On Siri (or “Operator? I Hardly Know Her!”)

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Brian Horne assesses the complicated relationship that iPhone users have with "personal assistant" Siri and what she (it?) hearkens back to.

When Apple introduced the iPhone 4S a year ago, the star of the show was “Siri”, the phone’s built-in artificial personal assistant. Apple wasn’t shy about publicizing the phone’s other exciting new bells and whistles, but the emphasis was on Siri as a revolutionary new technology with the potential to fundamentally change how people related to the digitally networked world. The company even produced a ninety-second promotional video exclusively dedicated to showing off all the great things Siri could do for you. 

But at this week's event, Siri was hardly mentioned. Apple’s new and typically ultra-slick, seven-minute video introducing the iPhone 5 spends all of twelve seconds on Siri.

In those twelve seconds we learn that Siri can reserve a table at a restaurant for you using an online reservation system, thus fulfilling a technological fantasy that nobody has ever had. Prior to this, if you wanted to talk to somebody about reserving a table for you, you could call the restaurant. And if you wanted to make a reservation without the bother of talking to anybody, you could just use an internet service to do it yourself. But now, thanks to a new and improved Siri, you can talk to a non-human and ask it not to call the restaurant for you. Such progress!

What’s going on here? How did Siri go from a starring role spotlighted at center stage to an incoherent mumble from the wings?

Judging by its commercials over the past year, Apple has had an unusually difficult time deciding how best to present Siri to consumers. An early introductory video featured one of Apple’s ubiquitously blackshirted representatives touting Siri as “like this amazing assistant that listens to you, understands you, can answer your questions, [and] it can even accomplish tasks for you.” But just a few short months later, Apple’s commercials seemed to be insisting that Siri wasn’t all business after all.

Apple seemed to be trying to assure consumers that Siri was an “it” with a marked pseudo-personality. The monotone phone utility that helps you work while keeping your hands free was now depicted as a charming companion to the stars. Somehow a coherent whole never seemed to take shape in these ads. While Apple was busy showing off the wide range of contexts in which Siri could perform, an unsettling problem remained unresolved: Siri’s ambiguous social proximity to the phone user.

Siri knows where you live, reads your text messages and keeps track of contact information for everyone you know, yet it always maintains a professional distance. Siri has a sense of humor, but it only deploys that humor to gently steer you back to more serious matters. Siri is intelligent and technically proficient, but never authoritative or in any way intimidating.

Siri’s fraught role, struggling to balance intimacy and distance with a telephone user, is actually not without precedent. As ABC.com’s Ned Potter pointed out last year, Siri’s feminine voice in the United States seems to resonate with the cultural image of “The Telephone Switchboard Operator.”  But the association goes much deeper than just a stereotypically feminine voice. Siri is The Operator insofar as it is the voice that mediates your connection with a global communications network.

Readers who cannot remember a time before cellphones may be surprised to learn that The Operator was a feature included with every old-fashioned telephone. In fact in the early days of the telephone, you couldn’t make a call without talking to one. But the Operator’s is an uneasy position. A living operator must be technically expert but subordinate; a voice that speaks right into your ear but is totally anonymous and interchangeable; a human connection to a mechanical infrastructure; a voice that exists to serve you alone… until the next call. It’s little wonder that many plays and films produced over the last century feature the simultaneous closeness and distance between telephone callers and operators. Think of the role the operator plays in the classic “Sorry, Wrong Number,” or in Wes Anderson’s recent “Moonrise Kingdom.” Or consider this 1969 short film, which was distributed to college campuses to recruit young women to become operators in spite of all the discomfort the job entails. 

In general, over the last century a great deal of energy has been spent trying to minimize or eliminate the operator’s role and any role like it whenever possible. Perhaps Siri’s problem isn’t that its technology isn’t advanced and futuristic enough, but that it is being asked to do a job that seems uncomfortably anachronistic. We’d like to believe that in the 21st century there aren’t many jobs left that involve such an uncomfortable mix of closeness and distance, that require you to take dictation while your employer works out, to let the boss’s wife know that he’ll be home late, and to never quit no matter how unprofessional your employer behaves towards you.

It’s worth noting, too, that Siri isn’t the first attempt to create a hybrid of an operator and a synthetic voice. Dave Thompkins points out in his hilariously entertaining history of the vocoder, “How to Wreck a Nice Beach,” that one of the stars of the 1939 World’s Fair was an artificial voice generator from Bell Labs. “The Voder” was “played” by a select group of telephone switchboard operators who had trained for a year to convert words into a set of keystrokes, pedal pushes and wrist movements. The Voder’s operators dazzled audiences by taking phonetic dictation and producing a supremely flexible and utterly creepy voice.

As it turned out, though, the Voder’s capacity to fascinate was short lived, and the device itself never found a practical application. Even the Voder’s inventor, Homer Dudley, failed to impress his own daughter, Jean, with his creation. “The Voder was boring,” she explains to Thompson. “I wanted the Voder to sound like a real person. I enjoyed it the first ten times but then it got tedious.”

Fortunately for Siri, it’s probably unaware of its ancestor’s sad fate. But maybe Apple will fix that in the next version.