Yeah, I know: A lot has been said about gendered AI, both in fiction and in real life. I've got a theory about it, but first, here's a look at the articles that helped me come up with it.
This We Are The Mutants article focuses on sentient vehicles in pop culture. Good or bad, they were mostly male. Also, sidebar, a couple of the most famous ones (HAL 9000, KITT) had mid-Atlantic accents.
Letting Go of the Wheel: 75 Years of Sentient Vehicles
Richard McKenna, We Are The Mutants
Though often thought of as the villain of the piece, HAL 9000—the supercomputer who is an integral part of the Discovery One spaceship in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—is actually a victim of human hypocrisy, driven insane by the conflicting orders it has been programmed with. HAL’s voice was provided by Canadian actor Douglas Rain: keen to make HAL sound unemotional and impressed by Rain’s “bland mid-Atlantic accent,” with its “unctuous, patronizing, neuter quality” and hints of Winston Hibler (whose tones appeared on many Disney nature documentaries), HAL’s lines were recorded in less than two days, without Rain seeing any of the film or having any idea with whom he was interacting.
Over their history in post-war popular culture, then, sentient vehicles have, with few exceptions, been male. They have sometimes played our consciences and sometimes encouraged us to bring out the worst in ourselves. They have been our helpmates, our peers, our executioners, and our victims.
Pair the very male voice of fictional sentient machinery with the very female voice of the closest thing we have to real-life sentient machinery, voice assistants:
Why Do So Many Digital Assistants Have Feminine Names?
Adrienne LaFrance, The Atlantic
If men are often the ones building digital assistants, and those assistants are modeled after women, “I think that probably reflects what some men think about women—that they’re not fully human beings,” Kathleen Richardson, the author of An Anthropology of Robots and AI: Annihilation Anxiety and Machines, told Lewis.
This may also be part of a larger tendency for the makers of anthropomorphic technologies, like robots, to play up cute and non-threatening qualities as a vehicle toward social acceptance. The funny thing is, some of the world’s most powerful and destructive technologies have been given female names, too. Humans have often bestowed deadly weapons with female names—like the Big Bertha howitzer and the Mons Meg cannon. It has been suggested, as I’ve written in the past, that perhaps this is an example of the objectification of women taken to its logical extension. Yet people use masculine names for some technologies, too. Consider the “jack,” a catch-all term for “any contrivance that turns, lifts, or holds ,” as Peter McClure put it in an Oxford English Dictionary blog post. Even without teasing apart all the possible reasons for the tendency to assign gendered names to machines, it’s reasonable to suggest traditional power structures have a lot to do with it.
And here's this little anecdote, straight from the intersection of fiction and non-fiction (No need to click through, really; this paragraph is the salient info).
Alexa, Should We Trust You?
Judith Shulevitz, The Atlantic
Tone is tricky. Though virtual assistants are often compared to butlers, Al Lindsay, the vice president of Alexa engine software and a man with an old-school engineer’s military bearing, told me that he and his team had a different servant in mind. Their “North Star” had been the onboard computer that ran the U.S.S. Enterprise in Star Trek, replying to the crew’s requests with the breathy deference of a 1960s Pan Am stewardess. (The Enterprise’s computer was an inspiration to Google’s engineers, too. Her voice belonged to the actress Majel Barrett, the wife of Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry; when the Google Assistant project was still under wraps, its code name was Majel.)
My theory: Humans think AI that has personal agency is creepy. Writers looking to drum up a little more tension will signal their fictional AI's agency by coding it as male, while technicians looking to make their real-life AI palatable will signal its subservience by coding it as female. The sexist assumptions remain the same, but the opposing goals result in a sharply gendered split between the real life and fiction.
Even the exceptions to the rule help prove the point: Within the world of Star Trek, AI needs to be as passive as Alexa, so it's often female. Meanwhile, the eponymous and very opinionated car in 1983's Christine might be female, but she doesn't have a voice. Just about the only blow to my theory is the Manic Pixie Operating System from Her, who definitely has agency.
If any editors are reading this, yes, I would be happy to turn this into a pop culture thinkpiece. Get at me. Now, on to the random links of articles I liked over the past few weeks.
Also, apologies for the irregular schedule. I think it's been four weeks since my last issue, which is little long. Busy life. Anyway, here's an article I liked: It's a piece of media about a rise in media about another type of media. Catnip for me, basically.
What’s behind a recent rise in books coverage?
Sam Eichner, Columbia Journalism Review
Since the beginning of 2017, The New York Times has continued to expand its already robust book coverage. More recently, New York announced that it would triple its book coverage. In October, The Atlantic launched a Books section and a newsletter, “The Books Briefing,” with plans for “additional products.” Even BuzzFeed is getting in on the action: in November, they launched an online book club, complete with an attendant Facebook group and newsletter.
Killing Time: The Most Controversial Star Trek Book Ever
Eileen Gonzalez, Book Riot
Killing Time. It is a name spoken in revered whispers among certain Trekkies. Originally, in 1985, it was just another Star Trek novel published by Pocket Books. But then a few fans thought they noticed something, well, queer about it. According to legend, author Della Van Hise, an open Kirk/Spock shipper, intentionally slipped in some slashy content. When Trek creator Gene Roddenberry found out, he pitched a fit and demanded that Pocket Books recall and revise the book. Pocket Books complied, but a few copies of the original version are still out there.
Like most legends, it’s an interesting story. But is it true?
How Agatha Christie hides her plot secrets in plain sight
Sam Jordison, The Guardian
Endearingly, TS Eliot seems to have loved Christie. I’ve been unable to find any Eliot reviews of Roger Ackroyd, but there is a Criterion article published in 1927 in which he outlines his ideals for a good detective story. Mainly, he says they should follow the laws of his favourite, The Moonstone. They are splendid.
Here's an interview with someone who wrote a book titled The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle: Final Girls and a New Hollywood Formula, which I'm definitely adding to my library of non-fiction on fiction just based on the title alone.
Alex West: '90s Teen Horror and the Cinematic Importance of "Scream"
Sady Doyle and Alex West, Dangerous Characters
Before Scream, the Final Girls were grappling with the sins of a previous generation. In the ‘90s they are far more involved in the initial trauma that sets things into motion, whether it be Sidney's refusal to deal with the reality of her mother, or Natalie's joyriding in Urban Legend. They have pain, trauma and guilt and are often wrestling with symptoms of PTSD. They felt real. They weren't happy-go-lucky kids who discover their parents murdered a pedophile, they are living with trauma before the film begins, whether it’s guilt, the dissolution of a family, or traumatic violence — they are imperfect.
The best headline I've seen in a while:
How we roasted Donald Duck, Disney's agent of imperialism
Ariel Dorfman, The Guardian
We used the Disney cartoons to suggest the aseptic, oppressive sexuality in the Duck family, the way third-world natives were depicted as savages and idiots, the way riches were never produced by workers but always by investors, and how villains were portrayed with racial bias. In this realm, female Ducks are flirtatiously worried about their beauty, yet strangely asexual (Daisy: “If you teach me to skate this afternoon, I will give you something you always wanted.” Donald: “You mean …?” Daisy: “Yes … my 1872 coin.”) And the model jobs for the Duck nephews when playing a game at school about the adults they want to become: “I’d like to be a banker!” says Dewey, echoed by Huey: “I’ll pretend I’m a big landlord with lots of land to sell.” Or take the witch doctor who brags about his nation being modern because “Gottee telephone. Only trouble is only one has wires. It’s a hot line to the World Loan Bank.”
A close second in the best-headline competition:
What Everyone Having Diarrhea On The Set of The Magnificent Seven Tells Us About Toxic Masculinity
Sarah Kurchak, Medium
“Everyone had diarrhea on the set of The Magnificent Seven” soon began launching out of my lizard brain like unsolidified human waste spewing out of a rugged Hollywood archetype on location in 1959. It spread to my tweets, my casual conversations, my friends’ ability to watch an iconic piece of cinema without thinking about poop, and my entire life.
Here's the definitive take on how the 2009 film Jennifer's Body has been recontextualized in 2018, and trust me, there have been a lot of takes:
You Probably Owe "Jennifer's Body" An Apology
Louis Peitzman, Buzzfeed News
It’s certainly not unprecedented for a movie everyone seemed to hate — the film has a 44% on Rotten Tomatoes — to reemerge as a misunderstood classic years later. But there’s something particularly frustrating about the way Jennifer’s Body is suddenly being called “timely” in the #MeToo era, as though the abuse and exploitation of women in a patriarchal society is merely part of a recent trend. Kusama and Cody were feminists when they made the film, and they created something that spoke to their feelings and concerns then, not in anticipation of a movement for hearing and believing women would.
Something I'm listening to: Electro swing 2 - Swing into christmas (Continuous Mix Preview)
Where's Electro swing 1? Where's the "Continuous Mix" that this apparently previews? All I know is that I found this bit of internet ephemera two years ago, and have listened to it many times since.
Another thing I'm listening to: This 1979 soundtrack to Lucio Fulci's Zombi 2. The driving rhythm makes it surprisingly good music for writing to, and the bits of interstitual dialog are a peek at 70s Italian horror that's probably more entertaining than the real thing would be. It's more pleasant than I'd expect a zombie movie soundtrack to be, also.
Next Time on Maddd Science: Movie Titles
Header image: “Only 1 in 1,000 fairies survive to adulthood,” by Daniel Williams.
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