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Siri didn’t kick my dog or call me in the middle of the night while I was sleeping

By Amanda Marcotte
Thursday, December 1, 2011 19:11 EDT
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So I published a couple of quick pieces, one for Forbes and one for XX Factor, about how Siri is sexist. I got a lot of great responses, including Jill's at Feministe,  but I also got a lot of people talking to me like I'm stupid. Lots and lots of people, especially men, condescendingly explaining that Siri can't be sexist, because it's just a dumb program that uses pre-existing databases for its searches. And apparently, since "sexism" can only  be used to describe intentional, hateful behavior, things like neglecting to remember that women have needs or employing subconscious stereotypes about women simply can't count as sexism. Gosh, the stuff you have to explain to ladies! They are so dim. Seriously, I got crap like this:

Besides the fairly hateful stereotyping on display, this tells a story of software development that simply doesn't make any sense. Siri is not really a "program" in the sense that it is not something a group of programmers sit and make. Rather, Siri is a collection of many different services presented under a unified interface. This unification (sort of Apple's specialty) might give you the mistaken impression that it is sort of all one piece, but it is less like a "car" and more like a "mixed urban transportation system". 

There's a good chance that the people who wrote the corny jokes don't even know the people who operate the database Siri uses to search for abortion clinics.

He blathered on like this for awhile, but really this is just hand-waving. I'm fully aware that Siri uses other databases to gather information. In fact, two minutes with the software will make that incredibly obvious, which means that this dude quite literally thinks women are so dumb they can't apply common sense understanding to a product distributed by Apple. The thing is, they also tested their own software to make sure that it was working properly, and while they made sure that it knew how to translate "blow job" into an escort service or "Viagra" into a drugstore, it didn't do the same for "birth control" to drug store. That's a huge oversight. 

To the mansplainers of the world, I have one thing I want to ask you very, very nicely to do before you start telling me I don't know what I'm talking about. Just do me this one favor, please: Read my piece before you respond defensively.  If you could, toss in a little reading comprehension, because really, you'll find that you can take your mansplaining efforts and put them elsewhere. Of course, pompously assuming a woman is obviously too stupid to grasp basic information about how computers work is more fun, so I don't imagine this will help, but at least give it a try. Because if you actually read my piece, you'd realize I never said that the staff behind Siri was out to get women. Never. Not once. On the contrary, I said the opposite:

The problem here is one of neglect and not malice. The programmers behind Siri seem to be a bunch of gleefully juvenile dudes who took the time to teach Siri corny jokes, marijuana know-how and sci-fi references, along with teaching it about serious problems that can affect both men and women, such as suicidal thoughts. And even though they really like the idea of sex with women, they seem to have not thought much about the work that women have to put into being sexually accessible. Just as with the mind-boggling name fail of the iPad, the problem seems to be that there simply aren't enough women working in innovative, customer-driven technology services, and the ones who do have to adopt a bro-like attitude that makes them nearly as forgetful of the concerns of ordinary women as the men are.

Oh yeah and: 

The problem isn’t that anyone involved with this hates women. The problem is that they just don’t think about women very much. Siri’s programmers clearly imagined a straight male user as their ideal and neglected to remember the nearly half of iPhone users who are female. 

The defensiveness on display is due in large part to the idea that saying something is "sexist" means that it's deliberately and malciously hateful to women. Or that there's some sort of anti-choice agenda here. (There's not. If you ask Siri directly for Planned Parenthood, it's really helpful.) The thing is, sexism doesn't work that way. I mean, in some cases, sure. But mostly it's stuff like this: casual assumptions about women's abilities and desires, assuming the default is always male, overlooking women's needs, failing to understand that women are subjective people instead of merely objects for you to fuck. A lot of men—and women!—who do these things don't realize what's going on. That was the entire point. This isn't even really about Siri, except insofar as new gadgets and softwares are an interesting hook to get people talking. Like I said at Forbes, it's about "a sexism that’s so interwoven into the fabric of our society that it’s nearly invisible." I'm actually quite confident that Apple will fix the problem in short order; they've basically said that they will. My hope is that they'll go a step beyond that and realize that the dominance of straight white men in Silicon Valley means that certain blinders will be built into their products that limit their reach into larger markets. No one here is out to get anyone else. This is about just getting better, and working better for everyone. No need to be so ruffled by it.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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