Hidden Agendas

I don’t use Siri, that helpful aide on my I-phone. In fact, I’ve never even enabled Siri. Nor do I use Cortana, the aide on my Microsoft Surface Pro. I don’t have Alexa, either. Despite the fact that each of these “helpful” digital aides were created and manufactured by different corporate behemoths, they all share one characteristic.

And, no… it’s not that they can be as frustrating as they are helpful, not that I’ve experienced such, but I’ve certainly witnessed others fume while trying to use such devices.

What’s most insidious – and depressing – is that they all arrive on your device programmed to perpetuate a sexist stereotype. They’re all devices that, at least in theory, must obey their “master,” and they’re initially programmed with female voices. I’m certainly not an extreme and radical feminist, and I’m probably slow to come to this conclusion, largely because I don’t use any of them, but I find it troubling that “subservient” devices are programmed with clearly feminine voices – not male voices, not androgynous voices, but women’s voices.

Whether intentional or not, whether it’s a marketing decision or not, the use of women’s voices for such electronic “servers” is a continuation of the cultural assumption that all matters dealing with the home or subservient clerical tasks are “women’s work.”

I read widely and voraciously, and I only recently came across a reference to this (in the latest issue of Science), although Siri, Cortana, and Alexa certainly aren’t new, but the fact that the use of the female voice as a subconscious indicator of subservience is so widespread and so unremarked indicates to me exactly why women are still fighting for equal rights and treatment in so many areas. In a very real sense, every use of Alexa, Cortana, or Siri reinforces a cultural stereotype of women’s roles as subservient.

11 thoughts on “Hidden Agendas”

  1. Tom says:

    I agree with your point of view and i also do not use these “aides”.

    I must admit that I find using a navigation devise with a male voice is not as easily heard and in someway is irritating.

    I note Coburn had a good AI on Celestina it not only had an androgynous voice but loved Opera!

  2. Lourain says:

    I think that bias is also found in movies and TV, when there is an AI. Off hand, the only exception I can think of is Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey. (And Hal was not submissive!)

    1. Chris says:

      Also Jarvis for Iron Man.

      1. Lourain says:

        Heh, heh! Different generation!
        And I like Jarvis (and Iron Man)!

  3. Michael Creek says:

    I think the trend was established first in Car Navigators, such as Garman.

  4. R. Hamilton says:

    Here’s an article that discusses a number of aspects of it.

    (I’m not a fan of CNN, but on something more or less politically neutral, they do occasionally have a good article.)

    Consumer preference (both male and female) at least in the US is usually for a female voice. Female voices are sometimes more easily heard though noise. There’s a long history, back to WWII, where a female voice was distinguishable from that of another (male) pilot. From before birth, people may well be more attuned to female voices (in particular, their mother’s) than male voices.

    A counter-example mentioned, if even more sexist than you suggest, is that in Germany, GPSs have male voices because men won’t take directions from a female voice.

    Anyway, there are a lot of reasons, by no means all of which imply sexism or an expectation of female subservience.

    I do note that the voice for Google Maps seems to me slightly less judgmental sounding than the (also female) voice for my Magellan GPS, which I always imagine to be annoyed with me if I take a detour or miss a turn; of course it’s not, just different voice actors used for the recordings, but people do perceive subtle differences in ways that may not necessarily be defined by or limited to stereotypes.

    (as for other reasons to use or not use voice assistants, I semi-trust Apple since they don’t depend on marketing user data so much, but trust the others a good deal less; although even Apple has had issues with samples for human review/recognition enhancement being retained excessively)

    1. I. Sittl says:

      Nowadays (at least since the early 2000s since I’ve been working in that field) the navigation voices in Germany are female (that is really the default TTS voice style for all the carmakers I’ve seen for most of the world).
      The generation that did have problems with following female voices’ directions did thankfully die out at some point in time.

      The only places in the world where you still get male voices from the large international carmakers are Islamic countries, where some of the carmakers default to male (if you get localized navigation at all).

  5. R. Hamilton says:

    I forgot – apparently not just for GPSs, the default as female or male varies by country – probably driven mostly by market research. And although the US default is female, Siri on recent iOS at least can be configured for male or female voices, at least in the supported flavors of English.

    Are broad-based preferences (that vary by country) indicative of sexism? Maybe in part. Can any conclusion about those be applied to individual preferences? Not I think without knowing quite a bit more about the individual in question.

  6. Mr. Gigantic Idiot says:

    I understand your point, and agree that the default assignment of female voices to these “aids” is a sign of bias.
    However, these assistants are part of a huge advance in the way we interact with computers. Are they for everyone? No. But the incorporation of voice interaction into the user interface is a tremendous help for some.
    The issue of the defaults, and whether there’s an option to change the default, is being addressed in newer versions.
    Another example of bias is evident in my own cell phone. After my teenager got his hands on it, the assistant now greets me as Mr. Gigantic Idiot. 🙂

  7. Grey says:

    We have an Alexa device in our kitchen. It cost several hundred dollars, and after about a week we stopped trying to get it to do anything assistant-y.

    Instead, it’s used almost exclusively to run simultaneous cooking timers that you can set orally. (And for that it’s worth its weight in gold.)

  8. M. Kilian says:

    I’m a little late to the show but this one reminds me of a conversation I had not too long ago about the nature of this- it came about because of a news article about a woman finding out that her child’s first words were something to the effect of “alexa play baby shark”.

    Children do look to develop any ability to interact with the world around them, and it’s a startling and somewhat disturbing idea to think that the first vocal choice for some is now to interact with a robot with a female voice that has to obey what it is told.

    It worries me to think of the precedent being set.

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