Q&A: Yolande Strengers

Yolande Strengers is a digital sociologist and human-computer interaction scholar investigating the sustainability and gender effects of digital, emerging and smart technologies. Her book, The Smart Wife, written with Jenny Kennedy, examines the emergence of digital devices that carry out traditional ‘wifework.’

What does feminism mean to you?

Feminism has become one of the central ways I view the world and strive to operate within it. It’s a complicated and constantly evolving conversation, and a perspective that allows me to recognise the inequities and injustices that exist within patriarchal societies. It’s also a call for action that seeks to elevate the opportunities and status of women and any marginalised group, whilst simultaneously striving towards dismantling structural inequalities and stereotypes. Feminism can help us understand all genders and people, as well as other animals and the environment we are part of.

Too often I think feminism is misunderstood as being about treating everyone equally. Equal opportunity is surely something to strive towards, but it’s not the current reality of the world we live in. For me, feminism is about adjusting the conditions we all operate within to take account of the privileges and biases different groups of people experience unevenly. This is how I try to understand and practice equity.

Was there a particular moment you can pinpoint that was crucial to the development of your perspective on feminism, and what it means to be a woman writer?

As a child growing up in a small country town in south-east Australia, I took any opportunity to write and find out about other people’s lives; at one stage I had over 20 pen pals from all around the world who I would regularly write to. I received letters from the postal service almost every day. I was also fascinated with other countries, cultures, languages and religions, and deeply concerned about the future of the world and environment I was growing up in. I didn’t identify as a feminist at the time, and had no keen sense that my opportunities were limited in any way, and yet as I engaged more with the world around me I started to see differences. I probably only consciously identified as a feminist in my late 20s or early 30s, when other life experiences and academic studies started to give me an intellectual understanding of what I had always seen around me. The Smart Wife solidified my perspective on feminism and my voice as a woman writer. It was both terrifying and exhilarating to write that book alongside Jenny. If I have to identify a defining point or moment, that would be it.

In The Smart Wife, you write about how virtual assistant devices, such as Alexa, come to be gendered as passive and feminine. How and why does this happen?

There are many reasons for this, but the most obvious is that agreeable and feminine devices are more likely to be accepted by the people who use them. Feminine voices and personalities are commonly perceived as being less threatening than male voices, and they are also more familiar in relation to domestic tasks, where they conform to gendered stereotypes about women’s traditional roles in the home. From the perspective of companies trying to embed these devices into our lives this makes sense – using stereotypical and service-oriented feminine personalities allows these companies to reach the widest possible market, and ensure their devices enter as many intimate spaces within the home as possible.

How do you see the ‘personalities’ of these devices reflecting and impacting gender relations in the broader world?

Smart wives like digital voice assistants are rapidly growing in ubiquity. We now have a situation where the vast majority have default female voices and personalities that reinforce stereotypes about women’s roles in the home and also reproduce a particular version of femininity that resembles long-held nostalgia for the 1950s housewife. This is affecting how we interact with these devices, and allows us to perform exaggerated gendered stereotypes with them.

For example, we are more likely to blame technological ‘glitches’ or imperfections on the feminised form of digital voice assistants, rather than the male-dominated industries and companies that design and manufacture them. We are also more likely to sexually debase and abuse feminised devices. This is especially problematic when they have not been programmed to respond assertively or negatively to this kind of behaviour.

But the issues extend much further than our interactions with digital assistants. In the book we explore a whole other range of effects these feminised personalities are contributing to, ranging from our understandings of sexual consent with sex robots, through to the role of smart home technologies in facilitating digital domestic abuse.

In the book, you call for a ‘feminist reboot’ of virtual assistant devices; what would that look like, and how could we make it happen?

Our reboot manifesta is much broader than virtual assistants, and covers the whole market for smart wives, which also encompasses smart home appliances, social and care robots, and sex robots. While our reboot is mainly directed at the companies manufacturing these devices, we also have suggestions for journalists, science fiction writers and directors, and of course all of us who are welcoming these smart wives into our lives.

We provide nine proposals ranging from design changes, such as queering the personalities of these devices to diversify the forms of femininity and gender expression then embody, through to providing new science fiction inspiration by disrupting the typical plotlines for smart wives in literature and on screen. We also call for change in how we talk about smart wives and their ‘problems’ in the media, suggesting that we need to stop blaming feminised devices like Alexa, and start directing responsibility at big tech companies like Amazon. For users of these devices, we suggest interacting respectfully with them and experimenting with their voices and personalities where possible.

Do you have any feminist recommendations for books, podcasts or authors that we should be paying attention to at the moment?

So many! I’m currently reading Jeanette Winterson’s Frankisstein, a fabulous novel about the emerging world of artificial intelligence that uniquely spans historical and science fiction, while remaining eerily close the themes we explore in The Smart Wife. I’m also part-way through Annabel Crabb’s Quarterly essay on Men at Work: Australia’s Parenthood Trap, which is a fascinating exploration into why so few men take up parental leave or flexible employment.

Credits: Cover photo, MIT Press. Head shot, Mia Mala McDonald

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