Book Review: The Computer’s Voice - From Star Trek to Siri by Liz W. Faber

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A circuit board embossed with a vocal wave form.

A deconstruction of gender through the voices of Siri, HAL 9000, and other computers that talk
Considering Star Trek, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Her, and more, Liz W. Faber explores contentious questions around gender: its fundamental constructedness, the rigidity of the gender binary, and culturally situated attitudes on male and female embodiment. Going beyond current scholarship on robots and AI to focus on voice-interactive computers, The Computer’s Voice breaks new ground in questions surrounding media, technology, and gender.

I did not care for this book. I think I'm too stupid to have understood it properly. I thought this was going to be about why the current crop of domestic-droids have (mostly) female coded voices. Perhaps looking at the seismic shift from the attitudes of German drivers who once rejected a female voice giving them GPS directions to the near universal acceptance of audible gynoids.

Instead, it's a media studies book which focuses exclusively on American TV and film. I'm not fully versed in modern critical theory, so lots of it went completely over my head. I can appreciate that people might interpret the female-voiced starship Enterprise as a pastel-coloured womb, and the male-voiced HAL9000 as a cold and sterile phallus. But the stuff about phallic-mothers castrating their Oedipal offspring in a Freudian-frenzy was alien to me.

A large portion of the book is simply reciting the plot of slightly obscure movies. There is some slight analysis of what having a female- or male- voiced computer might tell us about the psyche. But it doesn't go in to any depth. Some of the over-analysis seems a little far fetched to me. Is Picard really regressing inside his mother when he enters the holodeck? Does HAL cutting a life-support cable represent a father snipping his child's umbilical cord? Maybe, but it's all a bit wishy-washy. You can read anything you like into invented symbolism. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes the colour red is for danger - not for representing the ship's uterine lining.

I suppose I was expecting more of a rigorous analysis of whether the media has influenced the way in which humans expect their robots to behave. Given the wealth of movies and TV shows with speaking-machines, it felt limited to focus on so few examples. I get that Star Trek and 2001 cast a long shadow over everything - but there's so much more to synthetic voices than them.

There was also nothing about the history of acousmatic voices. The very earliest ones were male-ish - if only by virtue of being low pitched.

Is the only difference between male and female voices their pitch? When did the female voice become preferred for recorded announcements? What does constantly barking orders to a disembodied female servant do to your psychology? None of these questions are answered.

It is obvious that I was expecting a different book. Either a history of vocal-interactions with machines, or a look at how speaking to machines (and having them speak back) affects us. Perhaps even what the implications are for modern feminism. Instead, it's a limited psychoanalysis of an interesting modern phenomenon.

I'm sure the book is great, if you already understand and accept the theories that it is based on - but it was wasted on me.

One thought on “Book Review: The Computer’s Voice - From Star Trek to Siri by Liz W. Faber

  1. I read somewhere that when US Air Force was looking for most effective voice for audible warnings in their bombers. This in 1950s I think, they chose a “stern grandmother” voice.

    Anyone know what is used in current airplanes?

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