Computational Arts Research & Theory Blog

Post 15 - Feb 24th, 2019
Multimedia Report Proposal

For our Term 2 final project we are to “work individually to develop an arts-based research project drawing on the approaches we have learnt during the course. The project will investigate an aspect of computational art or computational practice.” The report will be about 3000 words and will also result in or derive from an artefact.

My research and work have focused on the following topics for the last three years:

Transaction between humans and non-humans

The repercussions of using technological devices for emotional support & health care

Developing a speculative and critical design practice

I began thinking about the use of the female voice in digital assistants while I was making my MFA thesis project (an interactive emotional support pillow which uses a female voice). I think I’d like to use this opportunity to explore this topic.

What it the overarching area of research?

I would like to research the use of female voices in digital assistants such as Cortana, Alexa, and Siri. Using material-semiotic tools such as actor-network theory, I will examine how the history of women in computing informs these gendered stereotypes. Object Oriented Ontology and Feminist Ethics will provide a further framework to contextualize these subservient anthropomorphized devices. This project will culminate with a speculative and critically designed physical device which uses theories from Feminist Technoscience to reconfigure the idea of assistant.

What are the key questions or queries you will address?

What are digital assistants? How are they predominantly used? What is the retention rate of use or success of the average request? How do these female assistants reinforce negative gendered stereotypes? What effects does the repeated interaction with a disembodied female assistant have on a household and the individual? Can Alexa ever be feminist?

Why are you motivated to undertake this project?

I am interested in the history of women in the labor force in the last century and their impact on computational technology. I am also genuinely intrigued by the use of digital assistants as their existence seems largely fueled by personal inadequacy (late-stage capitalism?), laziness, and gimmickry.

What theoretical frameworks will you use in your work to guide you?

Material-semiotic tools such as actor-network theory. Object Oriented Ontology and Feminist Ethics.

What theoretical frameworks will you use in the analysis of your project?

Reconfiguration, speculative and critical design. How will you document your project? On my blog, through drafts of the paper, and with photos and videos of the speculative device.

Timeline for project milestones:

Feb 13 - Special collections Library Research
Feb 20 - Concept Research
Feb 25 – Submit proposal
March 4-8 – consider feedback, further research, discuss with peers
March 11-31 – rough draft
April 10-20, May 3-10 – rewrite paper, write script, record VO, make speculative device
May 11 – shoot and edit video
May 13 - Submit paper and blog documentation including video

Budget (if any)

£300 for books which are not available at the library, for a USB microphone, and for physical computing components.



Annotated Bibliography:

Evans, Claire Lisa. Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet. Portfolio/Penguin, 2018.

Claire Evans writes about several key female figures, first in early computing and then in recent history especially concerning the invention and growth of the internet. She repeats themes such as the impact women had on making technology more accessible and their influence on democratizing computing. Evans frequently refers to women as a cheap labor force throughout the last century. The profiled women include Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, the Eniac Six, Radia Pearlman, Elizabeth "Jake" Feinler, and Stacy Horn. Evans explains how these and other women crafted and coded indispensable and ubiquitous modern technology.

On page 24, Evans points out that by 1946, female telephone operators numbered nearly a quarter million. She states that women “were a nimble workforce, capable of working collaboratively in networks and fluid groups. They staffed switchboards, kept records, took dictation, and filed documents. These rote office tasks are now increasingly performed by digital assistants…many of which still speak with female voices.”

Hicks, Marie. Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing. MIT Press, 2018.

Marie Hicks discusses the thirty years between 1944 when Britain led the world in electronic computing and 1974 by which time the British computer industry was on the verge of extinction. She posits that women were kept in lower status employment positions as a reflection of the systemic economic and social patterns of the time. “The deeply conservative, class-bound, and gender-stratified nature of the British economy meant that its technological institutions followed and strengthened particular forms of hierarchy. In the end, this made computer technology a highly conservative, rather than revolutionary, force. Technological change cannot be revolutionary if it fails to change the social and political structures of a society and instead heightens inequalities and divisions that are already present. Strictly speaking, there never was a computer revolution..." The failure to further cultivate and train Britain’s largest technical workforce drastically weakened the country’s efforts to computerize.

Hannon, Charles. “Gender and Status in Voice User Interfaces.” Interactions, vol. 23, no. 3, 2016, pp. 34–37., doi:10.1145/2897939.

Charles Hannon draws attention to the submissive way Alexa assumes blames when miscommunication occurs. He discusses how Alexa and other female digital assistants emulate and reinforce a lower status in their programming by frequently using I-words, which as the psychologist James Pennebaker discovered in the 1990’s, men and people in high-status seldom use. “When Alexa blames herself (doubly) for not hearing my question, she is also subtly reinforcing her female persona through her use of the first- person pronoun I.”

Hannon explores the film HER which employs a greater level language parity in the human-machine relationship. He explains that the solution the problematic gender and status issues are not solved by switching to male or gender-neutral voices, but instead by using language traits that raise status.



Reference list:

Behar, Katherine. Object-Oriented Feminism. University of Minnesota Press, 2016.

Bergen, Hillary. “‘I’d Blush if I Could’: Digital Assistants, Disembodied Cyborgs and the Problem of Gender.” A Journal of Literary Studies and Linguistics, Vol. VI, December 2016, pp95 – 113.

Bogost, Ian. “Sorry, Alexa Is Not a Feminist.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 24 Jan. 2018, www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/01/sorry-alexa-is-not-a-feminist/551291/.

Brauer, Chris. “Beyond Siri, Google Now and Cortana: The Future of Virtual Assistants.” The Next Web, 27 Oct. 2014, thenextweb.com/insider/2014/10/27/beyond-siri-google-now-cortana-future-virtual-assistants/.

Costa, Pedro Carvalho Ferreira Da. “Conversing with Personal Digital Assistants: on Gender and Artificial Intelligence.” Journal of Science and Technology of the Arts, vol. 10, no. 3, 2018, doi:10.7559/citarj.v10i3.563.

Criddle, Cristina. “Amazon Echo's Alexa Is Yet Another Virtual Assistant Reinforcing Sexist Stereotypes.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 19 Sept. 2016, www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/2016/09/19/amazon-echos-alexa-is-yet-another-virtual-assistant-reinforcing/.

Evans, Claire Lisa. Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet. Portfolio/Penguin, 2018.

Gregg, Melissa. “Learning to (Love) Labour: Production Cultures and the Affective Turn.” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, vol. 6, no. 2, 13 May 2009, pp. 209–214., doi:10.1080/14791420902868045.

Hannon, Charles. “Gender and Status in Voice User Interfaces.” Interactions, vol. 23, no. 3, 2016, pp. 34–37., doi:10.1145/2897939.

Hicks, Marie. Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing. MIT Press, 2018.

“Designing a Feminist Alexa Seminar” YouTube, uploaded by UAL Creative Computing Institute, 2 Nov. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=hQyKdC37M20.

Lammin, Hannah. “Conversing with Machines: Affective Affinities with Vocal Bodies.” Transformations, Issue 31, 2018.

Lance, Jennifer. “Amazon's Alexa Is Now a Feminist.” Glamour, Glamour Magazine, 22 Jan. 2018, www.glamour.com/story/amazon-alexa-stands-up-for-herself-if-you-use-sexist-language.

Mul, Jos De. “Digitally Mediated (Dis)Embodiment.” Information, Communication & Society, vol. 6, no. 2, 8 Dec. 2010, doi:10.1080/1369118032000093914.

Negura, Nicolae. “Why Are They All Women?” Unbabel, Building Universal Understanding, 29 Jan. 2019, unbabel.com/blog/ai-assistants-women/.

Phan, Thao. “The Materiality of the Digital and the Gendered Voice of Siri.” Transformations, Issue 29, 2017.

Piper, Allison M. Stereotyping Femininity in Disembodied Virtual Assistants. 2016. Iowa State University, MA Thesis, https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/etd.

Spencer, Jamie. “History of Women in Computing.” Make A Website Hub, 8 Mar. 2018, makeawebsitehub.com/history-women-computing/.

Suchman, Lucy. Plans and Situated Actions: The Problem of Human-Machine Communication. Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Webb, Charlotte. “Here's What It Takes to Create a Feminist Internet.” Eye on Design, AIGA, 9 July 2018, eyeondesign.aiga.org/how-can-we-create-a-feminist-internet/.

“Women in Computing.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 16 Feb. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_computing.

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