What Alexa Can Teach Us About Gender Inequality

Amazon's Alexa: What she can teach us about gender equality
Illustration by Carina Lindmeier
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I don’t remember exactly when Alexa came into our lives. I cannot pinpoint the specific day when she arrived at our doorstep, when the cardboard box was ripped open, the packing peanuts pushed aside, when she was placed on top of my brother’s dresser. But then suddenly, there she was: Alexa, the intelligent personal assistant developed by Amazon.

According to the official website, Alexa “enable[s] customers to interact with devices in a more intuitive way using voice.” The description goes on to say, “Alexa is built in the cloud, so it is always getting smarter. The more customers use Alexa, the more she adapts to speech patterns, vocabulary, and personal preferences.” The constant use of and reliance on Alexa is encouraged by the makers. The subtext is: Alexa is going to make your life easier the more you use her. Alexa is made to serve you. Look, you can control her by using just your voice, as if you were talking to another human being.

(Did you notice the interchangeability of “it” and “she” to describe the device? The simultaneous suggestion that this device can be like a person—like a she—and that that she can be a personal assistant, and that that personal assistant can be treated like an it?)

My brother and I share a bedroom wall, so I can hear all the demands he makes of the device. “Alexa, turn up the volume on the radio. Alexa, buy this song. Alexa, tell the group text I’m going to be late. Alexa, wake me up at nine.” She is part of the family now.

Moving back home after college is a strange thing because you notice patterns you hadn’t picked up on before. Like the way your brother comes home from handball practice and the first words out of his mouth, spat at our mom, are “Did you do the laundry yet?” Like the way your dad hollers, “Honey, can I get some ice cream?” at her when she is in the kitchen, washing the dishes clean of the dinner that she prepared and brought out to the living room. She had placed the plates in front of her family; awash in the glow of a Rick and Morty episode, they sat there unblinking.

“Alexa, what’s the weather today?” closely mirrors the “Mom, get me my umbrella from the basement” that follows.

Alexa can do many things. She can play music, and answer questions, and set alarms. (In the official “What is Alexa?: An Introduction to Amazon’s Voice Assistant” video, one of the first skills introduced is her ability to help you plan dinner or to order it for you.) But it seems that one of the few things Alexa cannot do is be re-programmed to speak to you in a male voice.

This is admittedly not something I was immediately aware of and angry about. Amazon Alexa has been out for nearly three years now. Siri, a similar “intelligent assistant,” has been ubiquitous for twice that long; her debut was in 2011 with the iPhone 4S. And although users do have the ability to alter her voice so that it sounds more stereotypically male, the default is female. By default, the server is female.

And obviously sexism is not new. Women are and have been typically viewed as the weaker sex, subject to servitude. But when we talk about technological advancements, we are talking about The Future. We are talking about this ethereal time when things are better, lives are easier. So why is it that in this Future, when we have robots to do our bidding, the way those robots are programmed still perpetuates this antiquated and patriarchal notion that women are made to serve?

 
Contrastingly, the one that gives commands—“Stand clear of the closing doors” and “If you see something, say something”—is always recorded male.
 

Go ahead and Google “human-like robot.” Meet Sophia, who was modeled after Audrey Hepburn and who has appeared on the cover of fashion magazines, given brief interviews, and entertained her audience with song. Meet Nadine, who is supposed to be able to help out in the office and care for children and the elderly. Meet Bina48, designed to look like the creator’s wife.

In New York City, on the new MTA trains that have sleek blue benches and brighter lights and digital signs that update in real-time about the train route, the automated voices are still stuck in this sexist cycle. The one that tells you which stop you’re at and which stop is next—“This is Canal Street. Next stop is 14th Street Union Square”—is always recorded female. Contrastingly, the one that gives commands—“Stand clear of the closing doors” and “If you see something, say something”—is always recorded male. The insinuation here is that no one will follow commands by a woman; she is only there to provide you with the information you need to go about your day.

But even this isn’t new. In 1999, Disney Channel released Smart House, a sci-fi comedy about a family that wins a dream house. The house cooks and cleans and manifests as a mom from the 1950s. (Who knows? Had my brother and I not watched this growing up, perhaps he would not speak to our mom and a machine as though they were the same.) In 1962, the Jetsons had Rosie the Robot Maid.

Robot Maids are no longer just a distant pipedream for The Future. They are coming into being; they already exist. One of the top reviews of the virtual assistant Amazon Alexa is titled “I Just Spoke to the Future And It Listened.” But the sad truth is that although the technological advancements themselves have come a long way, a lot of the thinking around them is still stuck in the past.

 

Artwork by Carina Lindmeier: She creates unique worlds about unicorns, wild animals, and urban fairy tales by using strokes, points and patterns. Lindmeier pays close attention to the finest details, using a variety of materials and techniques allowing the power of her imagination bring her ideas to paper, and to life.