Gender and UI

I attempted to pull together a blog post on this topic about a month ago, in reaction to a confluence of several events, mainly Microsoft announcing Cortana as a Siri competitor, and the buzz around Her, a movie that, to me, only gets more unnerving the more you think about it. Personally, I’m squicked out by all Siri-likes, from disembodied navigation system voices to sophisticated (and often well-endowed and/or naked) fictional AI systems in movies and video games. I wanted to make a blog post connecting the overwhelming flood of feminine UI coming into the market and appearing in media alike with the male gaze and the role women play both in the service industry and as unpaid labor. But as I tried to gather these thoughts together, I kept thinking that my emotions were too high to write something insightful and productive, rather than just an anti-Cortana rant.

When I decided to check out what was on for the Glasgow International Festival this week, I didn’t expect to run into the issue of gender and user interface again, but of course, I saw something that made me reconsider. Not only could I make a post about this, frankly, I should.

Aleksandra Domanovic at GoMA

Aleksandra Domanovic’s work in this large scale installation piece, currently in the GoMA from now until June 1st, is described as exploring “the history and development of technology through a gender-conscious lens.” It’s no secret that the tech sector is far from a neutral entity in the world, and in fact can represent some of the most extreme disparities in gender, race and social class. Take, for example, how Mattie Brice’s game Mission reveals to players how gentrification due to tech sector jobs has deeply effected the Mission district of San Francisco. Despite science advocates positioning technological and scientific development as an objective, neutral and beneficial process, science and technology are just as likely to repeat the biases of society as any piece of media or art, and when they are unwilling to notice and engage with the biases critically, instead hiding behind the front of scientific objectivity, these biases can be taken to the extreme.

Something caught my eye in the text accompanying Domanovic’s fascinating installation, which I felt was a direct example of this. While looking into the history of the celluloid-like material you can see in the installation shot above:

“Domanovic discovered that the mechanical filling-in of the cartoon outlines [on animation cels] was women’s work– the actual art-working was reserved only for men. This repetitive activity echoes the labor undertaken in this building 135 years ago when the Gallery of Modern Art was a telephone exchange staffed entirely by women, who were referred to as ‘computers.'”

It seems we want our computers to be women, and our women to be computers. What does it mean? On a basic level it represents simple objectification, the desire to create a woman with no subjectivity or agency. You can take your Stepford wife in for repairs if she’s acting on the fritz, or you can give your ship’s AI navigator a little boob job until she suits your taste. Either way, these “women” won’t mind, and continue to serve their purpose while retaining an attractive yet non-functional shell that only serves to primarily appeal to a heterosexual male viewer. Just as the common trope of female dismemberment in advertising chops women into pieces to turn the bits into decorative objects rather than parts of a whole, independent human being, the tropes of the female android and hot naked lady AI as forms of user interface with a computer system have the same effect, of turning something which represents a whole woman into something that can be used without raising concerns of autonomy.

On a deeper level, this feminization of computer UI represents the fate of women’s labor historically. So called ‘invisible’ and primarily unpaid or low-paid roles, typically associated with service and household work, are similar to the functions these ‘female’ programs fulfill in our cars, desktop PCs, ATMs and pockets today.  They organize and assist, in an attempt to make whatever task you’re doing go by in a friendly and pleasurable way. Of course, the “labor” of a female voice or image is not true unpaid or underpaid labor, it is simply a representation of its presence and gendered nature in society.

Finally, the casting of women as the ‘computers,’ as in the quote from Domanovic’s research above, reveals that these tendencies in video games and UI design are not historically divorced from a pre-digital era, nor are they simply innocent design choices. This categorization alienated the women from the skills, time and work involved in their labor by depicting them as an automatic machine, without individuality, knowledge, or personal needs, and also gives them the role of the passive receiver and transmitter of information, only assisting, much like the female UI we see today. Women becoming computers historically proceeded computers becoming women, but both trends are conceptually intertwined with the reinforcement of gender roles and the devaluation of women’s labor. So-called ‘innocent’ design choices in science and tech are never so, and must be interrogated to challenge the view of scientific development as ‘objective.’ Letting science and tech off on a long leash for the greater good under the presumption of their inherent objectivity is not good enough.

These are only some preliminary and very basic observations on UI from the perspective of gender. It’s definitely something I’d like to further explore, and I also love seeing examples that break the mold. The female AIs in Christine Love’s Analogue, for example, are not passive assistants, but can lie, obscure the truth, and even destroy clues you’ve found in the process of examining the files remaining on a long-abandoned spaceship, despite AIs capable of deceit or outwitting humans are usually gendered as male (HAL, most infamously). UI is becoming increasingly personified, even my Windows 8 error screen attempts to sympathize with a ‘:(‘ emoticon. As computers become more like ‘people,’ most often women, it’s important to think about the implications of how we desire them to act and assist us.

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One thought on “Gender and UI

  1. Very interesting article. It got me thinking about a few female tropes:

    I apologise in advance for the wall of text. Maybe make some tea and then come back for a read.

    I recently watched the original Ghost in the Shell movie (1998, I think) and was struck by the portrayal of the lead female character and her relationship to her own Cyborg body. She’s the head of a Special Forces team and respected by her peers – they don’t seem to dehumanise her for her gender at all, which is striking in and of itself. She’s also naked a lot of the time – she has to be naked for her special invisible camouflage to work, apparently, and there are some scenes where she changes out of her swimsuit and into her regular gear. This being a sci-fi anime movie I expected a shot where a male character catches a glimpse of her sexy body and is paralysed by lust/shock/amazement, but none came. She’s been totally desexualised because her body is a machine, not a body.

    Surely this is a “Yay, technology frees us from oppression!” narrative, but at the same time I think the (male) audience is probably lusting after her. I wonder where the male gaze is, here? Is it the audience’s? The camera’s? Perhaps the male characters do, in fact, fantasise about her, but they do it privately – internally – so it’s “hidden” the way the audience’s fantasies are hidden behind the camera.

    Also of note: you mentioned HAL, I can’t help mentioning SHODAN, the female femme-fatale superAI villain of the System Shock games. She was originally designed to control a space station, but had her ethical constraints removed and started to take it over for her own purposes, killing and mutating the crew. What’s interesting about SHODAN is that she’s not just “evil” or a “betrayer” the way HAL is, that evilness and betrayalness (?) is seen through the lense of her femininity. She takes over the station and starts breeding an army of mutants, and tries to send her “children” to Earth to create a new superrace. So she’s a combination of the Bad Mother and – I think – the uncontrolled, hysterical female archetype who senselessly destroys all those fancy-shmancy things that men created. After all, she only does this once her “ethical constraints” have been removed, which suggests that she wanted to do this all along but was too prudish or rule-bound to do so.

    For a more disturbing reflection of this “WOMEN WILL DESTROY US GIVEN HALF A CHANCE!” trope, see also: women mustn’t be given birth control, women mustn’t be given the right to an abortion, women mustn’t be given greater powers to accuse men of rape because OH MY GOD IT WILL BE THE END OF THE WORLD.

    Finally, I’m reminded of all those female voice-overs for strategy games. I never noticed it before, but it’s usually a female voice which says “Target lost” or “Target destroyed” or “Tracking missile” or “Warhead launched”. Or, rather, it’s always a woman – unless it’s a man who has just launched the missle and is speaking into a phone or something. Male voices exist in these places as extensions of men – they imply that there’s a man there who just did a job. More often than not, a female voice in a military installation means a machine is talking to you to fill you in. Weird.

    I also wonder – is there an element of creepiness to all this? Do we use a “soft”, “feminine”, “comforting” female voice to announce mass slaughter and militant death in our media to creep us out, to make the player think “Ooooh, that was a bad thing you just did!”? Imagine a female voiceover: “Target destroyed. Death toll: 6.5 million.” It’s creepy, largely because it’s calm, collected and the kind of voice we associate with nurturing women (quite wrongly given gender roles etc but whatever).

    But even if that’s the case, well, isn’t it a double standard? Our games might want to creep us out when we launch a nuke, to use the female voice as a dark, impartial, powerful reminder of the terrible might of our weapons. But these games only exist so we can blow shit up, so doesn’t that render a political message (“Weaponry has exceeded humanity’s capacity to feel and judge”) into one far more blase and fun-focused (“Ooooh, isn’t this EDGY?”)

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