Sexism is hence to bad science as misogyny is to moralism. Sexism wears a lab coat; misogyny goes on witch hunts.
There's been this running joke about giggling in the face of ultra-paranoia and surveillance. And it is funny to think about what the robotic FBI agent watching someone through their phone's selfie camera might see at two in the morning- but the commonality of these thoughts underlines something quirkier. Not funny ha-ha, but funny weird, as some great philosophers once clarified.
Technology has been introduced into our daily lives, streamlining screen time, tasks, and events at our discretion. Virtual assistants are built into our most personal devices, smart homes are bolstering in numbers within our pandemic-affected world. We've witnessed the rising tide of AI and speculative webspace markets that prioritise generative, learning algorithms. With the possibilities growing for what AI will look like (and do) in our near future, it calls into question the history of the robotic human, an automaton made for man.
Servitude and The Gendered Husk
Crafters and technical builders are still fields predominantly viewed as masculine. For centuries, theirs was a practise segregated, barring women from participating. Obviously we've attempted to correct this aged-old history but it's difficult to change something so baked into our society. Especially when the cracks have spread far and wide. A huge chasm exists in sciences and material engineering regarding gender equality, and how easy is it to point to what this gap resulted in than how our technology has advanced to "serve man."
The specific aesthetic choices made for modern machines we're familiar with aren't exactly happenstance, stumbled into, as much as they are a result of a patriarchal confirmation bias. Some of this history can be traced along a vein questioning the very structure of the word "man-made," as pointed out by Jason Lahman. He also posits that Pandora could be seen as the original fem-bot; formed from clay by the chief engineer himself, Hephaestus, she is the first human woman. She's granted gifts from the gods; her beauty is perfected with skills deigned unto her, and into her shell the gods pour "crafty words" in abundance.
Pandora could even be stretched into the very first saboteur, a Trojan horse of sorts, something beguiling and innocent on the surface, holding within it a catalyst for destruction. A virus that is bestowed onto Earth only to wreak havoc amongst its peoples.
She is not the only figure from myth we can look at. Beautiful women coming to life, animated by their male creators through various means, pops up often (there's even another example in Pygmalion and Galatea). But across these mythologies, we see their reflections in our now. Although Cortana isn't an agent of evil waiting to infect our computers, the "nature" of feminine qualities attributed to these virtual bots almost always grounds itself in misogyny's long presence in our cultures.
These weren't kept to just tales, and the men continued to be the creators.
Philo Byzantios reported on the Automate Therapaenis in 3 BC. Now, in 2023, we're witnessing the rise of incredibly human-like female robots and the voices of our virtual secretaries tend to be pleasantly feminine.
There are no mistake here; women have been decidedly shown as the servants to men in all forms. Not even large ships or cars could escape the erotizing power of the male sex, with anything to be driven, herded, led, "manned," often having she/her pronouns ascribed to it (especially if she's known for being temperamental!) Science even agrees that there's no mistake: this is where myth and reality, like in ancient Greece, combine again to shape our present and inform our future.
The age-old battle of the sexes rears its head. "It's just scientific fact," someone could say. "Females, of course, are more emotional creatures. They're not just prone to fits of erratic emotion, no, no. They're also the sweeter and more sensitive sex." Warmth and a comforting cadence are important qualities that anyone in a service position should have. They're just easier to trust, and easier to humanise. No one would enjoy the colder and more even-keeled baritone of a man's voice, that would be entirely too creepy. One could even easily be led to believe that man is suspicious in nature (maybe even a psychopath with a mission to eradicate human life.)
Our creations are linked to our past. With science fiction in the 50s and 60s, of course it reflects on the past and that present. Who dominated the service industry? Who was the concierge at the front desk of the hotel, the greeter when you entered the doctor's office? Who was marketed to for jobs in stenography, short-hand, and other secretarial ("admin") duties? And who were the managers, the judges and rulers of the jury? Who was the doctor?
It's not insulting to acknowledge women for being so good at their jobs in the flesh, that they had to repeat those jobs as ghosts in billions of tinier machines.
Hypothetically, let's build a city that works thanks to renewable, alternative resources.
If you were to build a city that was powered through translating the amount of times a woman within its population was given a backhanded, chauvinistic compliment that correlated directly to her gender (hypothetically), such a city would never worry about running out of juice.
Everyday we're faced with the consequences of gendered decisions (why is it Pandora who's a cunning liar, and why did Hermes make that choice?) As robotics and androids enter our mainstream, releasing conversations recalling suspicions we've seen in I, Robot, the mark of sexism burns bright when looking at what already exists in the market.
This isn't discussing sexbots, because that's too obvious. But it is a discussion of a blackhole that many have been sucked into: TikTok and trends.
Using Donna Haraway's A Cyborg Manifesto and her subsequent interviews as a critical lens, there's an idea to be ascertained that we are already organic machines. It isn't what we're made of that powers our status as semi-humans, but our functions in society, how closely we resemble nodes that are pumping to the beat of a wider machine. As Matrix-y as that sounds, Hari Kunz illuminates this idea after an interview with the aforementioned author:
"being a cyborg isn't about how many bits of silicon you have under your skin [but about] going to the gym, looking at a shelf of carbo-loaded bodybuilding foods, checking out the Nautilus machines, and realizing that [you're] in a place that wouldn't exist without the idea of the body as a high-performance machine."
Men are receiving a slice of this, as well, but not as much as women are. Hashtags like #ThatGirl, #Nymphette, #VillainEraTutorial, #DarkFeminine are hugely circulated and reach massive audiences. They're instructionals, aesthetic guides, and a lot of times even tutorials aimed at achieving the apex of the set aesthetic. Although nothing is really wrong with desiring a term to place oneself under, with the sneaky nature of algorithms and subsequent targeted advertisements (from now infamous brands), it all seems a little too close to a science experiment that has birthed automaton anew.
It seems that women could hardly ever escape the trap that sexism had laid out for them before. But the popularity of trending looks and attitudes have birthed a near parallel of this tech anxiety's figurehead: women that are helpful but not bossy, that read you so well and take into account your emotions, the way a room feels; that take up so little space they could even fit in your pocket.
Like Jessi Hempel mentions, we want our technology to be helpful but we also want to be in control- to control it. This lends consumers and builders alike to opt in for putting women in their figurative place, actually placing them as our interfaces.
Our enjoyment of feminine bots means that we sit constantly (and comfortably) in sexism. With the metaverse expanding, cookies being accepted constantly, and our surveillance systems expanding, what will it mean for the android femme, the distilled characteristics of "women" without the fuss, the drama, the fighting back? And is that where our fears stem from-- the possibility that the servant will want its own agency?
I don't know! I just write. But maybe you can think about that.
If you get 10,000 guys to put their ideal woman into a computer, it still comes out looking like Angelina Jolie.