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Is Siri Feminist?

By Alyssa Rosenberg on October 20, 2011 at 1:37 pm

"Is Siri Feminist?"

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As I write this, I’m waiting for the end of the work day so I can go home and pick up my iPhone 4s (having made a full plunge and purchased an iPhone and a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer in the same week). So I’ll have more data to report on this once I’ve done some actual experimenting of my own. But one thing that strikes me about the early reporting on what you can say to Siri and what she says back suggests that there’s something feminist at work in Apple’s chipper new assistant.

I know it sounds odd. My first reaction on hearing that Apple was embedding personal assistant software with the voice and name of a lady in its new phone was vexation. Did we seriously need to be a nation of Don Drapers, men and women alike handing over mundane tasks and dictating notes to a female assistant? If we were going to become a nation of fauxecutives, couldn’t we at least choose the gender of our assistant? Because if we all get one, I want to rescue Entourage‘s Lloyd from Ari. But it actually sounds like Siri’s set up to push back against the kind of sexual harassment a real woman like her might get from the Don Drapers of the world. As Slate notes:

The choice to make Siri a woman leads to predictable sorts of harassment, though I like how she brushes it off with both sarcasm and a turning of the mirror upon the master. If you call her a “bitch,” she will sometimes reply: “Why do you hate me? I don’t even exist.” For me, Siri’s voice isn’t especially bitchy or sexy. She evokes a second-grade teacher, one who is fast with a response but also willing to patiently explain. There’s also a pronounced robotic cast to the voice that I find reassuring, a reminder that the intelligence we’re dealing with is artificial.

And as a Tumblr dedicated to her utterances observes, queries like “Talk dirty to me” are met with responses ranging from “Humus. Compost. Pumice. Silt. Gravel,” to “The carpet needs vacuuming.” Siri’s supposed to adapt, so I’d be curious to see if you persistently abuse her, she learns to take it, or if she keeps pushing back. It’s a first little experiment in what seem likely to be more extensive relationships with artificial intelligence (something that the unfortunately-named upcoming HBO show China Doll will explore). And it’s nice to see that, if we’re going to have sort of stereotypical lady robots, they’re going to be able to show some guff.

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