Feuding and Feminism: The Hidden Lives of Virtual Assistants

In our modern times, virtual assistants such as Alexa, Siri, and Google assistant are ubiquitous. Beyond the basic concerns of surveillance many people have, should society also be worried about our machines reflecting the worst parts of humanity?

The British publication, The Independent, recently published an article suggesting that Google Assistant might be subtly casting shade on Apple’s Siri. It’s not surprising that the developers of one app might program their algorithms to respond to questions about their competitors in a less than flattering light. But is it really necessary to equate “rats” with “Siri?”

In “Asking More of Siri and Alexa: Feminine Persona in Service of Surveillance Capitalism,” Heather Woods explores the idea of Siri and Alexa as electronic iterations of female stereotypes. Reading about a potential feud between virtual assistants begs the question of whether this feminization of inanimate objects has gone too far. After all, feuding females is not a new stereotype as the many iterations of the Real Housewives of… television franchise can attest.

Virtual assistants, at their core, were designed to enable us to gain back time in our busy daily lives. In many ways, they have achieved this goal. Who doesn’t love being able to ask Siri to add eggs to the grocery list while simultaneously completing household chores? When used for these purposes, virtual assistants are a godsend for millions of people.

But at some point, society will need to grapple with whether or not the darker aspects of these virtual assistants are worth the convenience to our everyday lives. Do we really need Google Assistant to tell us how annoying Siri can be?

Wow, this is so sad…

In 2018, digital rhetoric scholar Dr. Heather Suzanne Woods wrote a scathing article on our misplaced trust in artificial intelligence virtual assistants. Paradoxically, the title, “Asking more of Siri and Alexa,” reflects the opposite of what the article suggests. And she is far from alone in concluding that we need to be wiser about asking anything of technologies such as these– the nodes that comprise the Internet of Things, while marketed as product-service hybrids intended to make things easier, more often add complexity to already complicated lives, making people anxious, overloaded, and unable to cope with an excess of data. But it seems humanity might have bigger fish to fry than our chronic information pathology.

Dr. Shoshana Zuboff keys us into these concerns in her book, Surveillance Capitalism, the ultimate claim of which is that by continuing to engage in technophilia, or if not technophilia then techno-ambivalence, society is slipping toward a weakening of autonomy, privacy, and individual decision-making powerful enough to threaten our most prized institution: democracy.

Meme of an anime man labeled Silcon Valley, gesturing to a butterfly labeled

Surveillance capitalism, like all other forms of capitalism, evolved by claiming something not yet a part of the market dynamic. Older forms of capitalism claimed natural resources, land, and labor as commodities to be sold and repurposed. Surveillance capitalism claims data, but not just any data. The data interests of surveillance capitalism lie in the private lives of technology users: what do people say, to whom, and how? where do they go, with whom, and how? what do they buy, for what, and how? This raw data can then be transformed into metadata profiles used to super-target individuals, nudging people toward actions that serve commercial interests.

The common refrain of “I’d rather see something I’m interested in” is enough to assuage the creeping anxiety of most while scrolling Instagram, ignoring pointed ads of a product mentioned in passing to a friend or partner. But this surplus accumulation of data goes far beyond nudging users toward purchases. In 2016, Cambridge Analytica used this same metadata to make political predictions about people. In an age of smart cities, ubiquitous computing, and quantified selves, digital platforms become the new battlegrounds of our most pressing battles: freedom from government surveillance, freedom of speech, racial justice, labor relations, and safety from bad actors. When Google can set paid customer lures via Pokémon Go to modify shopping behaviors, when advertisement becomes propaganda, when the digital is instrumentalized to the purpose of instrumentalizing people, that is how democracy finds itself in peril. When all it takes is money to buy the data and the algorithm, new poverties of information emerge that in many ways will enforce and supersede those of economics. Too much trust is put into large technological organizations to protect the data of millions, the same kind of trust generally reserved for fiduciary relationships.

“[Surveillance capitalism] substitutes computation for politics, so it’s post-democracy,” says Zuboff. “It substitutes populations for societies, statistics for citizens, and computation for politics.”

…Alexa, play Despacito.