Voice assistants: Challenging the 'Smart Wife' to a feminist reboot
In this edited extract from The Smart Wife, authors Jenny Kennedy and Yolande Strengers reveal the striking parallels between digital voice assistants, like Alexa and Siri, and an antagonist from Star Trek.
Alexa — the digital voice assistant of Amazon’s Echo device — is the world’s most popular smart wife. 60 per cent of the voice-enabled speaker device market in the United States was controlled by Alexa in 2019, far ahead of Google Home’s 24 per cent. But despite her popularity, is she really a good idea for people and the planet?
As we explain in our book The Smart Wife, the 'smart wife' refers to artificial intelligence, inter-connected or robotic things designed to carry out domestic responsibilities that have traditionally fallen to wives.
Our mission is to give her a feminist reboot, but here we explore another angle. Taking inspiration from popular sci-fi (the source code for many smart wives), we outline how the smart wife is also an ecofeminist nightmare.
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Did you know Amazon’s digital voice assistant Alexa was inspired by the voice system software on the Starship Enterprise, from the space opera media franchise Star Trek? Well, what if Alexa’s fate resides in a different part of the Star Trek universe — specifically, a technological species from the distant Delta Quadrant known as “the Borg”?
The Borg make up a colonising cybernetic race linked by a “hive mind” of all the species that they have “assimilated,” often through violent acts of terror. Borg “drones” are recurring antagonists in the Star Trek series, where they continually threaten to assimilate crew members and remove their individuality by adding them to the Borg collective.
Like bees in a hive, they are headed by a matriarchal queen, with ambitions that reflect those of traditional patriarchal societies (including hierarchical power, superiority over all other species and races, and domination of the Universe and beyond).
The Borg share some surprisingly similar traits with smart wives and the companies that deploy them. For example, they are both interested in building a technological society controlled by a centralised entity that delivers all our needs.
The smart wife’s hive mind rests in the open-source tools and community skill development (like the Alexa Skills Kit), user-generated data, machine learning, and “cloud superpowers” — all necessary underpinnings of products like Alexa.
But rather than being democratic women, smart wife “drones” are designed, made, and controlled by the few in order to expand the capitalist empire in which Silicon Valley’s CEOs are the new Borg kings — assimilating global knowledge, and expanding their reach and scope across the world.
Despite these similarities, there is one critical difference between the Borg and smart wife. (OK, two, if you count the fact that the smart wife is usually cylindrical and the Borg reside in cubes.) 21st Century humans aren’t terrified of Alexa or her entourage. We don’t alter course, abandon ship, or launch an attack when she approaches our homes.
Instead, many of us head to the nearest electronics shop, pay money for her services, and welcome her into our inner worlds — or rather, those of us who are privileged enough to be able to afford her, and have a secure home with electricity and internet connectivity.
Don’t get us wrong; we’re not saying that this is an unreasonable response. After all, to the best of our knowledge, Alexa doesn’t plan to inject us with hive mind serum that connects us to the collective and involuntarily implants our bodies with microchips (but keep your eye out for the next upgrade). Like other smart wives, she comes to us as a nonthreatening new “species” capable of providing all manner of earthly pleasures optimised toward our specific desires. What’s not to like?
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Yet behind her promising smooth and sleek cylindrical appearance lies something different: a trail of far-reaching, damaging, and unequally experienced impacts on the planet that we should all be concerned with.
In 2018, professors Kate Crawford and Vladen Joler from the AI Now Institute in New York published Anatomy of an AI System. This anatomical map and accompanying essay tracked the matrix of impacts associated with a single Amazon Echo Alexa, from the earth’s crust to our homes.
Through their disturbing exposé, Crawford and Joler show how each simple and convenient interaction with Alexa “requires a vast planetary network, fuelled by the extraction of nonrenewable materials, labor, and data.” They reveal the circuitry of largely hidden impacts — from the mining of lithium batteries to planned obsolescence resulting in e-waste — that span every corner of the globe, extending far beyond the direct consumption of resources inside the home.
What is concerning here is how smart wives like Alexa are deliberately designed to shield consumers from understanding and acknowledging their planetary impacts. Alexa’s soothing feminised voice serves to mask and disassociate her users from the murky underworld of mine extraction, toxic waste dumps, dangerous hardware manufacturing and assembly processes, and outsourced workers in precarious and unstable employment conditions who largely reside in the Global South.
The smart wife is therefore more like the Borg than you may think — albeit headed by mostly oligarchic kings and supported by feminised drones. We have one question to ask this new collective: Alexa, is this the kind of future we should be building?
What, then, might be an appropriate response to a world occupied by a workforce of smart wives? Ecofeminist scholars offer some inspiration by providing alternatives to patriarchal capitalism premised on a renewed connection and respect for our environment.
Living democracies and cultures, writes Vandana Shiva, “are based on nonviolence and compassion, diversity and pluralism, equality and justice, and respect for life in all its diversity.” They are grounded in two ecological principles: the “precautionary principle” (avoiding actions that could cause ecological harm) and the “polluter pays principle” (requiring the polluter to pay for any harm done to the environment and clean up any mess).
Both were enshrined in Agenda 21 of the UN Conference on Environment and Development in 1992, commonly known as the Earth Summit, although they have proven difficult to enact and enforce.
For our skeptical reader who may dismiss such ideas as fanciful or unrealistic, bear in mind that living democracies existed for far longer than the brief blip in human civilisation that we call contemporary capitalism.
Ecofeminist ideology is already being realised through a range of movements and initiatives that seek to hold companies like Amazon accountable for their planetary impacts. The European Union and United States, for example, are establishing “right to repair” laws that are intended to make devices last longer and be easier to mend. These laws are an attempt to curtail “planned obsolescence” (whereby companies design devices to fail or stop supporting their repair in order to encourage consumers to upgrade).
There is cause to hope, then, that these new Borg kings will have a limited reign or undergo radical transformation.
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However, within this planetary doom and gloom, it is difficult to see what purpose the smart wife serves. Suggesting that she connects people closer to nature or helps us to conserve resources by, for example, turning off appliances and lights when not being used, is a dubious claim at best. As we argue in our book, it’s a position that can only be maintained while ignoring her impact beyond the home.
We could simply wrap this up now by concluding that the smart wife is a waste of everyone’s time. Pack up shop, Bezos. Go home, Alexa. Yet that would be unrealistic, or as the Borg would say, “resistance is futile.” Capitalism is the system in which the majority of the world’s civilisations currently exist, and connected smart technologies are now utterly intertwined with that system.
But of course, resistance isn’t futile, as the Star Trek crews demonstrate. We thus simultaneously call for a rejection of smart wives as a universally good idea, and acknowledge that while we have smart wives entering our lives in increasing numbers, we need to focus on some significant improvements.
That doesn’t mean we should all go out and grab the latest model of Alexa. If the smart wife is going to continue existing and expanding her reach into affluent homes (which is likely), she first needs to develop some ethics, and — ironically — care for the world in which she lives.
At a perfunctory level, that involves engaging with and responding to the entire supply chain, and ensuring that each step of the way is supporting, rather than exploiting, the natural and sustenance economies on which she depends.
In this regard, Alexa would do well to ditch her Borg implants and instead take inspiration from a more reciprocal species (suggestions welcome). If she’s going to colonise the planet with or without our endorsement, we may as well ask that she do it with some ethical principles.