What Siri Does to Children


Fri, Apr 4th, 2014 12:00 by capnasty NEWS

On The New Republic, @JudithShulevitz looks at the effect that Siri has on children. Because evolution has made it obvious to us that we can chat (and only chat) with another human, being able to suddenly talk to non-human things causes us to react “as if it were real, if only for a moment or two.” Children, meanwhile, will grow up in a world “where objects will listen and respond, giving birth to ‘a new category of being,’” the “personified non-animal semi-conscious half-agent.”

The wonderment is that Siri has any emotional pull at all, given her many limitations. Some of her appeal can be chalked up to novelty. But she has another, more fundamental attraction: her voice. Voice is a more visceral medium than text. A child first comes to know his mother through her voice, which he recognizes as distinctively hers while still in the womb. Moreover, the disembodied voice unleashes fantasies and projections that the embodied voice somehow keeps in check. That’s why Freud sat psychoanalysts behind their patients. It’s also why phone sex can be so intense.

The literary critic Ruth Franklin, whose children were also entranced by, then peeved at, Siri, suggested to me that maybe kids get mad at her because she fails to meet “the maternal expectations they associate with women.” That sounds right, although, of course, adults have these expectations, too. The current generation of iPhones allows you to set Siri to male as well as female, but the point is that voices communicate gender, age, authority or the lack thereof—primal social cues that we can’t help but process as markers of a real personality.



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