By Yolande Strengers and Jenny Kennedy (Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press, 2020, 305+x pp.)
Reviewed by Rachel Maines
In Judy Syfers now-classic December 1971 feminist essay “I Want a Wife,” published in New York Magazine ’s preview of Ms., the author listed the reasons why a person might want someone in their life who would willingly do the chores, mind the children, manage the house, shop for provisions, provide social and sexual services, and function as a general household dogsbody. “My God,” Syfers asked, “Who wouldn’t want a wife?” Yolande Strengers and Jenny Kennedy, while not directly citing Syfers, ask a similar question in their 2020 analysis of what they call “smart wives,” including digital assistants like Siri and Alexa. “Meet the smart wife,” they invite us on the first page, “She’s pleasant, helpful, and available at an increasingly affordable price. Millions of people from around the world are now turning to connected and robotic devices to provide the domestic, caring, and intimacy services historically delivered by real-life wives” of the kind described by Syfers.
The Australian authors point to a worldwide “wife drought,” as more women turn away from traditional household roles for more rewarding careers outside the home, as a significant component of demand for these types of services. “The principle [sic] prototype for the smart wife’s mainframe is the 1950s’ U.S. housewife and her transatlantic cousin in the United Kingdom. Many contemporary societies still ache with nostalgia for this white, middle-class and heteronormative housewife.”
The authors point to a worldwide “wife drought.”
Strengers and Kennedy are clear-eyed in their assessment of how sophisticated and user-friendly robot technology currently is. They point out, for example, that if you are seeking a device that will roll up and store your socks, fold your fitted sheets, pick up clutter from the floor, cook a full meal, and change the baby’s diapers, you are, at this point in history, pretty much out of luck. For these and many other tasks, human labor is still necessary, and, as the authors observe, most of the humans currently engaged in it are female: “Worldwide, women perform around 75 percent of total unpaid care and domestic labor.” They assert, correctly, that this must and will change as women seek opportunities in paid employment. They also point out that “industry sales figures show that consumers of smart home devices are more likely to be male,” suggesting that male consumers are, in fact, looking for a wife in the same way as the man Syfers described in 1971. This persistent gender stereotyping of the tasks home robotic devices perform is the focus of much of Strengers and Kennedy’s concern.
Strengers, an Associate Professor of Digital Technology at Monash University, and Kennedy, a postdoc at RMIT University, Melbourne, VIC, Australia, argue that if we proceed down the current path of making our digital assistants, fembots, gynoids, and voice-activated devices look, sound, and/or behave like simulacra of women, we risk reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes in ways that could rebound on real women. They seem particularly concerned about this in the context of sexbots, pointing out that these devices have no way of giving consent to whatever they are asked or ordered to do. The authors are concerned that behaviors encouraged by or learned from interactions with feminized robots will become the norm in those with real human women. Even movie and television portrayals of smart wives are suspect, the authors write: “ … these depictions affect how we treat our devices, robots and AI, which in turn are reflected back in how we treat people in general—and women in particular.”
Persistent gender stereotyping of the tasks home robotic devices perform is the focus of much of Strengers and Kennedy’s concern.
Like much of the reasoning in this book, this concern seems conceptually exaggerated. There is a great deal of speculation in The Smart Wife about what might happen, and very little substance on how we might measure the effect of what has actually happened or is happening now. Chapter 4 on “Alexa” is almost entirely speculative. Whether we are discussing how homeowners interact with their vacuum cleaners and security systems, supervisors with their digital assistants, or how sexbot users instruct their electronic partners, it is unclear from Strengers’s and Kennedy’s account whether we have enough reliable baseline data, and algorithms for interpreting it, to state with confidence that human interactions are being negatively influenced by feminized smart devices. Strengers and Kennedy’s “Note on Methodology” seems a little thin on historical data from before 2000, though they are making claims about changes appearing over time. Many of us recall verbally abusing our household equipment even when it was purely electromechanical, with no ability to talk back; my late father-in-law, a millwright, was certain that all machinery worked better when profanely harangued, the more colorfully the better. The proposition that there is something sinister in this kind of impatience with mechanisms seems to me farfetched and, so far as our data currently indicates, purely conjectural. There is also nothing new in rudeness to subordinates generally, including those of the same sex.
On the same point, the book does not offer any contrast between feminized home and office robots and the kind that have for decades been making automobiles and other industrial products. I could not find in The Smart Wife any mention of industrial robots that compares their situation as “smart workers,” or perhaps “smart tools” like vacuum cleaners, with those of, say, smart vibrators or sexbots. Can we say that it is possible to exploit a robot that produces orgasm but not one that produces a car? Does the capability for speech make a difference in this context? If industrial robots spoke in feminized voices, would that alter our relationship with them? Are we at risk of abusing human auto workers if we swear at their robotic counterparts? Strengers and Kennedy do not raise questions of this kind.
Beyond reinforcing what the authors see as dangerous gender stereotypes, the other main concern in The Smart Wife is that smart home technology can be used for nefarious purposes, or that it can go haywire in unexpectedly risky ways. For these claims, there is solid evidence from recent history. Identity theft, invasions of privacy, stalking, digital larceny, virtual assistants ordering unwanted goods, credit card theft, and other online dangers can be enabled and/or enhanced by smart home technologies. Alexa and similar systems do our bidding by serving as in-home listening devices that can be hacked like any other online system, including the ones in our cars and children’s nurseries. Strengers and Kennedy are, of course, not the only scholars and commentators who have pointed out the risky elements in these smart home and office technologies, and they quote and cite their predecessors in the rising chorus of concern, including Donna Haraway, Meredith Broussard, Davin Heckman, Paul Dourish, Genevieve Bell, David Gunkel, and Shoshanna Zuboff. All of these critics of the “smart technologies” in our home and work environments have a point about the costs and risks to be balanced against the potential benefits. In this case, like the wife Judy Syphers “wanted” in 1971, someone else will be bearing the burden of providing that kind of service. Does it matter if this “someone else” is composed of chips and circuitry rather than flesh and blood? The Smart Wife is a contribution to the debate on this question, but its argument that a different gender and/or political perspective will resolve the problem is not a strong one. As reading material for a class in artificial intelligence or a related subject, The Smart Wife might generate some lively discussions. Yes, smart technologies, like all technologies, pose identifiable risks. What is unclear in The Smart Wife is how a “feminist reboot” would reduce these risks.
Rachel Maines is a historian of technology affiliated with the Columbia University Seminar in the History and Philosophy of Science, New York, NY 10027 USA. A Carnegie-Mellon Ph.D., she is the author of three books and numerous articles.