December 6th, 2011

Why Siri matters–and what she says about our society [VIDEO]

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It’s been a week of Siri discussions as Feminist writers and more took to the blogs to discuss the new iPhone personal assistant. Its embarrassing performance in offering information on reproductive health and female sexuality is perhaps characterized by the overwhelmingly male population of programmers who might have fed the personal assistant its data. (Sidenote: I even found a male programmer privilege checklist.) While many companies can work to have their data searches made more clearly available to Siri users, as Jill Filipovic over at Feministe points out, “Abortion clinics and other women’s health facilities, obviously, are not dedicating tons of time to figure out how to optimize their search results.”

Siri’s other main shortcoming is its inability to understand many different accents. While mainstream sources have picked up on this problem, the dialogue seems to dance around the true politics behind Siri’s listening problem. For instance, Stephen Colbert had a piece on his Colbert Report last week (click here or see video above), where he proposed that Siri is the quintessential conservative: xenophobic and anti-choice. It poses a clever criticism, but just like many of those writing about this Siri issue, his criticisms focused on Scottish and British accents and, bizarrely, a German one. While I appreciate the joke, Huffington Post Latino Voices was the one of the only spaces I found that mentioned the elephant in the room: the fact that Siri cannot not understand Latino voices. I’m awaiting more posts about other English-speaking voices (in the U.S. and away) that Siri also cannot understand. Basically, if you’re someone who doesn’t speak in a what linguists call Standard American English, there’s a chance Siri may not work for you.

But why does Siri even matter in the first place? It’s a function on a smartphone: of course there are going to be glitches, right? Yes, but it’s the nature of these glitches that are problematic. They align with recurring issues on our society, making the Siri problem even more disconcerting. There are probably some who feel uncomfortable about Siri’s shortcomings but really aren’t able to pinpoint why it’s truly an issue. This is often how systematic injustices feel: abstract, easy to write off, seemingly excusable. Believe me, as a Feminist, I’ve felt like the wet blanket of many a conversation in spaces where my viewpoint isn’t respected. But this is what being socially active is really about–using things like Siri mishaps to problematize social privilege and to create a relevant discussion around something that far too many people are blind to.

For instance:

  • Siri signifies the (still) considerable gender inequality in the technology field today. What would Siri have been if it was made by a more diverse group than the traditional population of tech-y men? (And that’s not to say it wasn’t. I don’t really know. But considering the statistics, I feel safe to assume so.)
  • If society respected women’s self-determination, wouldn’t Siri be programmed to tell me where to find a contraceptive or an abortion clinic?
  • If society didn’t discriminate against so many of this country’s diverse voices, would Siri have been released in Beta knowing people’s voices would be silenced?

I’m sure there are a thousand more issues with representation in Siri that resonate in our larger society’s issues with representation and social privilege. This is complicated. But don’t write it off because people think “it’s just about a smartphone.” Because, believe me, it’s not.

–Emily Breitkopf

Emily Breitkopf is a contributing writer to The LAMPpost. You can read more of her work on her blog, Kids and Gender and follow her on Twitter @emilybreitkopf.

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