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.


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