Imagine if Siri, Alexa and Cortana were named Deshawn, LaToya and Tyrell and, instead of being female, their voices were clearly identifiable as Black.
We command them to make our appointments and take us places. We expect them to stand by, 24-7, hovering and ready to provide whatever assistance they can. We tolerate no mistakes and curse at them when they don’t do what we ask. We toy with them. We don’t have to say please or thank you. And they ask for nothing in return save a little electricity and bandwidth. Our ancestors could only dream of having servants as cheap, competent and submissive as Siri, Alexa or Cortana—but they had to rely on living beings.
For millennia, people with power or money have used other people and nonhuman animals to act as extensions of their own mind and body: servants that cook and scrub, slaves captured in wars or traded on an open market, plough horses, concubines, secretaries who take dictation, butlers, chauffeurs, wet nurses, guardian dogs, beasts of burden.
One downside for our ancestors was that living servants and slaves are expensive. They have to be fed and housed, and—if they are human—clothed. That created a huge advantage of machines, which are capable of more for less. A 50-horsepower engine is incredibly small and easily fueled by contrast with the infrastructure and resources required by a stable of horses.
Another downside is that servants and slaves who are living beings have a will of their own. They have to be enticed or compelled to set aside their own preferences and projects and instead to act as extensions of a boss or master. People can be incentivized by pay to act part-time, say eight hours daily, as an extension of another person, like the modern executive secretary. Often though, through history, the service has been less voluntary. To get the assistants they want, strong people have exploited power differentials: the desperation of indentured servants and wage slaves; the inability of nonhuman animals to negotiate or escape; the subjugate weakness and low social status of human chattel.
Most of us look back on that history and cringe. In the United States, we cringe especially at the horror that was Black slavery and the Atlantic slave trade. Virtual assistants with default Black names and voices would immediately call up that history, the ongoing struggle of Black Americans to transcend the devastation it wrought, and the residual racism in our society. Except for, perhaps, some literal neo-Nazis, people would be outraged. There would be boycotts. Virtual assistants that sounded like Black Americans would be an unmitigated public-relations and financial disaster for the corporations that produced and branded them.
So, how is it that Amazon, Apple and Microsoft roll out virtual chattel with female names and voices, and get away with it?
Some might point out that Black people are the only Americans whose ancestors were brought en masse to this continent in chains. There’s a solid reason many people are sensitized to images, vocabulary, narratives, roles and norms that treat Black people as less-than.
That said, across human cultures and geographies, the type of persons that have most routinely been treated as chattel—legal property belonging to other people—are women. This is not ancient history. In many countries today, women and even underage girls are still “given” by their fathers to husbands—the very name husband meaning master of the house and manager, as in animal husbandry or husbanding resources.
Female servitude continues to be reinforced by America’s dominant religion. Many forms of Christianity still today teach that women should not be church leaders and some say that females should keep silent in church as dictated by the Word of God. Wives are taught to submit to their husbands. The Bible’s second creation story—considered by many to be literal truth—teaches that the first woman was created as a “helpmeet” to the first man, who was made in the image of God. The New Testament promises that women will be saved through childbearing. Church fathers and modern leaders who made vile statements about women have yet to be repudiated.
Christianity is not alone. Modern imams try to explain carefully how and why a man can smack his wife in accordance with the scripture. Conservative Islam continues to force hijab or worse on hundreds of millions of women. Hijab may be seen by some in the West as a symbol of multi-culturalism and tolerance, which traditionally symbolizes male ownership of female sexuality. Even in the West, young women get killed by relatives for pursuing love interests of their own choosing. Women’s rights advocates are jailed and lashed in Muslim majority countries. Among Jews, the Haredim continue to demand that women cover their hair and ride in segregated buses. They deface images of women in public.
All of this is now, in the 21st Century. It doesn’t work to say that female servitude is less of a big deal than black slavery. The only explanation I see for the success of Siri, Alexa and Cortana is that people are more comfortable with sexism than racism, with female servitude than Black servitude. The question is why we are comfortable with either.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.