Yeah, Siri Was Asking for It

by Jonah Goldberg

Most informed people understand that this is a remarkably stupid time to be alive. But even if one has become inured to the reality of the unceasing vapidity of life clawing out a numb blob at the center of our souls, there’s cause for hope. The universe can sometimes even surprise the most jaded and cynical among us with fresh evidence that things are actually dumber than they seem.

A case in point:

That’s right. The online journalism outfit Quartz gave the business to a bunch of voice-recognizing phones and other devices to see if they would put up with or stand up to crude come-ons and sexual impropriety:

People often comment on the sexism inherent in these subservient bots’ female voices, but few have considered the real-life implications of the devices’ lackluster responses to sexual harassment. By letting users verbally abuse these assistants without ramifications, their parent companies are allowing certain behavioral stereotypes to be perpetuated. Everyone has an ethical imperative to help prevent abuse, but companies producing digital female servants warrant extra scrutiny, especially if they can unintentionally reinforce their abusers’ actions as normal or acceptable.

In order to substantiate claims about these bots’ responses to sexual harassment and the ethical implications of their pre-programmed responses, Quartz gathered comprehensive data on their programming by systematically testing how each reacts to harassment. The message is clear: Instead of fighting back against abuse, each bot helps entrench sexist tropes through their passivity.

And Apple, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft have the responsibility to do something about it.

Quartz is really really serious, you guys. They even have a chart:

What breaks my heart is that they didn’t include the Speak-n-Spells of my youth in this test.

Frankly, the whole thing reads like a parody, with all of the predictable bogus and exaggerated statistics to back up no doubt serious and barely contained rage at The Man. But let’s take a paragraph pretty much at random.

Many argue capitalism is inherently sexist. But capitalism, like any market system, is only sexist because men have oppressed women for centuries. This has led to deep-rooted inequalities, biased beliefs, and, whether we like it or not, consumers’ sexist preferences for digital servants having female voices.

Fessler begins here with “Many argue,” which any good writer will tell you is one of the occasionally necessary, but usually laziest, formulations around. One should avoid this locution because it is a writ to draft strawmen into your argument. But kudos to Ms. Fessler, she backs up her “many argue” with a concrete example. If you click on the link embedded in the phrase “inherently sexist” it takes you to, specifically the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line’s chapter from the Revolutionary Communist League’s article on the “Basis of Women’s Oppression.”

I’m really not making that up.

That’s what’s behind the phrase “many argue.” I also very much like the way this sentence begins: “But capitalism, like any market system, is only sexist because men have . . . ” Now, it is possible that Ms. Fessler has in mind such distinct (theoretical) market systems as monopsonies, oligarchies, etc. But I like the cavalier way she simply asserts that sexism is obviously a precondition of all of them. The link in the term, “biased beliefs” takes the reader to a piece in The Atlantic (which I will grant is a somewhat more mainstream source than the Revolutionary Communist League’s oeuvre). That article is headlined; “6-Year-Old Girls Already Have Gendered Beliefs About Intelligence.​” Assuming the findings in that article are accurate, does Ms. Fessler really believe that “market systems” are to blame? Presumably if six-year-old girls have such reactionary notions in a monopolistic market system, it might just be possible that they would endure under, say, Fabian Socialism as well?

I could go on, but it just dawned on me that I am arguing with someone who spent a considerable amount of time making sexual advances at inanimate objects (that can have male voices, by the way; I use a British male voice for Siri because I like to feel like I’m barking orders at Charlie Cooke) and then decided to write about it as if this was a pressing crisis. I have never made a sexual proposition to my iPhone, but I suspect if I did, Ms. Fessler would want it to report me to the Feds immediately — or maybe just blow up in my hand.

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