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The Evolution of Siri in America

February 28, 2015

My first iPhone in the USA was a 3GS, and it had an app on it called Siri.

At the time, nobody knew either that it was intended to be called Hal or that Apple would buy it as an essential part of the later versions of iPhone. Yes, Hal, not Siri.

Not long afterwards, those with the upgraded iPhones with that essential Siri, people like Amanda Marcotte, began to wonder about the advice the app doled out:

Siri behaves much like a retrograde male fantasy of the ever-compliant secretary: discreet, understanding, willing to roll with any demand a man might come up with, teasingly accepting of dirty jokes. Oh yeah, and mainly indifferent to the needs of women.

At my house, we discovered this while playing with Siri’s quickly established willingness to look up prostitutes for a straight man in need….

More troubling and less predictable was Siri’s inability to generate decent results related to women’s reproductive health.

Apple’s spokes”woman” seems to have promised early on, in 2011, that these sorts of human observations about the sexist machine should go away. For instance, Natalie Kerris said:

Our customers want to use Siri to find out all types of information, and while it can find a lot, it doesn’t always find what you want. These are not intentional omissions meant to offend anyone. It simply means that as we bring Siri from beta to a final product, we find places where we can do better, and we will in the coming weeks.

Nonetheless, those sorts of human observations have continued through this year. For example, in late January 2015, there were a few more comments by Annalee Newitz:

Siri is a kind of disembodied presence, but clearly her gender matters. Indeed, there was no male version of Siri until 2013….

[W]e’re supposed to associate digital assistant work with traditional women’s roles. Siri is mother who actually cares about you, and Cortana is the most competent secretary you ever had. Which — of course, you never had a secretary. As David Wheeler pointed out last year on CNN, there’s a certain amount of wishful thinking here, given that the age of secretaries died along with the chain-smoking execs of Mad Men. There’s wishful thinking in the mother idea, too, since nobody has a mother who keeps track of their every whim the way Siri will…..

So what is it that Siri and Cortana deliver that a male voice cannot? I think the answer is submission. Again, there are many sexist overtones here. But the sad truth is that these digital assistants are more like slaves than modern women. They are not supposed to threaten you, or become your equal — they are supposed to carry out orders without putting up a fight. The ideal slave, after all, would be like a mother to you. She would never rebel because she loves you, selflessly and forever.

I do want to stress that Siri is female like this in the USA. In Australia, there’s also a female voice. In Canada, the voice is male. In England, the voice is, or was, male too. When he shifted to a she, then some Brits began to protest, if others began to like her:

But it’s not all bad for British users. Many have also posted that they are pleased with the work of female British Siri, saying she is much better.

And now humans using the iPhone get to choose, female or male. Here are the instructions for making the change from one to the other.

And since I’m focusing on the USA, if you speak Danish, Dutch, Portuguese, Russian, Swedish, Thai and Turkish languages here, then you’re in luck because Apple is working on a Siri that speaks and hears these languages as well.

If your language is English, then you’re still fine to use Siri. You’re okay, unless you want to use your Indian English. You still have to “the need to fake an American or British accent” to get her (or him) to work for you. But just wait, she (or he) is soon going to understand the South Asian lect.

That reminds me of another thing: One of my siblings, who is a Texan from the USA living in Europe as a Permanent Resident of the UK, to be understood, has to speak, not his Texan lect, but the British lect when driving left handed and ordering drive-through at a MacDonalds there. His Siri, an import from the USA, nonetheless, is that female American who tolerates his mother tongue just fine.

Aren’t these bodiless Siris a mere reflection of their makers? And what subtle, unconscious impressions do their replies make on us (if sometimes the responses are just funny)? And what will be the next evolutions of Apple’s Siri in America? What should they be?

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 4, 2015 10:19 am

    Siri has always been a woman on my ipad here in Canada.

  2. March 4, 2015 11:04 am

    I should have asked you, Suzanne. Online reports like this one from Canada were, to me, not very clear:

    July 8th, 2013

    Siri

    The iOS 7 beta 3 Siri includes development versions of new male and female Siri voices for English and French, and a male voice for German. Also, Siri sounds more human-like now.

    http://www.iphoneincanada.ca/ios/here-are-some-changes-in-ios-7-beta-3/

    And in this online video, we can hear Siri sounding much the same in both Canada and the US:

  3. March 4, 2015 8:30 pm

    Maybe you can choose. I asked Siri “what gender are you” and Siri answered, “I have no gender.” But sounds like a woman to me.

  4. March 8, 2015 12:22 am

    There’s a fairly familiar trope in the science fiction stories written in the 50s through 70s, or thereabouts, but set in the fairly far future, in which most people have some kind of computerized personal assistant, and the one we see/hear most of has been programmed by the man who owns it to speak to him in deferential/submissive feminine diction.

    In the best and/or later ones (the one I’m thinking of is by feminist Suzette Haden Elgin), other characters mock the Curmudgeonly Boss Man for having done such a ridiculous, archaic thing.

    In the early ones, it’s quite taken for granted as the computerized replacement of the 50s-era secretary.

    I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the (presumptively men) techs who developed Siri had these stories swimming in their consciousnesses somewhere.

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