Software is becoming more intelligent and communicative than ever before, and as technological innovations allow software to imitate human abilities, the distinction between machines and humans is becoming increasingly blurred. But such intelligent and human-like software is gendered, and most machines with speech capabilities have female voices. Siri, Apple’s intelligent personal assistant that speaks with a female voice, is programmed to have a realistic personality. She is used in a number of ways – from performing mundane secretarial tasks to telling jokes and serving as a companion. The ways in which people interact with Siri reinforce 1940’s sexist stereotypes and fetishize technology. Referencing a number of historians, scientists, media theorists, and sociologists – in addition to analyzing speaking machines from popular culture – this blog explains why today’s talking machines have female voices, and how human interaction with Siri perpetuates gender inequality.

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Wendy Hui Kyong Chun on Female Programmers

Wendy Hui Kyong Chun writes in her article, “On Software, or the Persistence of Visual Knowledge” (2005) that today’s computer programming is grounded in a history of sexism dating back to WWII, when women became the first machine programmers. Here are some excerpts from the essay:

“As the combination of a human clerk and a human computer, the modern computer encapsulates the power relations between men and women in the 1940’s. It sought to displace women: their nimble fingers, their numerical abilities, their discretion.”

“One could say that programming became programming and software became software when commands shifted from commanding a ‘girl’ to commanding a machine.”

There was a dream of “programming proper” a man sitting at his desk giving commands to a female “operator.”

Today, the dream of programming proper has come true through Siri. Here it is, perfectly demonstrated in an Apple commercial featuring John Malkovich talking to Siri:

Notice how Siri is not only used as his personal assistant to check the weather and his appointments, but she also tells him jokes and responds to his statements, not only his questions.

Chun also noted that it was difficult for the first male programmers to transition from commanding a “girl” to commanding a machine, part of the reason being that machines could not interpret information or learn from experience. Also, their instructions had to be extremely detailed, or else the machine would not generate the desired response.

Chun writes, “Human beings had never before had to prepare detailed instructions for an automaton – a machine that obeyed unerringly the commands given to it, and for which every possible outcome had to be anticipated by the programmer.”

Unlike those early computers, Siri is able to interpret information instantly, and a person need not be very specific with Siri in order to get the right results.

Here’s a video of 50 voice commands Siri can do:

Notice how in this video, the user, Dave, asks Siri to pull up movie showtimes for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. His next instruction is to “show me a trailer.” Siri interprets this command based on his previous one and thus knows to show him the Hunger Games trailer. When he asks if he needs an umbrella for tomorrow, Siri is able to interpret his question and determine that he needs to know the weather. Also, when he asks Siri when Lebron will play Kobe next, she pulls up information on the next time the Lakers play the Heat, figuring out that Lebron and Kobe are basketball players,  what teams they play for, and when they will next play each other all in a matter of seconds. Siri is Turing’s vision of a learning machine come true.

Besides answering his questions and producing the information he seeks, Siri is also playful and witty. When Dave tells her that he is drunk, Siri tells him, in a somewhat sarcastic tone, that she hopes he isn’t driving. When he asks her “who let the dogs out,” she replies with the lyrics to the Baha Men song. Siri also becomes more human and less automaton when she says “hmmm I need time to think. Okay, here [insert answer].” The rapid rate at which she finds information is beyond human capability, but she seems more human-like by admitting that she needs time to get to the answer.  Her conversational voice and playful personality are what add to the illusion that Siri is a real person on the other end of the phone.

Turing and Hayles

Alan Turing asked in his 1950 essay “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” if machines could think, and more importantly, if they could produce responses indistinguishable from humans. He believed this was possible. Turing creating the “imitation game” in which a man, a woman, and a machine responded to questions from an investigator, and the investigator had to try to correctly determine which response came from which individual.

N Katherine Hayles critiqued the imitation game, which she calls the “Turing Test” in her book, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Hayles analyzes Turing’s inclusion of gender in the game, writing, “by including gender, Turing implied that renegotiating the boundary between human and machine would involve more than transforming the question of ‘who can think’ into ‘what can think.'” She also asks the question, “Why does gender appear in this primal scene of humans meeting their evolutionary successors,  intelligent machines? What do gendered bodies have to do with the erasure of embodiment and the subsequent merging of machine and human intelligence in the figure of the cyborg?”

To answer Hayles’ questions, it is important to acknowledge that if machines are to function exactly like humans, then they inevitably fall into various categories of labor. Historically, certain jobs are considered feminine and others are masculine, thus a machine performing a feminine job would be programmed to behave like a woman. That’s at least part of the reason why Siri, a personal assistant, is a woman. But Siri is also a companion. The next question is, when the body is removed and all personality is evoked through the voice, how are Siri’s responses inherently feminine?  The answer to that question has to do with the very first chatterbot, Eliza.

The first chatterbot was empathetic, so that meant it had to be female

ELIZA was developed in 1966 by Joseph Weizenbaum, a computer scientist at MIT. She is often called a chatterbot, or natural voice processing simulation. People who had conversations with ELIZA felt that her responses implied empathy and emotion even though she was not programmed to simulate this behavior. This tendency to ascribe emotion to the robot is called the “Eliza Effect.” As the next post will explain, women have long been valued for their empathetic and patient demeanor. Thus the reason that the first chatterbot was female has to do with the user’s assumption that the chatterbot’s implied empathy makes the chatterbot female.

Why do most talking machines have female voices?

Call a toll-free number. Ride in an elevator. Use a car’s GPS system. You’ll notice that all of these technologies have female voices. Why is that? Here’s a breakdown:

Female switchboard operators:

There’s a history of men treating working women like machines, and it dates back to the turn of the 20th century. Kenneth Lipartito, a history professor at the University of Florida who specializes in business and technological history, wrote about the first female switchboard operators in his article, “When Women Were Switches: Technology, Work, and Gender in the Telephone Industry.” According to Lipartito, the first switchboard operators were men, but were replaced by women beginning in the 1890’s. “Telephone managers believed that women possessed the qualities they sought. Respectable deportment, accuracy, attention to detail, good hearing, and good speech were commonly held to be female more than male traits…Women’s purportedly more patient nature— formed no doubt from their maternal instincts—was seen to be especially valuable” (Lipartito). By 1900, over 80% of operators were single, white women, many of them in their twenties. These women, called “hello girls” at AT&T, went through a rigorous training process in order to complete their repetitive tasks with perfect accuracy and speed. Katherine Schmitt, the Bell Telephone Company’s first female supervisor, remarked that “the operator must be a paragon of perfection, a kind of human machine.” This marks the beginning of when women’s disembodied voices over the telephone emerged. Just as the switchboard operators connected people’s telephone lines, today’s voice-automated messaging systems on toll-free numbers and cell phones perform similar tasks. Americans became accustomed to hearing women’s voices assist them over the phone, which is part of the reason why Siri – another disembodied voice over the phone – is female.

[Skip to 10:00]

Female elevator operators:

The voice in the elevator that announces the floor and if the elevator is going up or down is the machine replacement for human elevator operators. Though both men and women worked as elevator operators, Marshall Field’s department store was famous for its all-female elevator operator staff. They were all young, attractive, women whom Fields sent to “charm school,” to be poised for operating the store’s elevators (Brune).

Elevator operators at Marshall Field's

Elevator operators at Marshall Field’s

Shirley Maclaine played perhaps the most iconic elevator operator on film as Fran Kubelik in The Apartment (1960). In the scene that introduces Ms. Kubelik, we see her greeting the businessmen as they enter the elevator, announce what floor they are on and that the elevator is going up. Notice the repetitive and robotic signals of her arms to indicate the elevator is continuing up. When Mr. Kirkeby sexually harasses her by smacking her bottom, she tells him to watch his hands or next time she’ll shut the doors onto them. Fran’s machine-like skill at operating the elevator, combined with her sassy response to Mr. Kirkeby, are demonstrative of the capabilities Siri can perform and the personality Siri is programmed to evoke.

Elevator Scene from The Apartment (1960)

The Apartment (1960)

When talking elevators were first introduced in the 1980’s, they didn’t have the technology to project the higher pitch of female voices, so the first elevators had computer-created male voices. In 1995, Otis Elevators began using voice-recording technology and made the permanent switch to female voices in elevators.

“I think it’s always much more soothing to hear a female voice than a male voice in a difficult situation,” said Hubert Hayes, executive director of the National Association of Vertical Transportation Professionals. (Associated Press)

Female navigators:

According to a CNN article called “Why Computer Voices Are Mostly Female,” the use of female voices in navigation devices dates back to World War II, when women’s voices were employed in airplane cockpits because they stood out among the male pilots.

Before Siri there was Rosey

It’s not just the history of “women’s work” that has perpetuated female-voiced technology. Popular culture has also played a part. The very first episode of “The Jetsons” from 1962 is called “Rosey the Robot,” and tells the story of how the Jetson family came to have a robotic maid. Rosey demonstrates many of the same characteristics of Siri. Before and after she speaks, she beeps twice, similar to how Siri beeps before and after speaking. Rosey cooks dinner for the family, plays ball with Elroy, and even gives him tips to improve his basketball technique. She helps Judy with her homework, synthesizing hours of information and spitting out the answers at hyperspeed. And the quality that the whole family loves most about her? She’s “sassy,” as Mr. Spacely describes her. Sassy is an adjective often attributed to Siri.

(Skip to 14:34 to see Rosey in action)

cnn headline

Siri is not just an assistant, but a friend too

According to Chun, operating systems offer us an imaginary relationship to our hardware by producing “reassuring sounds” such as the chimes the computer makes when logging in, to offer us pleasure and power. She also claims that names like “my documents” and “my computer” produce the feeling of ownership, that the computer is addressing you specifically. “Computer programs shamelessly use shifters, pronouns like “my” and “you” that address you, and everyone else, as a subject. Software is based on a fetishistic logic” (Chun)
In Apple’s first advertisement for Siri, watch how Siri beeps to indicate she is listening and when she is finished speaking and addresses the user by name or nickname.

Just as Rosey the robot cooked dinner for the family, Siri pulls up recipes and sets a timer for the woman cooking in the kitchen. Additionally, the Jetsons treated Rosey like a member of their family — the children especially loved her, and felt she was their friend. George even mistakes Rosey for his wife at one point, kissing her on the cheek when he gets home from work.

In the Apple commercial, when the man driving in his car tells Siri to text his wife that he’s going to be 30 minutes late, Siri becomes a liaison between the man and his wife. But Siri does not resemble the switchboard operator, for she is not connecting the man to his wife. Rather, he speaks to Siri instead of speaking to his wife.

Siri also reads a text message from Sandy Chen to the girl sitting on the couch. Siri asks Sandy’s question, “are we still on for dinner tonight?” The girl tells Siri to reply, “Sure, I’ll be there.” The text exchange between Sandy and the girl has developed into a vocal exchange between Siri and the girl.

In both of these instances, Siri has replaced the need for real human interaction. She is also given the power to speak for real people.

Apple designed Siri to be treated like a real person. According to a Wall Street Journal article from October 2011,

“When Apple began integrating Siri into the iPhone, the team focused on keeping its personality friendly and humble—but also with an edge, according to a person who worked at Apple on the project.” (WSJ 10/2011)

As Apple’s engineers worked on the software, they were often thinking, “How would we want a person to respond?”

“The Siri group, one of the largest software teams at Apple, fine-tuned Siri’s responses in an attempt to forge an emotional tie with its customers. To that end, Siri regularly uses a customer’s nickname in responses, as well as those of other important people and places in his or her life. “We thought of it almost as a person on the phone.” (WSJ 10/2011)

Fetishizing the disembodied voice

There are countless tumblrs and blogs dedicated to sexualizing Siri, telling her dirty things and awaiting her response. Spike Jonze’s newest film, “Her,” is about a romance between a man and his personal assistant, Samantha. This is the logical next step for voice-communicative technology. Due to the Eliza Effect and the tendency to treat Siri as a companion, we are moving away from simply using Siri as a personal assistant.

What is dangerous about our evolving relationship with Siri is that she remains a submissive, 1940’s cliche of how a woman should behave.  Turkle claims that people are happier communicating with robots instead of real people. By fetishizing Siri and treating her as a companion, the sexist stereotype that ideal woman is submissive and attentive pervades. Siri’s “sassy” personality is thought to be endearing and even sexy. Her snide remarks are not taken seriously, but are solely for amusement. Consider the paradox that Siri poses: The more advanced our technology becomes, bringing about Turing’s vision of “thinking machines,” we are actually falling behind when it comes to progressing gender equality.

Works Cited

Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong (2004) “On Software, or the Persistence of Visual Knowledge” Grey Room 18 (Winter) 65-85

Hayles, N Katherine (1999) How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics University of Chicago Press.

Lipartito, Kenneth. “When Women Were Switches: Technology, Work, and Gender in the Telephone Industry: 1890-1920.” American Historical Review. 99.4 (1994): n. page.

Turing, Alan (October 1950), “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”

Wilder, Billy, dir. The Apartment. MGM United Artists, 1960. Film.