The UN thinks you’re a sexist for using Siri

Written by on May 23, 2019

If you want to fix gender imbalances in tech, targeting the supposed sexism of Siri and Alexa should be pretty far down on your list. According to the United Nations, however, it’s a matter of high priority.

On Wednesday, the U.N. released a 145-page report about “closing gender divides in digital skills through education.” The report begins by pointing out a real problem: “Worldwide, women are less likely to know how to operate a smartphone, navigate the internet, use social media and understand how to safeguard information in digital mediums — abilities that underlie innumerable life and work tasks and are relevant to people of all ages.”

This certainly isn’t true in the Western world, nor in the Far East. In fact, I’m willing to bet that nearly 100% of women would find extremely sexist the idea that women can’t use smartphones.

If there’s any merit to this claim, it pertains to cultures that keep such things away from women, in addition to, say, preventing them from driving. But the U.N. has no intention of focusing on that problem — it instead spends 50 pages blaming the problem on personal assistant programs, such as Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa. They are apparently … problematic. The report says that their “hardwired subservience” makes the female-voiced programs “servile, obedient and unfailingly polite.” The point is that people expect the programs to be deferential, to respond to insults by saying simply, “I’d blush if I could,” which is, pointedly, the name of the report.

Feminists have long claimed that smartphones are sexist. One day it’s because they’re too big for women’s hands, another day it’s because the virtual assistants we rely on are usually female. This complaint isn’t news. It’s been on feminists’ minds since Siri was introduced in 2011 — and even before then, at the dawn of artificial intelligence.

But we enjoy the female voices of Siri and Alexa not because we still expect women only to be secretaries, but because they’re pleasant. They’re not nice because they’re women, but because they are computer programs without any will of their own, designed to assist us. You can even change Siri to be voiced by a man (even one with a British accent).

The AI program in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Hal, is a little murdery, but you don’t hear anyone complaining about gender bias against him. Director Stanley Kubrick even changed the voice actor for Hal at the last minute to Douglas Rain, a Canadian with a soft intonation.

But that explanation doesn’t fly with the U.N. “To justify the decision to make voice assistants female, companies like Amazon and Apple have cited academic work demonstrating that people prefer a female voice to a male voice….Lost in this narrative, however, are studies that refute or complicate the idea that humans have a blanket preference for female voices.”

OK, so some people want to hear male voices, and some people prefer their digital assistants to be female. Why does that matter? And more importantly, when will the U.N. decide that sexism matters when it happens to, you know, a real woman?

If the U.N. wants to use its funds to actually make a positive difference, it should focus its attention away from Alexa, Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Samsung’s (nearly worthless) Bixby. Instead of spending almost 50 pages on virtual assistants, it could have focused on bringing education and recruitment programs to women who are barred full participation in their societies.

The U.N. may be joining a celebrated campaign against the virtual patriarchy, but it isn’t one relevant to reality. When Trump talks about the money the American taxpayers waste on the U.N., he ought to bring up this example.

Source: Washington Examiner – Beltway Confidential


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