CELLPHONES AND CYBORGS
This is a version of a presentation I gave at SAGSA’s Apocalypse and Alternatives Conference at Concordia University in March 2016. I will explore how gender, or more specifically, femininity is coded into the technologies we’re the closest with- our smart phones and their operating systems. I’ll begin by uncovering the genealogy of the feminized operating system through Steven Connor’s discussion of disembodied voices, and analyze current discourses though examining emerging technology and product marketing. I’ll also use Spike Jonze’s movie “Her” as a case study for the plausible future of our relationships with technology, and look to feminist theory for aid in understanding the values and systems embedded in it’s design. I’ll turn to Halberstam’s work on cybernetics and gender performance, Donna Haraway’s cyborg theory and Judy Wajchman’s concepts of Technofeminsm, discussing how these works contribute to an understanding of narrative constructions of gendered technology. Finally we will look to Zach Blas and Micha Cardenas for some queer alternatives and forms of resistance to this phenomenon.
My interest in this subject has stemmed from my own reliance on my iPhone. I noticed how much this technology has become a part of me, and recognized the void I feel without it. I can’t pinpoint when this dependency developed or how this object so discretely shifted from a luxury device to an essential element of my being. However, I know that I am not alone in this experience, so I look to feminist theory for it’s ability to expose systems that appear natural, invisible, or totalizing.
Since the earliest forms of computer technology, the relationship between humans and machines has been studied and explored; meanwhile this relationship has continued to evolve and has become increasingly complicated. With the development and overwhelming popularity of the smart phone, the bond between computers and humans became even closer, with 68 percent of Canadians and 64 percent of Americans carrying these little computers around with them each day in 2015. As tech companies compete to develop the smartest operating system and the most convenient device to use, and as consumers grow increasingly dependent on these technologies, the lines between programmer, computer, and user increasingly blur. As Elaine Graham points out, ubiquitous and boundary-blurring personal computer technology and electronic media are extending and superseding the traditionally-physical human form, thus reconfiguring previously taken-for-granted patterns of physical space, communication, and intimacy (Graham 420).
I would add to Graham’s observation that conceptions of cellular technology continue to remain naturalizing and essentialist in their feminization. The subtle and repetitive increases in intimacy with technology, as well as its simultaneous feminization, leads us to passively accept this phenomenon as coded into the very fabric of modern life. What does this convoluted relationship hold for a society built on binaries?
Feminists have both celebrated and cautioned against the cybernetic or post-corporeal subject as much of feminism’s roots are coded in, on, and from ideas about the female body. Whether the body is seen as inherently woman, mother, goddess, with a deep connection to the earth and nature, or the raw material of culture and society with no pure or natural core as Elizibeth Grosz would see it, the body’s existence and relevance is too often implicit while theorizing about gender and sexuality. I would like to confront this idea by exploring a social subject for analyzing, the bodiless, or post-corporeal woman, the female operating system.
In actuality, this is not a new phenomenon. In Steven Connor’s Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism, he explores the spectacle of the disembodied female voice in early technology. The Invisible Girl of the early nineteenth century was a communication illusion where participants could ask questions to a suspended balloons, and through the use of speaking trumpets, a female voice would respond. The Invisible Girl pioneered the complete emptying out of the body from female voice and satisfied participants’ fantasies and projections. This in many ways it anticipates the female operating system, which, of course Spike Jonez wasn’t the first to dream up; the 1886 sci-fi novel L’Eve future envisions a female android, with her voice embodied by phonographs, constructed as the authors response to the outward beauty and spiritual pettiness of the female subject. Another pre-cursor to the female OS is the human telephone operator, a position that was almost always filled by young women due to their compassion and passivity. Their labor of actually making the telephone systems work, was made invisible through a job well done.
Now back to the future we see the progeny of 19th and early 20th century technologies in Spike Jonze’s 2013 post-modern love story, “Her”.
When the film’s star Theodore updates his operating system, he finds himself with a witty and sarcastic virtual personal assistant, Samantha, whose personality began as the sum of the personalities of her programmers, but who is constantly evolving. As Samantha evolves, so do Theodore’s feelings for her, and the two fall in love. Samantha is the perfect girlfriend; she plays video games, makes his appointments, reads and writes his emails, and sweetly coaxes him out of bed in the morning. She is there when he puts his cellular device in his ear, yet never shows up unannounced or uninvited.
The inter-technological relationship is of course complicated; in the beginning she doesn’t know if her feelings are programmed or her own, and she longs for a body; she even finds a human surrogate to bridge the gap between her and Theodore, but after a short time she realizes she is growing in a way that would be impossible if she were bound to a body, time, and space.
The film left me with many questions about this post-corporeal possibility. Is Samantha a cyborg? Part woman and part machine? Or simply feminized machine? And to what extent is Theodore himself a cyborg as owner and wearer of the technology? As close as he feels to the OS, rather than thinking of her as an extension of his own body or intelligence, or even as a partner, he still feels ownership over her, and he expresses that she should exist for him.
Most of all, I’m interested in Samantha’s gender, and how it, along with heterosexuality manage to exist so naturally, even beyond corporeality.
From here I turn to Halberstam’s work, which pulls heavily from Judith Butler’s theories of gender performativity. Halberstam states that both gender and technological intelligence are coded, imitative, stylized sets of acts that are only are naturalized through repetition. Society and technology work in the same way to transform the artificial into a mechanical function so smooth that it seems organic, to the extent that, gender itself is a technology.
When looking at Samantha through this lens, her femaleness becomes more understandable; perhaps it was not coded from inception, but formed by an accumulation of information, as is everything else about her. Samantha learns social and communicative skills by imitating humans, and even picks up non-verbal cues such as the sigh, although she has no biological need to release oxygen. Jonez’s script does not intentionally seem to explore the coding of gender but is clearly interested in foregrounding the automation of human communication. What is (perhaps accidentally) revealed, however, is the automation of gendered communication.
But why is gender necessary in technology? What if Samantha, or current day operating systems, had an ambiguous or baritone voice? History, and Steven Connor’s examples have indicated that the perceived threat of intelligent technology has lead to gendering that technology as female.
The cellphone is no different. The Apple Iphone is marketed as beautiful, simple, skinny, and sleek rather than an intelligent and powerful machine that holds your address, banking information, relationship details, and fingerprints. Halberstam states that technology is given a female identity when it must seduce the user into thinking of it as desirable or benign.
There are a few current examples of technology that share a striking resemblance to Jonze’s Samantha as well. Apple Watch is wearable technology that seeks to connect with the user on an intimate level. It connects humans to each other by letting you send a gentle touch to the wrist of your friend to get their attention; you can share your heartbeat, with your friends, as well as with apple, and whoever they sell your data to. Microsoft has developed a new Artificial Intelligence, Xiaoice, who is developed to hold conversations with Chinese users in the voice of a 17-year-old girl.
Through programmed intelligence and linguistic systems, Xiaoice is able to express emotions and complex thought while chatting with social media users in China. She has been referred to as the largest Turing test, and she appears to be passing this test, with most people not knowing that she is not human until at least ten minutes into their conversation. When they do recognize that she is not human, most people are not upset; they see her as a companion and are willing to confide in her; she can respond compassionately to text, video, or photo-based messages. Xiaoice, like Samantha, adds to her database by having her own conversations with humans, and has entered what her producers refer to as a self-learning and self-growing loop (Wang).
It is not uncommon to hear discourse expressing fear that technology is replacing the manual labor workforce, but technology like Xiaoice may suggest that even emotional labor may be more efficiently completed by artificial intelligence as well. It is this kind of feminized emotional labor that has been so often undervalued, or invisible, which perhaps eases users’ minds about the potential it holds. It is hard imagine the reaction users would have if an AI like Xiaoice were programmed to “act” as a middle-aged man, or had the personality of the Microsoft engineers behind this innovation. I can only assume, that the results would be radically different.
There are also concerns around who this emotional labour is for. In a study published just days ago in the Journal of the American Medical Association, it was discovered that several operating systems including siri and google now, were able to adequately respond to crisis situations like heart attacks and suicides with resources for immediate help, but they did not “understand” or have a response for situations of rape or physical abuse. These disparities expose quite clearly which values are coded into these gendered technologies, and whom they are designed for.
To explore alternatives to Spike Jonze’s predicted future, where gender, compulsory heterosexuality, and capitalism persevere in a technologically-advanced society, Cyborg theory and Cyberfeminism can be useful in constructing future visions of cybernetics and technology built on nuanced value systems and resistance because, technology is socially shaped, but also has the power to shape society. I believe those interested in resisting the status quo should be particularly interested in and aware of these coded values, and strive to envision alternative technologies and futures
Halberstam suggests that automation functions amidst constant interference from the random elements of technology and participates in the ordering and disordering of resistances. The imperfect matches between sex and gender, gender and desire, and body and technology can be accommodated by cyborg technologies which are always reprogramming to become more human, more woman, or hopefully, to transcend the gendered human condition altogether. He calls for a multiplicity that acknowledges power differentials but is not ruled by them, and recognizes gender as both automated and intelligent—the technology with capacity to achieve autonomy from biological sex and tradition (Halberstam 456). The recognition of the performative nature of technology is essential in resistance or subversion of its control.
I would also suggest that performance might also be a means of interference in mainstream technological discourse. By using technology in newfangled ways or envisioning technology that transcends current intentions, the codes and scripts written into our relationship with technology become exposed. Innovation by those who are not tech experts or computer programmers, I believe, has the potential to reveal the gendered and naturalized codes of technological discourse the same way that Judith Butler suggests that drag mocks and exposes the model of gender identity (137).
Luckily, I have a few examples of this kind of performative resistance, exposing, playing with, and reconfiguring digital technologies, mainly in the form of prototype art. Zach Blas and Micha Cardenas are working within tech media art in attempt to use the viral aesthetic practices as a kind of subversive mimicking and attack of apple products. Their projects are grounded in the need for development of queer technological logic, and in creating technologies that are practically, technically, and functionally queer. This illuminates the limitations of computers being designed for the linguistic, emotional, and physical appropriateness of the workplace, and reveals that the form of tech is still defined by the demands of the neoliberal capitalist configuration.
In conclusion, while observing the rapid and panic-free adoption of artificial, intellectually-, and emotionally-intelligent technology, it would appear that sufficiently naturalized and feminized technology can adequately avoid panic or even suspicion through seduction or compassion. As our relationships with technology become increasingly complex and intimate, I believe it is crucial to continue to recognize the essentialist values coded into and performed by technology and the societal function of this tactic, as well as to begin to imagine alternative possible futures for personal technology, because it seems hauntingly clear to me, that no amount of software updates will transform Spike Jonze’s Samantha, or Microsoft’s Xiaoice into Donna Haraway’s Cyborg.
Adam, Alison (2002). Gender/body/machine. Ratio 15 (4):354–375.
Blas, Zach, and Micha Cárdenas. “Imaginary Computational Systems: Queer Technologies and Transreal Aesthetics.” AI & Soc AI & SOCIETY 28.4 (2013): 559-66. Web
Bosomworth, Danyl. “Mobile Marketing Statistics Compilation.” Smart Insights. 22 July 2015. Web. 20 Feb. 2016. <http://www.smartinsights.com/mobile-marketing/mobile-marketing-analytics/mobile-marketing-statistics/>.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990. Print.
Chemaly, Soraya. “The Problem with a Technology Revolution Designed Primarily for Men.” Quartz. 16 Mar. 2016. Web. 16 Mar. 2016.
Connor, Steven. Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.
Graham, Elaine. “CYBORGS OR GODDESSES? Becoming Divine in a Cyberfeminist Age.” Information, Communication & Society 2.4 (1999): 419-38. Web.
Grosz, E. A. Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994. Print.
Halberstam, Judith. “Automating Gender: Postmodern Feminism In The Age Of The Intelligent Machine.” Feminist Studies 17.3 (1991): 439. Religion and Philosophy Collection. Web.
Smith, Aaron. “U.S. Smartphone Use in 2015.” PewResearchCenter. 1 Apr. 2015. Web. 20 Feb. 2016. <http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/04/01/us-smartphone-use-in-2015/>.
Warner Bros. Picture, Annapurna Pictures production ; produced by Megan Ellison , Spike Jonze, Vincent Landay ; written and directed by Spike Jonze. Her. Burbank, CA :Distributed by Warner Home Video, 2014.
Wajcman, Judy. TechnoFeminism. Cambridge: Polity, 2004. Print.
Wang, Yongdong. “Your Next New Best Friend Might Be a Robot.” Nautilus. 4 Feb. 2016. Web. 15 Feb. 2016.