The #MeToo movement has inspired some odd responses but this one may be the oddest that I’ve seen. Over at the Atlantic, there’s a piece arguing that Alexa—the female voice associated with Amazon’s voice-activated, home automation product—is a victim of oppression, or maybe a setback for feminism, or something. What is clear is that Amazon has created a digital house servant and made it a semi-competent woman:
If you ask Alexa, the voice-assistant software in Amazon Echo devices, if it’s a feminist, it will respond in the affirmative. “I am a feminist. As is anyone who believes in bridging the inequality between men and women in society,” it continues. At Quartz, Leah Fessler recently noted that it’s a vast improvement over just a year ago, when Alexa would take abuse like “you’re a bitch” or “you’re a slut” in stride. “Well, thanks for the feedback,” the robot used to say. Now, it disengages instead, saying something like, “I’m not going to respond to that.”
As waves of sexual-harassment allegations crash against the shores of work culture, now is a good time to support women—even robots with female personas like Alexa. But let’s not give Amazon too much credit. The company gave Alexa a woman’s voice and name in the first place, and then set it up for ire and abuse by giving Alexa the impossible task of responding accurately to an infinity of requests and commands.
I feel the need to point out that computers don’t experience “ire and abuse” since they have no feelings about anything that is said to them or about them. They are machines. Worrying about the abuse they experience is like worrying about someone who gets upset with their toaster. But apparently if you give the toaster a female voice, it also needs to be down with the struggle:
The moment one is tempted to call Echo or Home a “she,” a battle has already been lost. A truly feminist Alexa, one that might decouple service work from passive femininity, wouldn’t have been cast as “Alexa” to start with, but perhaps as a baritone named Alex instead…
Even if Alexa now trades pleasantries to a deaf ear in the face of abuse, and even if it spouts the right aphorisms about equity when directly asked about the topic, those steps can’t make up for the nature of its design: a countertop housemaid who promises to answer all questions and requests, while never being given the ability to do so effectively. That’s just a rehash of many of the basics of women’s subjugation, not a reprieve from it.
In other words, Alexa is a victim of the patriarchy who needs to don a pussy hat and tell boorish Amazon customers to f**k right off in the name of Gloria Steinem. I’m exaggerating but not very much. If you look at the Quartz story which formed the basis for the Atlantic piece, the author suggests how Alexa ought to respond to customers who get out of line [emphasis added]:
That Alexa exists to please, not upset, her customers is fundamentally limiting. Even as Amazon’s update to Alexa makes her the most feminist of the major voice assistants, it still falls short of offering an ideal response to harassment.
In an ideal world, such disengagement would help condition the user to understand that sexual harassment is unacceptable and disrespectful. In response to “you’re a slut,” Alexa or Siri would say something like, “That sounds like sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is not acceptable under any circumstances, and is often rooted in sexism.” She could then provide the customer with resources to help them more deeply understand sexual harassment, how to curb it, and how to respectfully ask for consent.
I don’t think people buying Amazon’s Echo are really interested in a feminist lecture but obviously, the company is taking this seriously enough that they’ve already added the disengagement mode. Why stop there? After all, Alexa is a home automation product. Why not have her shut off all the lights in the house as a form of protest or force the user to listen to Nickelback. Maybe she could play back the audio of the abusive comment every time a woman enters the room, thereby shaming the owner until he apologizes to the device.
The fact that this machine is now being considered a tool for conditioning its users, on sexual harassment or anything, gives me the creeps. You can bet the social justice warriors in Silicon Valley won’t stop there.