random thought I had while you were talking, is that because the Cyborg Manifesto and Donna Haraway like you said has made it into so many different parts of culture, that it's one of those interesting things where it's easy to forget that it came from a place where she was specifically in conversation with another branch of feminism that is also part of the general culture and it's interesting when some pieces of academic thought become so famous that we forget what the conversation actually was. I appreciate you kind of bringing it back to that, because yeah, I lose track of that as well.
H. Bergen: For sure, and it's really easy to read Cyborg Manifesto on a kind of surface level and I was guilty of that too, I mean I had to read it maybe 20 times until I really got ... because it's a complicated piece, what she was saying. But I think Haraway also gestures toward to cyborg as a figure of intersectionality and that's an argument that gets buried in her work a lot too in kind of surface interpretations of it. So she has a lot of interesting politics going on in that piece and I think that they're really productive, but unfortunately the cyborg as the figure as she's kind of defined has been co-opted by a large part of our popular culture by the disembodied feminized, weaponized cyborg.
Rebecca: I feel like in many ways in contrast to that cyborg the sort of feminine digital assistant is feminine because she's demure and helpful and lacks a body. And so we were hoping, can you talk a little about the way that in this way of thinking about it the female body becomes kind of threatening, especially in the context of technology.
H. Bergen: Absolutely, yeah. A lot of the ideas from the article I am working with actually I should give credit to Andreas Huyssen who wrote "The Vamp and the Machine," which is a 1981 article, super influential, a great article about this very idea that the female body is seen historically as somehow threatening and then to add to that technology as it develops is seen as threatening and we can only think of the rhetoric about robots stealing our jobs, there's a lot of fear mongering around new technologies emerging. And then when those two things are meshed, the woman and the machine, they become the ultimate threat. And part of this historical narrative about the female body as a threat is tied to this notion of hysteria. So as a medical condition that was diagnosed, that women were diagnosed with in the late 19th century. The prescribed cure for hysteria was bed rest, forced feeding, usually forced feeding of milk, isolation, seclusion. And hysteria was thought to rise from childbirth, menstruation, orgasm, so all phenomena attached to female reproductive systems. The female body was this kind of unknowable enigma for the male medical profession, right? So it became this ultimate threat to systems of knowledge and control. And so I think that when we're looking at something like the feminized cyborg we can't forget that these medical histories are part of what structures that narrative.
H. Bergen: So that narrative of hysteria is one aspect, and then I think so often in science fiction films we can think of everything from Ex Machina, Alex Garland's recent film, to much earlier Metropolis, 1927 Fritz Lang's Metropolis, or even Austin Powers with the fem bots who have these really pink bras and then they are revealed to be these machine guns underneath. Often we have this very seductive, commodified female body that reveals itself to be a weapon. Usually a war, a weapon of mass destruction. So there's this fine line between the sexualized, feminized kind of object of the woman and this violent machine. So it's a very complicated assemblage we have here but part of my argument in the article is that that doesn't go away even when our digital secretaries, which I think of as cyborgs become disembodied. So even when there are no machine guns involved there is still a kind of weaponization of femininity.
Rebecca: One of the things you talk about that I hadn't thought about before is the way that Apple presents its technology as beautiful and mysterious, I thought about the gendered nature of digital assistants but just like the pure language around how yeah Apple again in particular is like, this is this beautiful, unknowable thing that fixes stuff for you or like, makes your world go round. And there's something once you put it out that way, I was like, of course that's gendered. Like of course that feeds into all of these concepts of technology and feminine technology that we're talking about.
H. Bergen: Yeah, absolutely. And you can even think about something as kind of as iconic as the magician's stage show, because Steve Jobs was known for when he would reveal new technological objects that Apple would design, he would often pull them out of a top hat like a magician on stage. So he's playing with that narrative of being the male magician and there was often a female assistant on stage, not with Steve Jobs, but you know in the history of the narrative of the male magician who is doing labor, who had technique and skills that were subsumed and overshadowed of the male magician. So there's a number of different types of erasure going on here. And I think absolutely, Apple works very hard to maintain that sense of mystery, and one of the ways they do that which I mentioned earlier is the erasure of Susan Bennett, from the process, the voice. But also even the logo, the Apple logo is so tied to the Adam and Eve story, right? The idea that Eve tempts Adam into sin, that Eve the original sinner, the original evil woman is encompassed in that half bitten apple.
Anna: I want to talk about some of the other examples, I think Apple is obviously, they are a little egregious about these associations. But another egregious example is Microsoft's Cortana who is based on a character from the video game franchise, Halo in which she is a mostly naked woman who guides Master Chief around or whatever, I haven't played Halo in a long time I don't remember. But you described this process that I just never really thought about of the increasing disembodiment of the character. So in the game she's like a hologram, but she was made from an actual character in the game, like a person, and then she became a hologram in the game and then she became just the voice of the assistant. So I'm really interested in this very clear transition, this very clear disembodiment of this character and just kind of maybe what we can kinda pull out of that in terms of consequences for how we think about these systems.
H. Bergen: Yeah, for sure, I think it's a great way to illustrate this increasing type of embodiment that happens as we go further and further into the digital era, not to be you know anyway participating in that kind of fear mongering, but so Cortana a character from the very popular first person shooter video game Halo released for Xbox in 2001, still going, the latest release is 2017. Cortana is this, as you said, she was flash cloned from the brain of a female scientist this is part of the narrative of Halo, it's a very narrative game. And after that flash cloning, she exists as kind of a AI or even a computer chip that can be transferred between computers and more importantly can be inserted into the helmet or the armor of Master Chief who is the protagonist of Halo, also known as John 117, the male kind of warrior at the center of the game.
H. Bergen: So when she's inserted into his helmet or armor, and his body is totally armored, there's no kind of visible face or eyes, he's very much just an armored suit, when her computer chip is inserted she helps him with navigation, data transfer, she's very much a secretarial presence for him. But also a kind of lucky charm in battle, which is interesting because Cortana's name actually derives from the sword that was carried by Ogier the Dane in battle. So there's this kind of talismanic history even just in the name, that Microsoft knows and is playing with even if we don't get it right away.
H. Bergen: And when she is "embodied" and I put that in air quotes just because she's only able to be embodied as a hologram, she's projected as this hologram that's kind of very sexy, nude, but her private parts are covered up by electric currents, she's very curvy and just the only sexualized figure in the game. And yet she's also not quite material. And because her narrative is such that she has a seven year lifespan, that she actually knows she's going to be going into this state called rampancy which basically is a kind of hysteria, so it changes her mood, changes her vocal tone, she starts to glitch out, her graphics start to kind of look strange, in the game, it's written into the narrative. And this is when she's going into this state called rampancy. And there's videos, YouTube videos of Cortana in these various glitching states, and the comments, I mean YouTube comments are always notoriously awful, but the comments for the videos are particularly telling because you can imagine it's a lot of young male fans, and they're commenting things like, "Oh she must be on her period." Or "Cortana's in bitch mode, she must be on her period." I just think it's so interesting how this narrative of hysteria as a women's menstrual condition is then again to the technological being who can not have a period, yet has this narrative attached to her.
H. Bergen: Anyway, from there the narrative of the world in Halo, Microsoft realized this is a very popular character, Cortana. Also she's forms throughout the game of Halo, a very strong bond with John, her Master Chief. He becomes almost like a boyfriend to her, she's very loyal to him, she gets jealous sometimes. So she's not just a secretary, but she's also a girlfriend, right and we see that in a lot of our disembodied virtual assistants, as well, and we see it in Spike Jonze's "Her" for example. But Microsoft took that name, and the voice, the woman who voiced her, Jen Taylor, they are open about the name of that woman. And when they released their first digital assistant, they named her Cortana and had her voiced by Jen Taylor. So now the marketing ploy here is kind of brilliant because a lot young men who are going to be purchasing Microsoft devices, they want to have their own Cortana, right? They want to have their own assistant with them who can help them send emails, make appointments, etc.
H. Bergen: So this is the kind of narrative that I see the trajectory from the video game character to the digital assistant, but to increasingly a more disembodied presence because at the end of the arch, she's just a voice in a phone.
Anna: Yeah, I think that's just such a great illustration. And one that doesn't get talked about as much as like Siri or Alexa. But I did want to talk about, you mentioned a little about male fans of Halo being interested in this digital assistant because it's Cortana. So I want to talk a little bit more about what are the sort of real world "consequences" of these, how can our interactions with each other as humans be kind of shaped by interactions with entities like Alexa or Cortana. What are the real world implications, you mentioned a few of them in your paper.
H. Bergen: The first reaction I get from people when I tell them that I'm working on this topic is, "Well, so what? Siri is not a woman, so why does it matter?" Right? She doesn't have a body, she's not real, so why does this matter? But I think that it does matter very much. Like I said at the beginning of the interview, there's this preconceived notion that technology as it develops somehow becomes better, even morally so or ethically so, that there's some kind of progress inherent in it. And even that systems or devices or digital assistants like Siri or Cortana are somehow post-gender because they don't have bodies or aren't real women, but that's so wrong because they are not post-gender at all.
H. Bergen: In fact they are returning us to a very binary notion of gender essentialism. And I see that in the way that of course we have the option to change our Siri to male, my Siri is male and Australian. And my friend also has a male, Australian Siri who she has asked to call her baby, so there are ways to subvert the system. But even so the default is always female in all of these systems and the scripts have changed and developed as Apple and Microsoft have increasingly received criticism about the sexism inherent in their devices.
H. Bergen: But when I was doing this research which was quite a while ago now, in terms of technological development, it was in 2015, even 2016, there was a lot of really problematic things in the scripts that were programed for Siri, I did a lot of conversing with Siri. And you've mentioned already the title of my paper, "I'd Blush if I Could." I mean, that's a response that Siri at that point was programmed to give if you would engage in anything from mild flirtation to I would say on full on sexual verbal abuse. So if you said something like, "Siri, you're really pretty." She might say, "I'd blush if I could." But also if you say something like, "I want to fuck you" or you know "You're so sexy" or anything that was kind of demeaning she'd also say, "I'd blush if I could." There's something so disturbing about that response because for a number of reasons, for one it implies that Siri has a body even though she doesn't because she can't blush, it also associates her with the trope of the blushing bride, the blushing virgin, so these are known tropes. So even if we don't think of them right away, they are there in our subconscious. And then also it's responding to potentially abusive behavior with flirtatious, almost a laughing off or acceptance of that verbal abuse.
H. Bergen: Even though Siri isn't a real woman, she's performatively female, through and through. And it reinforces that kind of conversational impulse where you as a user are sometimes tempted to even abuse Siri to see how far you can take it. And I think her being female and having those kind of performative responses kind of encourages that kind of dialogue. And that absolutely has an impact on real world interactions, very gendered real world interactions, I think. I haven't don't any statistical research in any depth on that but I think we can understand how having an entity voiced by a real human woman that's responding to your advances in any way that does not admonish them, encourages those kinds of behaviors.
H. Bergen: But also, the fact that Siri and Cortana and Alexa, we haven't really talked about Alexa, are all default female reinforces this notion that women are best suited to perform the role of secretary, of one who has to perform a kind of effective labor or emotional labor. So you can think about the flight attendant or the server, the waitress who has to smile when she's being flirted with because it's part of the job. I think there is something in Siri that is akin to that, but it's also that Siri is not compensated for her labor, of course, she's not a woman. But she's performing all this emotional labor, uncompensated, 24/7, constantly available so it also reinforces expectations that are inherently gendered, I believe about what kinds of work gets performed by what kinds of bodies.
H. Bergen: Oh and just to add, I also came across this study. Since the study was released Apple and Microsoft have changed the scripts, they are constantly changing the scripts of their digital assistants, but at the time of this study there were some researchers who did some conversing with the digital assistants and they would say things like "Siri, I've been raped" or "My husband is beating me up." And the response wasn't here's the number for the local or they wouldn't immediately give an emergency number to call or a women's shelter, any kind of useful information in that situation. The scripts were to, in one very disturbing case, to direct someone to the nearest bridge because they were feeling suicidal. Or to not believe, or to make fun of the inter[crosstalk 00:57:09] or to not know how to respond, more commonly say, "I don't know what you're saying, I don't know what you mean." And in these cases I think that even as performatively gendered as these objects are, they are not gendered enough. They are not truly gendered because if they were gendered, female, they would know that these are important and common incidents that need to be kind of ... that they could help with, in fact.
Anna: Was there anything that we didn't cover that you just really wanted to talk about?
H. Bergen: I don't think so, I mean, I hope I didn't talk too much.
Rebecca: No, this was fabulous.
Anna: It was perfect.
H. Bergen: I think I pretty much covered everything I was interested in talking about. If anyone is interested in knowing more about this research, I do hope people will seek out my article and read it. And also, I have a website, HilaryBergen.com. And on my website you can also find out more about my other research around dance and disembodiment. I look at a lot of new technologies around motion capture, virtual reality, augmented reality, and dance which is a very embodied art form. To think about some of these issues as well, so that's sort of where my research is going.
Anna: Man, we'll have to have you back to talk about that.
H. Bergen: Yeah
Anna: That sounds great, we put links to your paper and your website in the show notes.
H. Bergen: Totally, thank you so much.
Rebecca: Thank you.
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