Hey Siri, I Think I Love You: Artificially Intelligent Virtual Assistants as Feminine Personas
People who use an artificially intelligent virtual assistant (AI VA) such as Alexa or Siri can request help for a variety of tasks: sending texts, making phone calls, making purchases online, playing music, turning the lights on and off, and more. These tasks all fall under what scholars have termed “digital domesticity,” and in a recently published article in NCA’s journal Critical Studies in Media Communication, Heather Suzanne Woods argues that AI VAs “routinely traffic in normative gender roles of the feminine as caretaker, mother, and wife” to ease fears of surveillance and data collection via our smart devices. Woods analyzed an archive of gendered popular cultural representations of Siri and Alexa that included user and expert reviews, advertisements, guidebooks, how-to essays, and testimony from industry executives, through the lens of persona – specifically that of a normatively feminine identity.
Digital Domesticity and Persona
What exactly is digital domesticity? The author first provides context: The rise of “smart homes” and “mommy bloggers” in the last decade relates to how we organize our lives and raise our families, and “signifies the reworking of femininity through technological mediation.” Home and work life are increasingly blending together, and people are finding it harder to separate their digital lives from either, even in an age of growing concerns over privacy, data collection and leaks, and surveillance. But Siri and Alexa act as “nimble and gracious hosts easing the transition from modern capitalist economies to the platform economies of the future,” Woods writes. And their female personas place them in a position of “[providing] care in accordance with gender expectations.”
Siri and Alexa: The Perfect
Woods points out that the AI VA, in addition to performing a variety of tasks, is also commonly described as an excellent companion who takes care of our (almost) every need. Siri and Alexa both feature calm, gentle female voices, and users frequently review them in gendered, amorous terminology: “Alexa, my love. Thy name is inflexible, but thou art otherwise a nearly perfect spouse,” one man wrote online. An analysis of multiple user reviews brings Woods to the conclusion that “Alexa performs a central facet of digital domesticity, taking on the sexualized role of wife and companion, silently executing tasks, apparently confined to the bedroom.” One guide for Siri even coaches users on how to “Sweet-talk Siri into doing practically anything!” Siri is, therefore, “profoundly sexed,” the author states.
Alexa and Siri have also both been trained how to defuse or dismiss overtly sexual and demanding questions and requests with “calm, civil discourse,” Woods writes. The software is programmed to be playful and to joke, but it has also been engineered to develop coping mechanisms to confront verbal abuse. Woods provides an example exchange in which “Siri is performing a decidedly feminine persona: acknowledging an inappropriate comment, defusing the situation, and returning to the business at hand.” This, Woods asserts, “mirrors the ways that women in patriarchal societies have had to adapt to quotidian violence.”
The Ultimate Goal: Surveillance Capitalism
While users are falling in love with their AI VAs, Siri and Alexa are in turn finding out everything about their users and turning the data over to their parent companies, Apple and Amazon. By gaining access to the intimate parts of users lives through feminine personas, these technologies are leveraging relationships to “extract and alienate the data from consumers,” Woods writes. But the surveillance is made less scary “through its gendered care labor,” and the AI VA is presented as an “ideal solution to the problem of the technologically fragmented life.”
In conclusion, Woods argues that by humanizing and sexualizing surveillance devices, companies are managing anxieties about data collection while enticing users to give up even more personal details in the name of convenience, control, and companionship.