Friday, October 21, 2011

Open the pod bay doors, Siri

I'm glad to have been raised on the English language, not just because that allows me to understand what I'm thinking about, but because the English language is gender neutral, at least when it comes to nouns. We do hear people calling groups of females "you guys" but that's another thing.

Of course there are exceptions. It's traditional to speak of ships as though they were female which quite frankly baffles me and so I always use 'it' instead of 'she' when referring to them, just as though they were cars. Of course there are those oddballs who anthropomorphize their vehicles too and usually in the female sense -- but not me and that's all you need to know about that. When it comes to my car or boat or motorcycle, I'm the 'it' guy.

Same goes for those things some brilliant marketing creep has decided to make female; like cell phones and GPS units for the car. Their synthetic voices, if not tired and meaningless are none the less dispassionate and unsympathetic while telling you to make the next legal U turn. We seem to take it for granted that this sort of robot should sound aristocratically female. I mean Americans when I say we, of course. I read this morning that BMW had to recall a 'female' GPS system in their domestic versions, German males being reluctant to following orders from female cars. I admit I did contact General Motors about converting my car's female navigation voice to a German male voice as I'd be more likely to do what it said. I've been conditioned to ignoring female voices in my car for a long time -- safety reasons, of course. The voice from the passenger seat being so likely to shout things like "Right Here!" meaning "turn left here." I have to point out that the GPS and other things in the car are supposed to respond to voice commands. Mine won't listen to me -- perhaps out of reciprocal spite. Asking it to find a gas station has often given me the locations of nearby cemeteries. Perhaps I might get better results if I addressed her as 'Mistress Vette?'

Anyway digital voices, unlike ancestral voices tend to be female in the US. Does that say anything about how Americans view females? I'm sure it does, but do we prefer them because we see females as subordinate advisers or assistants, as in personal secretaries, or do we prefer female bosses? My carefully considered and scholarly opinion is "who the hell knows?"

Of course we've been listening to female machines for a couple of decades now, but it takes some Act of Apple to transmogrify the quotidian into Genius. The latest manna from the Apple Store features a voice they're calling Siri who has been deliberately 'detuned' to sound less human and more SciFi, which to the masses means "High Tech" which is what we call taking standard technology and putting it a sleek plastic box. Not to get too far off track here, but any visiting aliens will certainly be able to buy Manhattan for a box of beads and trinkets and maybe the whole East coast if the trinkets have pictures of half eaten apples on them.

But once again, this is an American phenomenon. British and French versions of the brain numbing plastic parasites called iPhones sound like men as tells us. This confirms the pathogenic nature of gadgets designed to latch on to our subliminal receptors like drugs and viruses do to our waiting and vulnerable cells. Do French and British iAddicts have different gender stereotypes, different attitudes toward women than Americans, or do their men just have more pleasant voices than their women? The answer may depend on your prejudices and the iPhone may be just another iStone to grind our axes on as we so often do when we pretend our stereotypes are better than other people's stereotypes.

Should I mention that my new Android smart-phone simply tortures me with beeps and other weird noises instead of human voices? Of course perhaps that's because I haven't yet discovered what all those odd hieroglyphs do and there's some peremptory and Teutonic male voice waiting in the software telling me to "turn left NOW -- und you will like it."

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