Siri and the Revival of the Feminist Cyborg

“If I were to anthropomorphize Siri, I would imagine that it would think of me somewhat like a father: someone who wants the best for them, who teaches them, who is occasionally demanding, annoying, or embarrassing but who loves them and is proud when they do well.”

These are the words of Adam Cheyer, the engineer who programmed Siri — a modern-day Frankenstein of sorts.

Cheyer’s paternalistic affection for his creation helps to explain how Siri came to have the voice of a dutiful feminine subordinate. That old-school power dynamic: patriarch and his offspring, or masculine executive and his female assistant, digitized. With the Siri Effect, men have successfully encoded centuries-old gender norms into the technologies that will dictate our careers, communities, and relationships, perhaps even for centuries to come. A timeless patriarchal power play rendered all the more ubiquitous.

Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana achieve much the same effect. These formless beings become a repository for all our bad moods and angst. They know our recipes and calendars; they’ll accept all verbal abuse. They defer, so we circle back. Siri, call home. Alexa, what’s the weather? Alexa, preheat the oven to 360 degrees. Alexa, play something chill. Alexa, shut up.

Dag Kittlaus, a computer engineer who helped create Siri, has said that her name was partially inspired by the Norse word for “beautiful victory.” And in The Atlantic, Adrienne LaFrance reports that the name Cortana, which is Microsoft’s digital assistant, is a reference to a female character in the video game Halo, who typically appears to be unclothed (though the Halo franchise insists that she is sporting a holographic body stocking). Dennis Mortensen, CEO and co-founder of the company, named his digital assistant Amy after a human assistant that he’d had in a previous job. But Mortensen maintains that none of this has anything to do with gender roles IRL. Studies show, he explains, that users prefer to be assisted by a voice with female pitch — it’s just the way we’re wired.

So rather than reformulate our socialized, gendered norms, software engineers made these norms the very basis for their code. Within our technologies, patriarchal practices are replicated, reified, made all the more difficult to disturb.

But the patriarchal norms that structure big tech aren’t inevitable.

In Sonoma of the 1980s, Donna Haraway dreamed of women’s liberation on the Internet. Haraway believed that in the ones and zeroes of binary code lay the not-entirely-ludicrous possibility that the norms and practices of patriarchy were doomed to die. In the irreverent words of her “Cyborg Manifesto” she prophesied the fall of an older type of binary. She saw the cyborg as a transgressive figure — one capable of undoing dualisms assumed to be perpetual: mind/body, animal/machine, science/culture, perhaps man/woman. The cyborg resists rigid definition; it necessitates “partial identities and contradictory standpoints.”

Haraway conceded that her cyborgs were an unlikely candidate for feminist assassin as “the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism,” but she nonetheless had faith: “Illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins.” This lovechild might just kill off its genetic line. Then those iconic words, which I’d get tattooed if I ever launched a rebellion unfaithful to my own Semitic origins: “I’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess.”

But the cyborgs, now aging into their teenage years, have proven all too devoted to their ancestry. In the boardrooms of Menlo Park and Mountain View, their parents dream a different dream entirely — not of revolution but of absolution, of cost management and customer satisfaction. In their java-coded progeny, the power of patriarchal capitalism lives on. Why did the mutiny fail?

It’s really a thornier question. How did tech — those scrappy blue jeans-wearing boys who dropped out of Harvard with a middle finger to their parents, to the system man — betray its liberal promise? It’s a decade-long story, one of money and stature and the type of power these breed that corrupts absolutely. It’s a story that’s been told through data breaches and HQ2, through the vilification of Zuckerberg and Bezos and the shadowy back-room business models that they borrowed from their banker buddies. But it’s a story that gains texture when told as Haraway retrospective. Did the feminist cyborg revolt turn out more myth than manifesto?

It’s no surprise that our virtual tools came to reflect the practices and prejudices of their creators. A February 2018 study out of MIT and Stanford found that AI facial analysis programs were 99 percent accurate in guessing the gender of light-skinned men — yet their error rates rose to 20 or even 34 percent when tested on dark-skinned women. That result was predictable when researchers learned that the data set first used to test these programs was more than 77 percent male and 83 percent white. This is the very software used for everything macro to mundane, from investigating criminals to unlocking your iPhone X.

Our software isn’t value-neutral. It takes on beliefs and biases, programmed into their code by the oft-white males who built them. It’s no wonder some might think the cyborg revolution was dead on arrival.

Yet perhaps we need not relinquish our dreams of robo-feminism just yet.

The Collective Future is a blockchain diversity advocacy group, which has created a pledge asking crypto companies to invest in and hire under-represented minority groups. Its founders point out that because so many blockchain companies are early-stage, cultural norms are still in flux, and the opportunity for greater commitment to gender parity hasn’t yet dissipated. Talking to the New York Times, early crypto investor Arianna Simpson put it best: “Women always question if they’re qualified, but look at these clowns around us.”

Another promising vision can be found in the work of groups like Black Girls Code and others intent on democratizing Silicon Valley. Black Girls Code aims to train one million women of color to code by 2040. Their founder Kimberly Bryant frames her organization’s mission as giving young women of color role models and shifting the overly white male culture of computer engineering that she was trained in. But I’d argue it’s even bigger than that. Those who program tomorrow’s technologies also program the infrastructure shaping tomorrow’s world, so there’s an opportunity to shift a larger balance of power.

The questions driving the work of feminist blockchain and tech diversity groups are both macro and micro, theoretical and applied. The work that these groups do can ensure that women, and especially women of color, are in the room for key culture-shaping questions: should the test group for AI facial analysis be predominantly male? Should our voice assistants always be female? They can also put on Silicon Valley tables and conference lines the early questions that Haraway asked: how can we create cyborgs that don’t just serve but also disrupt?

Decades ago, Haraway dreamed of cyber-feminist revolution, of transgressive technologies that could undo instead of reinforce cultural norms and patriarchal practices. Her vision can’t be dreamt into existence — it must be fought for and coded into the core of institutions both small-scale and all-powerful.

Sometimes illegitimate offspring take some time to come into their own. The cyborg feminist could yet be unleashed.

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