FLASH SYMPOSIUM: Pursuing Critical Media & Technology Studies
Ryerson University, Department of Communication & Culture, Toronto, Canada.
November 5, 2019.
Learn more: https://www.ryerson.ca/graduate/programs/comcult/news-events/2019/11/flash-symposium–pursuing-critical-media—technology-studies/
“I Just Don’t Get This Whole Gender Thing”: Femininity, Vocality, and Communication Technology
Abstract: This paper examines the tethering of femininity to technology via the voice in virtual assistant interfaces such as Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana, all of which assume female-fronted personas in their Canadian default settings. Documents leaked to The Guardian in July 2019 regarding Apple’s grading program revealed that the interface is conditioned to disengage and deflect questions regarding gender, avoiding the “controversial” term feminism and replying “I just don’t get this whole gender thing.” This paper challenges Apple’s assertion that Siri is genderless, arguing that gender has in fact played a crucial and conscious role in its development. Siri’s ambivalent gender politics are indicative of an historical alignment between femininity and communication technology. In particular, the female-dominated profession of the telephone operator in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century offers insight into the longstanding deployment of women’s vocalic labour in communicative capitalism. While telephone companies lauded feminine capacities for patience, sensitivity, and gentleness; this gendered division of labour was spurred by economic interest and was rigorously policed according to audible markers of race and class. Critical consideration of these historical exclusions and economic entanglements suggests that Apple’s positing of Siri a post-gender being bears scrutiny.