Welcome to Conversation 3
Hello all, or perhaps 'hilloo, darlings', to Conversation 3.
This conversation starts with a warm welcome to these four stunning papers, connecting different points in literary and telephonic history. In Jordan Moore's paper, lengths of wire trail across the 'waste lands' of David Jones's World War I poetry, and we 'mind the wire' accordingly, while telephones are instruments of connectivity and disruption within a spectrum of attention in Jessica Gray's exploration of telephones in Woolf's Night and Day. Matt Helm takes us to interwar Berlin to reposition the aurality of the telephone, placing it in conversation with the visual nature of Isherwood's camera lens, while Don Sillence asks us to 'pick up' the repercussions of AI technology alongside the need for energy to maintain the networks of increasingly selective and reworked memory held in our handsets.
My initial reaction on listening to these papers is also telephonic, trying to find ways in which they are in dialogue with each other, or whether they might be eavesdropping. My opening question then is addressed to who is on the other end of the line, perhaps behind these papers themselves, asking whether the speakers of the papers, or their listeners, found anything here which rang a bell?
Matt, Jordan, Don, I really enjoyed all of your papers! Some questions, if you're able to reply...
Matt, I found the distinction between ‘teletalk’ and literature really interesting in your paper, especially in terms of Sally’s ‘threat’ to the text with her telephone calls. I wondered also about the differentiation between conversations to be had over the phone, and those to be had in person – with the telephone allowing erotic connectivity, but also with Sally suggesting talking about her marriage over the phone being somehow not right. Could you elaborate on this at all in relation to the text – on the kinds of conversations to be had over the telephone, and those seemingly more suited to being in person?
Jordan, I really liked your discussion of telephone conversations as a kind of liturgical experience in Jones’s work with the repetition of certain phrases, as well as how it also ‘buzzes’ and is hard to communicate via. At the end your briefly mention Jones’s visual art – could you maybe elaborate on that at all, in terms of how his visual art is akin (or not) to his discussion of telephony in his poetry?
Don, I found your discussion of the Google Assistant and its implications very interesting. This might be picking up on something quite minor, but I found the ambiguity of the assistant referring to a ‘client’ asking them to do something intriguing, and wondered if you had any thoughts on the language choice being made there?
Great point! I totally didn't pick up on it but 'client' would be standard tech talk for anything accessing a service made available by a server. But there's also a really interesting gendered experience that Google (/etc.) are somewhat tiptoeing around (after years of female-only-voiced assistants, the industry standard is becoming more 'diverse'), which is, on the one hand, that non-human-agents (AI/IA) mostly won't require (much of) a voice as they will also (mostly) be interacting with non-human agents, and, on the other, the replacement of such service-industry jobs will negatively and theoretically predominantly impact women.
We tend to file this argument under the heading of 'final wave feminism' (a way of talking about the problems of preautomation and its impact on women, specifically...):
[The] next fight for [...] women is to ensure artificial intelligence does not become the ultimate expression of masculinity.
There are many reasons to fear this could happen. First, the algorithms that codify human choices about how decisions should be made. It is not possible for algorithms to remain immune from the human values of their creators. If a non-diverse workforce is creating them, they are more prone to be implanted with unexamined, undiscussed, often unconscious assumptions and biases about things such as race, gender and class. [...We] also need to start querying the outcomes of the decisions made by algorithms and demand transparency in the process that leads to them. Although the new EU General Data Protection Regulation does not go far enough, it does broaden the definition of profiling activities, thus providing us with tools to avoid profiling-based decisions by questioning them. [...] And let’s not forget the impact on the labour market, with women projected to take the biggest hits to jobs in the near future as a result of automation replacing human activities, according to the World Economic Forum. Women are more likely to be employed in jobs that face the highest automation risks. For example, 73% of cashiers in shops are women and 97% of cashiers are expected to lose their jobs to automation. The same report predicts that persistent gender gaps in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) fields over the next 15 years will also undermine women’s professional presence.
Jessi Hempel, writing in Wired, explains that “people tend to perceive female voices as helping us solve our problems by ourselves … We want our technology to help us, but we want to be the bosses of it, so we are more likely to opt for a female interface.” In the U.S., 94.6 percent of human administrative assistants are female, so it’s no surprise that reality would condition the programming of virtual assistants. The gender of assistants’ voices affects how we speak to them. USC sociology professor Safiya Umoja Noble tells me that virtual assistants have produced a “rise of command-based speech at women’s voices. ‘Siri, find me [fill in the blank]’ is something that children, for example, may learn to do as they play with smart devices. This is a powerful socialization tool that teaches us about the role of women, girls, and people who are gendered female to respond on demand.” The way voice assistants normalize female subservience is just one part of a cycle of social conditioning and reinforcement. One Washington Post article reports that children growing up with Alexa are learning rude behaviors. But there is nothing described in that article that I haven’t seen certain children inflict on their mothers or babysitters since before Alexa existed. Of course, virtual assistants can be equally tolerant of bad behavior in children and adults; they’re often programmed to respond to sexual harassment with coyness and sometimes even flirtation. In general, they’re programmed to coddle us, like a hybrid mom–cool babysitter. They make already comfortable lives even more frictionless, much like the relationships of subservience between real people that gig-economy apps — Uber, Seamless, TaskRabbit — have helped normalize and mainstream.
“Humans are going to find meaningful work if they can do the things that machines can’t do well,” says Ed Hess, a professor of business administration at University of Virginia. “And that’s higher-order thinking—critical, creative, innovative, imaginative thinking.” In order to remain relevant in the new world of work, we’ll need to lean in to the skills that make us most human. Psychologists, social workers, elementary school teachers: These kinds of careers require a real understanding of what it means to be a person. Job numbers support this argument: As automation creeps in, fields that interact with machines such as construction work, factory work, and machine operation are declining rapidly, while occupations that place a premium on interpersonal skills, like those in the healthcare field, are seeing explosive growth.
In other words, virtual assistants aren’t just programs that live in our phones or cute blob-shaped electronic devices; they are part of society, and they shape and are shaped by it. Techno-socialist-feminist Donna Haraway wrote in 1984, long before humanoid AI was anything more than science-fiction, that the boundary between humans and technology was wearing thin as humans incorporated increasingly sophisticated machines into their lives and continued to shape them in their own image. “We are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism — in short, cyborgs … A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.” Virtual assistants are cyborgs, just like us.
Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex.
(VALERIE SOLANAS, SCUM MANIFESTO, 1967)
@matthelm I'm very keen on the idea of the soundscape as part of the technological underpinning of the different voices and modes of oral and visual communication within this text, also captured within the extract you quote about being able to hear 'with uncanny precision, any sound'. For me, this evokes a kind of dispersal or demand for attention that perhaps recalls some of the descriptions of attention in Jessica's paper. There is also something about the way a voice is not used for communication but broadcast, or an acceptance of the existence of these voices not keeping their side of bargain and stating clearly their intent to be listened to. This is what is is mediated in the character Sally, partly, I think, as she plays out that dynamic of being a transmitter rather than a listener, but as you say, she is one voice of many. And I was really taken by the detail on gramophones in Berlin, drowning out a leaning in for increasingly muted voices. What is uncanny here? The fact the voices can be differentiated? Lots to think about and to send me back to the novel. Thanks Matt!
@dr-don Thanks for this, Don. I find the appropriation of (young) female voices in AI very problematic because of the dynamic of sender and receivers of speech acts being placed in the position of sender/receiver. It reminds me of previous similar debates around gendered voices in Satnav technology. An interesting aspect of that debate was that you could select the voice yourself, extending to nationality and the voice you most understand is perhaps the voice you are most used to hearing, so that choice of a gendered voice intersects with race and socio-economic privilege.
I shared aspects of your paper with my 14 and 19 year old fellow lockdowners, in particular the section about children developing demanding behaviour and the forthcoming 'pretty please' option. They were confused, because they aren't asking nicely, they are telling someone to do the work they don't need to do, but they could see the point. The SCUM manifesto reminded me of Shulamith Firestone, who would have plenty to say about this labour being represented as carried out by women.
@jess Hi Jessica, I very much enjoyed your paper, through teaching Woolf this year (lots of phones, and fragments of missed conversations, implied messages) and also from having spent some time in the late 80s working as a telephone operator myself. I was a 192 (directory enquiries) and 100 switchboard operator, dealing with general queries from the public and the emergency call lines. I've also spent some time trying to sell double glazing by phone; the most successful telemarketers I encountered were those who are the best listeners. They mirror the customer's own tone and register in ways that are quite sophisticated. As an operator, I was working for BT at a time they were making the transition from the Post Office, and there was a difference between the former PO women in twinsets and the new people they brought in. There were men, but not many, and most were in engineer posts. In terms of voices, as part of my training, I was taught how to enunciate and group numbers, in a kind of crash-course in elocution. Your paper has made me think about how offices with switchboards differed from those with telegraphs (and telex) and typewriters. Happy to discuss, Jessica.
@jordanamoore Thank you so much for your paper, Jordan; I don't know Jones's poetry and will look it up, so my notes are of a general discursive nature. I was thinking about the word 'buzz' and telephones in particular, and the shape of a phone as a receptacle for an ear as a pollination of discourse. (Many apologies, I write poetry). But your paper talks about the physical buzz as the message moves down the lines - and may pass in ways that Rose points to in her post. More contemporarily, the term social media 'buzz' as a mode of communicating seems far more random and swarm like. Are the messages in Jones's poetry fragmented and prone to misinterpretation? Do they swarm or hover? I just wondered what thoughts you had about (hum and) buzz.
@matthelm – this comes quite late in the conversation, so it could be taken as an observation rather than a question, though I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts! I was fascinated by your discussion of the possibility of a queer erotics of connection in Goodbye to Berlin, as part of Isherwood’s broader political investments, and as figured for example in the telephones at the Lady Windermere. I wonder if you’ve been looking at Mr Norris Changes Trains in relation to all this, as it seems to me the telephone there is particularly important in indicating the underground political activities occurring in Weimar Berlin, and also a queer erotics centred around Mr Norris. Isherwood’s involvement with the model for Mr Norris, the shady Gerald Hamilton (and through him Willi Münzenberg) led to MI5 intercepting their letters – and there must have been a possibility that their phones were tapped too, whether by the British or German secret service. I wondered, also, about Isherwood’s erasing in his novel of the political commitments of the real Sally Bowles, Jean Ross – a committed Communist – reducing her calls to ‘apolitical tele-talk’, and how far his political commentary is contingent on such elisions. Is this part of a strategy of concealment and suppression learned through the strictures of surveillance of the time, and of his survival as a gay man? Thank you for the excellent paper!