Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy
Mass Communication and Media Arts
Recent advancements in voice-interactive technology such as Apple's Siri application, IBM's Watson, and Google's Now are not just the products of innovative computer scientists; they have been directly influenced by fictional technology. Computer scientists and programmers have openly drawn inspiration from Science Fiction texts such as Gene Roddenberry's television show Star Trek and Stanley Kubrick's 1968 2001: A Space Odyssey in order to create more effective voice-interactive programs. Such comparisons between present-day technology and past Science Fiction (hereafter, Sci-Fi) texts are even more apt than computer scientists seem to have intended; not only are Watson, Siri, and Now real-world versions of fictional computers, but each of them also hides the ways in which the computer is implicitly embodied and gendered by its voice. Real and fictional computers alike are generally voiced by a human: the Star Trek computer by Majel Barrett; Hal-9000 by Douglas Rain; and Watson by Jeff Woodman. Mysteriously, both Apple and Google have worked hard to hide the vocal origins of Siri and Now respectively. But the question remains: why do these programs even have gendered voices? In particular, why is Siri--the digital equivalent of a secretary--female? And why hide their voices' corporeal origins? Aside from technological inspiration, how have the underlying ideological gender assumptions in Sci-Fi texts like 2001 and Star Trek influenced the creation of such programs? What does the fact of the shift from Sci-Fi representations to scientific innovation reveal about the perpetuation of ideological assumptions about gender roles? How do other representations of computer voices confirm or problematize the gendering of computer voices? In this dissertation, I seek to answer these questions by examining the historical, theoretical, and aesthetic trace of the computer voice from Star Trek in 1966 to Siri in 2013. The voice-interactive computer, I argue, may be understood as a paradoxically acousmatic character: a disembodied voice that is simultaneously embodied through non-humanoid computer-objects. Through psychoanalytic interpretations, historical contextualizations, and transtextual considerations, I show how representations of acousmatic computers are positioned within narrative texts as gendered subjects, playing out particular gender roles that are situated within each text's historical context. I attend to the textual problem of location in Sci-Fi by dividing the analyses into two categories: extra-terrestrial and terrestrial. This division is important in understanding the roles of voice-interactive computers, as spaceships provide a uniquely different environment than terrestrial structures such as houses, office buildings, or prisons. Further, spaceships always already imply a womb-like habitat, a mothership that controls and maintains all aspects of the life forms within it; terrestrial computers, on the other hand, tend to connote varying gendered subjectivities and anxieties within historical contexts of technological innovation and cultural change. In this first part, I focus on extra-terrestrial voice-interactive computers in Star Trek (Paramount, 1966-1969), 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), Dark Star (John Carpenter, 1974), Quark (NBC, 1977-1978), Star Trek: The Next Generation (Paramount, 1987-1994), and Moon (Duncan Jones, 2010). In the second part, I examine terrestrial computers; these computers may be further divided into two, gendered subsections of masculine and feminine functions. The texts featuring masculine-voiced computers tend to act as the son to their programmer/creator fathers or, conversely, as all-knowing fathers, thereby reinforcing patriarchal rule. These films, Colossus: The Forbin Project (Joseph Sargent, 1970), THX 1138 (George Lucas, 1971), Rollerball (Norman Jewison, 1975), and Demon Seed (Donald Cammell, 1977), narrativize cultural and business struggles in the 1970s surrounding militarization and corporatization. I then examine the films of the early 1980s, TRON (Steven Lisberger, 1982) and Electric Dreams (Steven Barron, 1984), that express a rapidly-changing cultural conception of computers, set in narratives of homosocial struggle. And finally, I discuss computers in the 1990s and 2000s that serve in domestic roles, particularly those texts that feature domestic spaces run by female-voiced computers or, literally, house-wives. These texts, Fortress (Stuart Gordon, 1992), Smart House (LeVar Burton, 1999), and Eureka (SyFy, 2006-2012), position computers as replacements for human women who are absent from the home. Additionally, I examine two texts that feature male servants--Demon Seed (an anomaly among representations of domestic servitude) and Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008). I then return to Siri by examining representations of her programming, voice, and body in popular culture. By thus exploring the representations of gendered acousmatic computers within the context of computer history and changing gender norms, I self-reflexively examine how artificial intelligence may be presented in a gendered context, and how this may reflect changing notions of gender in digital culture.
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