Plenty has been written about the feminization of voice interfaces like Siri, Cortana, and GPS turn-by-turn-direction-givers. All these characters — an apt term for the virtual assistants on your phone, as Microsoft and Apple have taken to programming a bit of spunk into Cortana and Siri — are inherently genderless, but they’re designed to make the user think of a woman. Journalists, sociologists, and psychologists have trained their eye on the makers of these products, but little discussion has focused on how we use them.

Cortana is not a person, but you should still be nice to her. Photo courtesy Microsoft.

Cortana is not a person, but you should still be nice to her. Photo courtesy Microsoft.

Tay changed that. Microsoft’s machine-learning chat bot was marketed as a teenage girl living in the digital ether, and people got her to say some pretty nasty stuff. But what does that say about the people who used it?

Sociologist Catherine Cross dove into that topic in a wonderful essay for The Establishment. Her thesis is intriguing: Since Tay and Cortana and Siri are clearly designed as feminine characters, the way users treat them says something about our views on gender norms. “The treatment of TayAI and so many other feminine bots and virtual assistants shows us how men would want to behave, to service professionals in general and women in particular, if there were no consequences for their actions,” Cross writes.

Cross’ most revelatory notion is her simplest: The people who even think to tell Tay or Siri to “talk dirty to me” have an inherently skewed view of women and their role in society. To most people, this is a joke; I still remember friends, men and women alike, trying to coax the first version of Siri into saying something indecent. But would that have taken place if Siri was instead given the moniker Dave? It’s not as likely; there isn’t a widespread social expectation for a subservient male assistant, let alone one we would want to say sexualized things to us.

Cortana, Siri and the like are tech firms’ early ventures into consumer-facing artificial intelligence; in the future, Microsoft and Facebook want AI chat bots to be an operating system unto themselves. This broadens the implications of how people treat these inanimate programs for a couple reasons, Cross argues:

First and foremost, the way we treat virtual women tells us much about how actual women are allowed to be treated, and what desires shape that treatment. Secondly, as we inch closer and closer to true AI, we are seeing ever more clearly what this next phase of capitalism will look like, helping us to understand the expectations placed on human laborers in the here and now.

That latter point is where economics bleeds into the discussion. Robots aren’t just used to chat with us on our phones; they’re used to build airplanes, pick fruit, and act as a virtual concierge. These robots don’t just enhance productivity, they also do exactly what we want. So if we associate robots with women, and we associate robots with workers who can’t say no, then some questionable social norms are being reinforced.

“The man who yearns to ask Cortana about her bra cup size may have the same urges about the woman who served his dinner at Denny’s, feeling motivated to do so because of her ‘subservient’ position and because she’s paid to please him,” Cross writes. “And unlike the server, Cortana can’t fight back.”

Valve to the rescue?

When Expedia announced it was bolting Bellevue for Seattle, some (myself included) wondered if it was the beginning of the end of Bellevue’s status as a headquarters-worthy city. If recent rumors are true, then Valve will demolish that notion.

According to a Puget Sound Business Journal report, Valve is rumored to have a deal in place for 200,000-plus square feet in the new Lincoln Square tower. Not losing Valve would feel like an acquisition for the Eastside, as Seattle was reportedly also in the running for company headquarters. Valve is big, but more importantly, it’s one of the most respected tech firms in the country. If Bellevue keeps it, then other companies will take note.

Elsewhere on the Web

Everyone talks about Amazon.

Everyone wants to learn how to code.

Everyone wishes they’d bought a home five years ago.

Everyone wants one of Intellectual Ventures’ mosquito-zapping lasers in their backyard.

Everyone knows Moore’s Law isn’t really a law, right?