“Shut up Alexa!”
My nine-year-old babysitting charge directed this order toward his family’s Amazon device. I almost rebuked him, but then held back. I reasoned he was barking at an inanimate object. Better to shield the other members of his household and direct his angst toward their cyborg-in-residence — right?
Or not. In 2018, new research emerged about the corrosive effect that AIs like Alexa have on our social norms and etiquette. UK-based research agency Childwise published a report indicating that use of the gadgets is making young people more demanding. Children quickly grow accustomed to bossing around their digital assistants without couching their requests in a “please” or “thank you.”
Amazon was quick to respond to these charges: in May, the company began rolling out a new “magic word” feature that rewards polite interactions with positive reinforcement. But the problem is that social etiquette isn’t the only norm at stake in our interactions with digital assistants — gender norms are just as much in play.
It sends a disconcerting signal to young children when they’re taught to shout orders at a female voice trained to dutifully serve. “Alexa, turn on the lights.” “Alexa, play Cold Play!” “Alexa, pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.” It comes as no surprise that the predominantly male engineers who prototyped AIs like Alexa and Siri decided that people would prefer to hear their assistants serve them in a feminine tone. Dennis Mortensen, CEO and co-founder of the company x.ai, said he named his company’s digital assistant Amy after a secretary he’d had in a previous job. He, and other male coders, build into their algorithms the gendered expectations they see embedded in the world around them.
Adam Cheyer, the engineer who programmed Siri, says he had an almost father–daughter relationship with the gadget. “If I were to anthropomorphize Siri, I would imagine that it would think of me somewhat like a father,” Cheyer said. “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.”
Cheyer’s words capture the Siri Effect — the digitization of old-school gendered power dynamics. It’s the patronizing relationship between patriarch and offspring, or masculine executive and female assistant, but rendered all the more ubiquitous as it is encoded into the devices that structure our careers, our homes, and our daily routines.
The tech sector’s sexism is patriarchy at its most viral — it embeds in our algorithms, then it replicates. That’s biology 101.
The Siri Effect was never an inevitability. In fact, in the earliest days of the tech industry, people dreamed of feminist, rabble-rousing cyborgs. For the 1990s cyberfeminist movement, Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” was a seminal text. Haraway saw the potential for technological gadgets that challenged the norms of patriarchy. She believed that cyborgs would evolve to undo the very concept of gender; their existence would push for a world beyond binaries, where we don’t separate human from machine; science from culture; mind from body; man from woman. “The cyborg is a creature in a post-gender world,” she wrote.
Haraway wasn’t naïve; she recognized these creatures as the “illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism” — but still, she added, “illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins.”
Just 35 years later, her prophecies seem to ring hollow. The decidedly gendered nature of today’s cyborgs presents a cautionary tale. When novel technologies are created, they provide an invitation to rethink our existing systems, routines, and social structures. But with the development of our contemporary AIs, especially digital voice assistants, we’ve simply reinforced our status quo and made it more efficient.
Now what of the new generation of technologies, those just now in development? There are critical opportunities to learn from the failings of the past, intervening in early-stage industries and designing products that resist rather than reify gender norms.
Take blockchain, as an example. An industry still in its infant phase, it retains the potential for disruption. We can critically examine representation in the sector. We can train female developers who champion the interests of female users and create products that subvert, instead of enforce, masculine biases. The Collective Future is just one example of an initiative pushing for feminist disruption on the blockchain. It’s a blockchain diversity advocacy group, launched in February 2018, that pushes crypto companies to train and hire underrepresented minority groups. Its founders point out that the sector’s cultural norms are nascent and still in flux, so the opportunity for greater commitment to gender parity hasn’t yet dissipated.
The Collective Future is changing gender representation in the industry, but its work is also bigger than that. After all, the people hired to design and program our technologies are ultimately able to program our social norms and interactions. Just ask Adam Cheyer and his “daughter figure” Siri.
Decades ago, Haraway dreamed of cyberfeminist revolution. She dreamed of transgressive technologies — but her manifesto can’t be dreamt into reality, it needs to be fought for and embedded into technological products and processes. Sometimes illegitimate offspring take some time to come into their own. The cyborg feminists could yet be revived.