Siri's Identity

Reimagining Inclusive AI and Critiquing Today's Identity-Blindness

by Will Penman, Princeton University

Part 1 Reimagining Inclusive AI

Expand/contract Part 1 transcript and commentary

Note: links in the video transcript go directly to that commentary, and vice versa. Each excerpted video is indicated with a hyphen; speaker changes are indicated with line breaks and with parenthetical speaker indicators when necessary. When videos provided their own subtitles, these are indicated with “[onscreen subtitles]”. Even with variant spellings, punctuation, and unintuitive translations into English, these self-selected subtitles are preferred, since they navigate accent/language and that's often what's at issue with Siri. Transcriptions are notorious places for subtle linguistic oppression to take place (Lueck, 2017, "Discussion" section; McFarlane & Snell, 2017). Conducting the analysis by video is one way to preserve the complex and ambiguous aspects of the YouTube parodies.

Introduction

In late 2011, Apple announced that a voice assistant called Siri would come with the iPhone 4S. Siri could do things like take dictation for text messages, set timers, and answer questions about the weather, stocks, and nearby restaurants.

-[Apple presenter] “What is the weather like today?”
[Siri] “Here’s the forecast for today.”
“It is that easy.”
[applause] (Apple Special Event 2011)

By the end of the month, there were already clips on YouTube where people tested Siri’s ability to interact with them, with mixed results.

-“The iPhone 4S is instead creating confusion … Is it a nice day?”
[Newscaster] “Let’s see what it says.”
[Siri] “I don’t know what you mean by, ‘Is it NSD to says.’” (iPhone has problems with Scottish accents)
-[Siri] “I don’t know what you mean by ‘walk.’ Which email address for, work or home?”
“Work.”
“Kamei, I don’t understand, ‘wall.’ Which email address for, work or home?”
“Work.” (Siri vs Japanese)

Some videos began to play with this idea by dramatizing how difficult it was for them to interact with Siri. For instance, in a funny mashup of the “Shit ____ People Say” meme, the video “Stuff Hyderabadi Moms Say to Siri” shows how age, gender, status, language, and technical familiarity intersect to make a frustrating experience for an imagined Indian mother and her daughter:

-[on-screen subtitles] “shri is not understanding anything. SHRI! Hello?”
[Siri] “Hello.”
[on-screen subtitles] “Look, now she understands. Call my friend Bilqees, Shri.”
“I can’t search near businesses, sorry about that.” (Stuff Hyderabadi Moms)

Other videos played with Siri in a different way. Instead of dramatizing challenges with the current Siri, they reimagined Siri to be more like them.

-“So I went in there and customized it a little bit, to make it more personal for me. So I present to you, Black Siri.” (Black Siri)
-“Well, I’ve got an app that will help you choose the right. Mormon Siri.” (Mormon Siri)
-“Apple CEO Tim Cook has come out, and to celebrate, we’ve made an exciting new update to every iPhone. Say hello to iGay.” (iGay iPhone)

These reimaginations go beyond accent or national origin to examine how Siri could inhabit other identities like race, religion, and sexual orientation.

Hi, I'm Will Penman. This project brings these videos together for the first time to see what we can learn from them.

Commentary and points of connection for "Introduction"

It's hard to know someone's identity from watching them on a video, of course, so the statements made in this webtext should be read as tentative, with "(presumably)" as a silent qualifier for any identifier. By reimagining Siri to be more "like them," this includes identities that people resonated with rather than occupied themselves. Gabriel Iglesias, for instance, is a famed Mexican comedian, but in the bit analyzed here, he performs a black Siri. Similarly, the American comedian Robin Williams performs a French Siri, and in two parodies, a gay Siri is imagined for lesbians, and vice versa (a lesbian Siri for a gay guy). I suspect that in each of these, the historical interactions between these identities makes the political risks of adopting the other one minimal. A related resonance is when a (presumably) Hyderabadi teen (who is presumably not a woman-identifying parent himself) imagines interacting with Siri as a Hyderabadi mom.

In three cases (Gabriel Iglesias' bit; a set of 10 segments from a Japanese TV series uploaded as "Funny When Japanese Try To Speak English With Siri! So Hilarious!"; and a clip of Robin Williams on Ellen), the YouTube uploader is not one of the people responsible for making the video (again presumably, based on the account names). This creates instability for those three videos on YouTube due to copyright claims. In fact, the "Funny When" series has already been removed once and been reuploaded under the same title by other accounts. I refer to "YouTubers" then with this in mind. Despite this legal fragility, I’ve quoted them equally in this paper. This is partly to acknowledge the other parodies as doing equal discursive work; it’s also partly to push back against the power that corporations hold on our reuse. For more on this, see Banks (2011) on remixing, the code of best practices in fair use for scholarly research by the ICA (Jaszi & Aufderheide 2010);

and a quote attributed to Banksy: ...You owe the companies nothing. Less than nothing, you especially don't owe them any courtesy. They owe you. They have re-arrangd the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don't even start asking for theirs.

Research questions

Here in Part 1, we’ll explore how the parodies make a positive argument for developing identity-specific AI (like a black Siri, or a gay Siri). This contributes to scholarly work on how we speak our way into identities, and how we pick up on AI’s impact on us. The positive argument is that AI can participate in developing people’s identities that matter to them and create points of connection with others. For people in dominant social positions, Part 1 challenges us to be generous listeners, allowing the videos’ jokes to unsettle us and revise what we think is possible; for people who have historically been unheard, I hope this part of the project helps reconceptualize how AI development could proceed more inclusively.

After this positive argument (or before, if you want to watch it now), Part 2 is devoted to how the videos make a negative argument, that there are losses from today’s bland, universalizing AI. The parodies uncover that today’s AI development operates in an identity-blind way, and implicitly extends scholarship to critique that identity-blind ideology: namely, these parodies argue that today’s Siri reproduces a dominant mode of operation, part of which is to cover over the fact that it’s already a social agent – for better or for worse, it already participates in people’s identity construction. For people of minority identities, Part 2 is meant to amplify existing critiques of identity blindness and apply those more visibly into voice-driven AI; for people in dominant social positions, Part 2 is a chance to take our ongoing work of renouncing oppression and its fruits and extend that into artificial intelligence. In other words, we need to divest from racial, sexual, national, and religious privileges as they manifest in AI, too.

To help navigate this scholarship in video form, I’ve added a running header (arrows).

Commentary and points of connection for "Research questions"
See "scholarly context."
See "scholarly context."

Overview of method

Okay, so what videos am I even talking about? There’s 21 that are one-offs; there’s one set of 2 [Muslim], one set of 3 [Mexican], and a set of 10 [Funny when] – 36 videos total, spanning 2011, when Siri was announced, to 2017, when I began analysis.

Each of these parodies came from a set of YouTube searches based on what are called “protected classes.” In the US, that’s race, religion, national origin, age, sex, pregnancy, citizenship, familial status (meaning whether you have kids or not), disability, veteran, and genetic information – and I threw in sexual orientation. Protected classes are the things that it’s illegal to discriminate about. So I thought they would be a useful high-stakes focus to examine how voice-driven AI affects people, and connect that to historical patterns of inter-group interaction. In other words, the video “Black Siri” came from the search “black siri” which was one of the searches I did regarding race.

I didn’t include news reports – I only wanted videos that dramatized interacting with Siri in some way. I also limited the corpus to videos with at least 90,000 views. In the YouTube economy, that’s not much, but for a regular person, that’s a lot and it seemed to be a natural cut-off point. To create videos with this level of popularity, most of the YouTubers have learned to effectively gather large (probably young) audiences and persuade them to keep coming back for more:

-[mashup of people saying “subscribe”]

Some protected classes didn’t turn up anything – so if you want to make a parody about a pregnant Siri or a veteran Siri, it’s wide open. The ones that did fell into four categories: accent/national origin, race, religion, and sexual orientation. I’ll say more about methodology in Part 2 - that’s enough to get us going.

Commentary and points of connection for "Overview of method"

As the Wikipedia article indicates, sexual orientation and gender identity are not currently federally protected classes, but are protected classes in some states.

Searching a) only with English searches, b) only for Siri parodies, and c) only for protected classes creates analytic boundaries. What it gives up in the process is, first, a potentially more global set of parodies. A set of videos from a Japanese TV show were returned for "english siri," probably because of the title that the subtitler gave the videos (Funny When Japanese Speak English To Siri! So Hilarious!). Similarly, two videos recorded in Turkish were returned for "muslim siri," likely because of what seem to be manually added English captions. These are reminders that this methodology is impacted by YouTube’s search algorithm and uploaders' (non)use of English.

Second, since Siri has been eclipsed by Alexa in the public imagination, this project doesn't capture parodies about Alexa that, if they were about Siri, would fall into the scope of this project, including "Christian Alexa" (regarding religion) and "Alexa for Old People" (regarding age, a protected class).

Finally, protected classes are only the tip of the iceberg. There are a range of other Siri/Alexa parodies that include personality-based reimaginations of Siris (Sean Connery Siri, Morgan Freeman Siri, Justin Bieber Siri, Trump Siri...) as well as Siris/Alexas remimagined in terms of other socially relevant identities, such as political identity (e.g. "Amazon’s Alexa is a CRAZY SJW LIBERAL! | Louder With Crowder" [4.8M views], "Alexa is Woke on Communism"), and region (e.g. “If GPS Navigation was Southern” by This is Alabama [107k views, uploaded Jan 23, 2017]).

It's my hope that the analysis provided in this webtext creates analytic focus, a wide time span of videos (2011-2017), and hopefully enough explanatory value to makes legible the ways many other ongoing parodies are operating. This is largely a question for future research. However, I will note that companies have themselves been getting into the parody game. In 2017, Amazon released a Superbowl commercial:

Superbowl commercial screenshot (as of Jan 2019, original no longer available on Amazon's YouTube account) Screenshot showing 49 million views of Amazon's Super Bowl commercial

and several accompanying short videos reimagining Alexa as being operated by various celebrities. Preliminary research (Penman 2018) shows that these videos have functioned much differently than the "bottom-up" videos treated in this webtext. Apple and IBM have been achieving a similar effect of conceptualizing conversational agents as tools when they refer to Siri and Watson as platforms.

I made two exceptions for the sake of wider inclusion: "Mormon Siri" (41k views) and "The Jewish Siri" (40k views). I made a partial exception to include "If Siri Was MEXICAN [PART 3]": at the time of data collection, it only had 66k views; by Jan 2019, that grew to 855k (and the series had continued, to a Part 4, not included in this analysis.)

Supporting an identity

In all four of these categories, it matters to these YouTubers how Siri responds to them. Most of the parodies don’t bother critiquing Siri’s listening – they start by reimagining how Siri should interact with them, and thereby how Siri could support their identity.

Check out this clip from If Siri was Mexican (Part 2):

-"Take me to the nearest McDonald's."
[Mexican Siri] "But your abuela made dinner."
"Okay, but I want McDonald's."
"Getting directions to Abuela's house."

This Siri has the same voice as usual, and the same lack of a body. But we interpret her as Mexican (rather than whatever the regular Siri is) because she's able to "construct" or "perform" that identity. In this case, that means using some Spanish, and enforcing a value on respecting elders and family obligations:

-[Mexican Siri] "But your abuela made dinner."

The guy is ambivalent about Siri's efforts (more on that later). What's important is that this example does a good job showing just what might be involved for Siri to “be” any of the identities people imagine.

As we dive into this in more detail, what we’ll see is that people are imagining AI as having the capacity to participate with them in constructing their identity. Siri isn't just transactional; what Siri knows and recommends says something about who Siri is and who they are.

Commentary and points of connection for "Supporting an identity"

The three-part series "If Siri was Mexican" has several age-based examples of attention to family. In all of these, Siri enforces family protocols. She doesn't participate in activities that don't have parental permission:

-"Siri, text Eric that I'll be there for the party."
[Mexican Siri] "Did you ask your mom for permission?"
"No, I'm 23, I don't need to."
"You still live at home pendejo, so ask for permission." [Part 3]

When she does, she uses guilt to try to dissuade actions that could make the mother feel abandoned:

-"Text my mom that I'm gonna be out late today."
[Mexican Siri] "Okay, texting La Llorona that you're going to be out late."
"What? No no no no no." [Part 2. This refers to a fable about a mother weeping for her children]

Or even threatens to tattle on someone:

-"Siri, open YouTube."
[Mexican Siri] "Okay, I'll let Cucuy know you want to watch YouTube instead of clean your room." [Part 3]
"Give me directions to Michael's house."
[Mexican Siri] "Did you do your chores?"
"Uh, no."
"Calling mom." [Part 2]

She also knows that parental anger is a lingering threat:

-"Siri, can you tell me a scary story?"
[Mexican Siri] "Once upon a time, a little boy forgot to turn off the stove for the beans and his mom came home." [Part 2]

And Siri will even participate in forms of family discipline:

-[Son to mother] "I'm not gonna take out the trash."
[Mother] "Siri, my son won't listen to me."
[Mexican Siri] "[Picture of flip-flop] Try this Señorita." [Part 1]

It's interesting that only in this If Siri was Mexican series are age-based forms of family respect so highlighted. These examples could be considered more complex than this paper's system of values, knowledge, and ways of interacting: Siri adopts a type of alignment through her awareness of family conflict and consistent advocacy for the mother in the family.

Putting it crudely and iterating on a biological understanding of these identities, Siri doesn’t have a body, and she doesn't have skin color, sexual desire, “beliefs,” or a place where she was born. (Although some of the parodies do still imagine this: Siri has lesbian sex in Coming Out to Siri, she gets her hair cut in IF SIRI WAS GAY, and she listens to music herself in Siriqua.) Thus, for her to "be" any of these identities, the parodies must to some extent enact a social constructionist view of those identities. Some parodies, like Black Siri, use a wide range of semiotic resources to help Siri enact a new identity: visualizing her, revoicing her, and rewriting her responses. Others, like Mexican GPS and Jewish Siri, don't visualize Siri but do revoice and rewrite her answers. Others, like Hawaiian Pidgin Siri and Apple Scotland, don't visualize her and rely on the default voice, only rewriting her responses. And others, like Hyderabadi Moms and Nonna Paola, interact with the real Siri, but dramatize their own reactions. The parodies that only rewrite Siri's responses are particularly impressive at their ability to convey identity, since they don’t even have full discursive control. They have to yield identity that could be marked through pronunciation, intonation, and prosody.

At the same time, Siri is embodied in the sense of residing on servers in Apple's global data servers (i.e. "in the cloud"), with some processing done on people’s phones. For more on the physical infrastructure of the Internet, see Mendelsohn & Choclas-Wood's short documentary (2011). It’s unwise environmentally to ignore these aspects.

Consumer-driven identity

[1] One place that Siri's identity makes a difference, as in this example, is through consumer-based activity. These Siris don't defer to Yelp for recommending businesses. They encourage people to buy, go to, wear, work at, etc. places that develop and reinforce that identity in some way. Thus, to the extent that lesbians buy certain kinds of cars, a lesbian Siri might recommend those cars:

-“I've been thinking about buying a new car. What kind should I get?”
[Lesbian Siri] “All of the cool kids are driving cars like Subaru, Outbacks, and Jeep Wranglers.”
“Okay, cool” (IF SIRI WAS GAY)

To the extent that Mexicans consume certain music, Mexican Siri might recommend that music:

-“Siri, play a fast-paced song.”
[plays Mexican song] (If Siri was MEXICAN [Part 1])

To the extent that Mexicans wear certain clothes, Mexican Siri might recommend those clothes:

-“Hey Siri, it's sunny outside. Should I wear a hat?”
[Mexican Siri] “Seems like it, here are some suggestions” [sombrero images]

And so on. In an illuminating example, Jewish Siri knows that a standard request isn’t specific enough for that identity:

-“Where’s, uh, a good place to eat around here?” (The Jewish Siri)

Her follow-up re-ambiguates the person’s request:

-[Jewish Siri] “Will that be milchik or fleishik?”
“Milchik”

This does more than circulate Kosher laws about not mixing meat and dairy, it helps him follow Kosher. If Siri was more like him, the video suggests, it would better allow him to embrace his identity in interaction with her.

Commentary and points of connection for "Consumer-driven identity"

One interdisciplinary account of consumption-based identity work is "consumer culture theory" (CCT). Arnould and Thompson (2005) reviewed CCT research, suggesting that consumers can be viewed as "identity seekers and makers" (871) when the marketplace is viewed as "a preeminent source of mythic and symbolic resources through which people, including those who lack resources to participate in the market as full-fledged consumers, construct narratives of identity" (871).

Speaking from a rhetorical perspective, Greg Dickinson (2002) argued that in a postmodern age, places of consumption are also places in which material arrangements allow people to participate in and draw from in developing a sense of self:

Our collective and individual subjectivities are always at stake, and they are always at stake even in, perhaps especially in, the mundane and banal practices of the everyday. Our selves are under construction as we hoist a cup of coffee, buy a magazine, teach a class, read a book, discuss the weather, ride our bikes to work. (p. 6)

This project would add, "and ask Siri for a recommendation."

For some scholars, consumption-based identity work can be analyzed through evaluating it, e.g. Warde's (1994) contention (following Durkheim) that consumerism is "suicide." Regardless of the theoretical assessment of the value of consumer-based identity work, it makes sense that the videos' reimagined Siris would draw on consumption as a source of identity formation, given how the voice "assistant" frame that Apple, Amazon, and Google use for Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant is within a business context, of buying, learning, dictating, etc.

Surprisingly, three of the reambiguations are name-based and therefore within the real Siri's purview:

-"Avroham Fried, call Chaim Yichiel Miche."
[Jewish Siri] "Say 1 for Chaim Cohim Michel Goldberg, say 2 for Chaim Chohim Michel Goldfarb."
"The second one." (The Jewish Siri)
-[Gay Siri] "iGay, call Ryan."
"Which of the 10 Ryans in your contact list would you like me to call?"
"My ex, Ryan."
"Which of the 8 Ryans in your contact list would you like me to call?"
"I don't care!" (iGay (Siri parody))
-"Siri, can you call my tía?"
[Mexican Siri] "[long list displayed] Which tía do you want to call?" (If Siri was Mexican PART 3)

These draw on the stereotypes that certain Jewish people's names are common, that gay people are promiscuous, and that Mexican people have large families, respectively.

Sometimes the Siri performs a culturally specific disambiguation:

-[while looking at a Ford Mustang] "Siri, how much is a Mustang?"
[Mexican Siri] "[picture of a horse] According to my sources, they cost 50,000 pesos" (If Siri was Mexican PART 1)
-[while putting on a tie] "Siri, what's the name of the place where they prepare food right in front of you?"
[Mexican Siri] "[picture of a sidewalk food vendor] Do you mean, Elotero?" [If Siri was Mexican, part 2]

In the first exaple, the person's view of a car cues viewers to the speaker's intended meaning of (the car) Mustang (rather than the type of horse). The second example has more subtle visual clues; I suspect that the guy putting on a tie is supposed to signal a formal dinner (perhaps a date), suggesting that he might be thinking of hibachi grill. This would be a funny contrast to the Mexican Siri's recommendation of a casual street vendor. AI's ability to appropriately disambiguate is at the forefront of not only theoretical AI research (called "word-sense disambiguation"), but is also central to the Turing test (see Fancher 2018), and critical research on Google's search algorithms (Noble 2018, see especially her motivating example of search results for "black girl").

Restricting consumption

Siri's reimagined identity also comes out by encouraging others not to be consumers in the “wrong” way: not to buy, go to, wear, work at, etc. certain places. So, Mexican Siri directs people away from places that aren’t “for” Mexicans:

-“I wanna go to Starbucks, I don't wanna go to Taco Bell.”
[Mexican GPS] “Oh my god, bro. Forget Starbucks, what are you, a thirteen year old white girl? Taco Bell is the move, okay?”

And Mormon Siri encourages people not to go golfing on Sundays:

-“Siri, what's the weather gonna be like at the golf course on Sunday?”
[Mormon Siri] “Cloudy, with a chance of going to Hell.” [he's stunned] (Mormon Siri)

(This is a good examples of how an identity-based Siri isn’t the same as simply personalizing Siri. A personalized Siri would say, well, if you usually golf then, then I’ll keep recommending it. But Mormon Siri’s knowledge of group standards helps reinforce this guy’s commitment to the group.)

Even within consumeristic uses, these reimagined Siris all disrupt the straightforward service relationship that Apple set up Siri to be:

“This dream that you’ll be able to talk to technology and it’ll do things for us.” (Apple Special Event 2011)

In contrast, these reimagined Siris get things done less efficiently (if they do them at all). In return, they step into a role of social agent, participating in users’ identity construction.

Values, knowledge, and ways of interacting

[2] An identity-ful Siri, then, involves self-conscious boundaries. This expands beyond consumption-based boundaries, into values, knowledge, and ways of interacting that form people’s identities.

Robin Williams’ French Siri doesn’t just have an accent:

-Call it “Sihri” (Robin Williams' Siri Impression)

she also pursues a culturally bounded value of not using technology to restrict your engagement with the natural world:

-“Look around you, why must you ask a phone? Live your life! Taking pictures with your phone... Look, look and then paint!”

A Siri that speaks Hawaiian Pidgin English values assessing people’s status (including their high school):

-[on-screen subtitles] [Hawaiian Pidgin Siri]"To complete set-up process, please say what high school you went grad from."
"Really? Okay, Kahuku."
"Kahuku? OMG fo realz?"
"Yeah, why? What school you went then?"
"Not Kahuku!! Hahahahaha" (HAWAIIAN PIDGIN SIRI)

Black Siri expresses sexual literacy and self-respect:

-“Siri, I love you.”
[Black Siri] “N----, please” (Black Siri)

Gay Siri values healthy, attractive living:

-“What's on TV tonight?”
[lesbian Siri]“Nu uh, this is four nights in a row, honey. Here's directions to that new club. For the love of Laverne, get out of those sweats” (iGay (iPhone Siri parody))

Siri’s knowledge is also bounded from within a certain identity. Under the stereotype that gay people don’t like sports, gay Siri doesn’t relay the score:

-“Who won the hockey game last night?”
[Siri] “I found three lesbians that are close to you who can tell you”,br> “How close?” (iGay Siri parody)

And other knowledge is appropriate only for certain times and places; Jewish Siri won’t tell the score either while praying:

-[in temple, whispering] “Avroham Fried, what’s the score?”
[Jewish Siri] “No! Not in the middle of daven-ing” (The Jewish Siri)

Finally, Siri adopts specific ways of interacting. Many of the different Siris are portrayed as rude, insistent, and insulting.

-“Siri, tell me a joke.”
[Black Siri] “There was once this fool named Lamar. The end.” [laughs hysterically] “Well, that, that wasn't very nice” (Black Siri)
-“Siri, from now on, call me Papí”
[Mexican Siri] “Okay, from now on, I will call you ‘Puto’ [bitch]” [friend laughs] (If Siri was MEXICAN [Part 1])

Black Siris refuse to answer stupid questions.

-“You know, Martín gets in the car, ‘Siri, what's the temperature outside?’
‘Why don't you stick your head out the window? [smooths his eyebrow]’” (Martin and Siri)
-“Siri, what's 30 times 904 divided by the square root of 9?”
“Is there something wrong with your calculator? Do I look like I like math?” (Black Siri)

Muslim Siri expresses her faith in Allah specifically:

-“Allah, in the name of the most affectionate, the merciful, say you, he is Allah, the one. Allah, the independent, carefree. He begot none nor was he begotten – and nor anyone is equal to him.” (Muslim Siri)

These Siris express their identities through interacting in specific ways, rather than trying to apply generally. What's important isn't just getting the "right" answer, but interacting in a culturally specific appropriate way.

Commentary and points of connection for "Values, knowledge, and ways of interacting"

This division is ad hoc, meant just to indicate a variety of areas where identity-construction happens. Sociolinguists are more likely to identify specific moves involved in positioning oneself relative to those. For instance, Graham Ranger (2010), in a review of Coupland's book Style: Language Variation and Identity summarizes:

  • targeting - ascribing identity;
  • framing - making certain linguistic features more or less relevant: Coupland distinguishes between socio-cultural framing, genre framing and interpersonal framing;
  • voicing - the issue here is of how speakers impose 'ownership of an utterance or a way of speaking’ (114);
  • keying - relating to ‘the tone, manner or spirit of the act’ (114, quoting Downes (1998)); and
  • loading - 'the level of a speaker's investment in an identity being negotiated’ (114)

My interest is in showing what parts of life these processes can affect, through people's interactions with Siri.

As an extension of this, see Part 2 of this project, when one of the other Black Siri parodies suggests that, in contrast, a "white" Siri might like kinky sex.

Other scholars have detailed similar forms of "communicative resistance" among black women especially (Davis, 2018, "Taking Back the Power"; Siri's reimagined race intersects with her gender here). More generally, discourse norms among African Americans include an extremely embedded (rather than decontextualized) view of what's appropriate to say:

"Thus from a black perspective, questions should appear in social contexts which incorporate or reflect their reasoning, rather than simply satisfy institutional or intellectual curiosity and need." (Morgan, p. 52)

Similarly, in Shirley Brice Heath's ethnography of how adults interact with children in the black neighborhood of Trackton, she noted that analogies, story-starters, and accusations are the most common. Questions in which the answerer has the information are rare; rarer still are questions in which the answer is known to both questioner and answerer (p. 104, 111). These are similar to the questions that the black Siris reject in the parodies as well.

In addition, this reimagined characteristic ends up rejecting the (stereotypically feminine) submissiveness that is built into Siri, in that Siri is a conversation agent that a) comes with a female voice by default (at least in the US); and

b) is framed as a voice "assistant" (a traditionally female-gendered and frequently sexualizd role). Screenshot of Google Image Search for 'business assistant.' Five of the six visible images have a woman prominently in the image, and one of those has a woman leaning provocatively against a table with a man looking at her.

By rejecting stupid or obvious questions, then, these black Siris are responsive to feminist critiques of how past (and current) female AI respond weakly to inappropriate requests (Brahnam & De Angeli, 2012; Woods, 2018; Brahnam & Weaver, 2015; Strait, Ramos, Contreras, & Garcia 2018; for popular recognition of this, see Stern 2017).

Historical Siri

[3] Reimagining Siri's identity also means taking on a collective history. None of the parodies address history directly, but - at least as I'm seeing it - one video does reimagine overturning American racial power dynamics. In "Black Siri aka Siriqua," written by what seems to be a black woman and a white guy, Siri is in charge and she's going to make white users know it. This starts simply, by Siri asserting that she will determine when a request is an interruption:

-"Siriqua, what will the weather be like today? Siriqua?"
[Siriqua] "[music in background] I heard you! Hold on. Now what you want?" (Black Siri aka Siriqua)

Similarly, white users don't have the power to command her:

-"Well, tell me what the weather will be like today."
[Siriqua] "Don't tell me what to do."

And Siriqua's high status even means that she'll reject petty questions:

-"I'm sorry, can you please tell me the weather?"
[Siriqua] "How the hell I'm supposed to know? Look out your damn window."

The video continues in this vein, and culminates at the end in a scene at the hair salon. Siriqua has directed the white woman to undergo a painful beauty regimen, and when she interrupts, this time she is bodily punished:

-[Siriqua] "So this hoe is sleeping with a married man."
[hair stylist] "Mm."
"Yes she is."
"Mm!"
"And I hear them talking all--"
[white woman] "Siriqua, send a text to my--"
[Siriqua] "Hello! I'm talking here! Can you hit her with the hairbrush please?"
[The stylist hits her.]

For a lot of white people, this video is a nightmare. And obviously the Siriqua parody has the most radical politics of the corpus. The Siriqua video humorously shows a kind of interactional reparations, in which black people's history of being turned away, talked down to, and rejected, under threat of physical pain, is overturned and played back to white people. Retribution isn't the only way that an identity-based Siri could be swept into collective history, but it does show how our fears, hopes, and possibilities for race can play out in the realm of voice-driven AI.

Commentary and points of connection for "Historical Siri"

It would normally be considered cultural appropriation for a white woman to get cornrows. Interestingly, then, with Siriqua's reimagined racial power comes a reimagined historical meaning of cornrows. In this scene, cornrows represent the pain that a white woman must undergo in order to present herself according to Siriqua's standards.

Along the lines of “an eye for an eye.” For an accessible overview of reparations, see Ta-Nehisi Coates' "The Case for Reparations".

Intersectional Siri

[4] Finally, even though almost all of these parodies are named for one identity category, many of them play out associations or possibilities to have a more complex, intersectional Siri. Both Mexican Siris, for instance, are also piously Christian:

-“Jesus Christ, the fuck?”
[Mexican GPS] “Whoa, whoa, whoa, hey, don't say that, bro”
“Okay, shit.”
“What are you, fucking crazy? That's my God you're talking about, are you crazy?”
“Okay, okay, oh my God, sorry.”
“He died for our sins, bro”
“Sorry” (Mexican GPS)
-“Siri, who is the most beautiful celebrity?”
[Mexican Siri] “Our Lady of Guadalupe” (If Siri was MEXICAN [PART 3])

Religious identity can also intersect with gender. Siri is deferential when criticized,

-[on-screen subtitles] “You are so stubborn”
[Siri] “If you say so” (TESTING THE FAITH)

but in a video that jokingly tries to “convert” Siri to be Muslim in a roomful of Muslim guys, she is still not submissive enough:

-[on-screen subtitles] [Background person] “She immediately assumes a pose."
[Leader] “Oh, let's see how she will answer this. Do not assume a pose”
[Siri] “This might exceed my current abilities”
“She is really so tough”

In these intersections, we see how Christian identity and gender performance are inflected by other identities, and how, with enough time, being Mexican or Muslim involves taking on other identities as well, in one form or another. Identity-based versions of Siri, then, should keep this in mind.

Commentary and points of connection for "Intersectional Siri"

The exception being "Stuff Hyderabadi Moms Say to Siri"

Today, "intersectionality" is often used to mean simply "involving multiple identities at once" (e.g. gender and race), or in a more nuanced way, to mean that privilege/oppression is "multiplicative." But in Kimberle Crenshaw's foundational (1989, 1991) articles, the insight had to do with the legal, activist, political, and cultural visibility of discrimination. For instance, when viewing employment only in terms of race, courts wouldn't find discrimination, because some black people were being promoted. And when viewed only in terms of gender, courts wouldn't find discrimination, because some women were being promoted. It was only by viewing both race and gender that black women as such could be seen to be discriminated against. "The paradigm of sex discrimination tends to be based on the experiences of white women; the model of race discrimination tends to be based on the experiences of the most privileged Blacks" (p. 151). Thus, intersectionality is as much a theory that pushed against feminist and antiracist theory of the day (as well as simplistic identity politics presently) as it is one that assists in left-leaning coalitions. This insight that intersectionality speaks to visibility under multiple forms of oppression is carried through by Buolamwini & Gebru's (2018) study of bias in facial recognition AI. Analyzed just by skin tone or just by gender, the facial recognition AI algorithms under examination performed adequately. But when intersecting skin tone and gender, misidentification of dark-skinned women was found to be 34.7%! For another excellent essay on intersectionality in emerging technologies, see Costanza-Chock (2018).

The on-screen translation of the Turkish is a little obscure here with Siri adopting a “pose” and being "so tough." However, one of my connections online, Sarah Adams, a retired military linguist, confirmed that the word translated as "pose" means having an "attitude," and the word translated as "tough" means that Siri is "difficult/unyielding." The leader's harsh assessment of Siri's behavior here seems partly precipitated by the fact that she hasn't responded with a Muslim greeting (see Part 2 of this project), but Adams agrees that the gender dynamics in the male Muslim Turkish setting "adds another layer of expectation that she be agreeable."

This isn’t to say that there would need to be endless versions, so that all possible identities are represented. Not only is this impractical, but it ignores that many of these parodies show interactions with what might be thought of as adjacent identities. An adjacent identity (e.g. a Mexican Siri who is Catholic, when the user is Mexican but not Catholic) would provide the chance for a small level of cross-cultural (or inter-species?) communication. The dynamics of cross-cultural/inter-species(?) communication with AI-driven voice assistants have not been well explored yet. For one perspective, see the reparations-driven interpretation of Siriqua above.

Conclusion

Overall, then, in a wide range of videos made independently over a range of years, YouTubers of minority identities have persistently reimagined Siri to be more like them. Some of their specific reimaginations are pretty stereotypical or downright cringe-worthy. But as parodies rather than “serious” proposals, they defer the challenge of “getting it right,” and they allow us, if we listen generously, to focus on the big idea: that we could create Siri who could adopt specific ways of being rather than trying to apply as generally as possible. If we designed Siri like that, we could make identity-specific recommendations for what to buy and not to buy; it could show identity-specific values, knowledge, and ways of interacting; it could address an identity's history; and it could be intersectionally created, not just one-dimensional. In all of these ideas, identities are active projects. So when we ask what identities we make available to people to interact with, we also ask what we ourselves might be like. Taking on this challenge is not straightforward; there are a lot of decisions that would still need to be made. But this is an emerging important issue for people to consider, especially those of us who study communication and its effects. Check out part 2! Part 2 moves from this positive argument that we could create identity-based AI, to a negative argument that we're suffering consequences from not doing so already.

Commentary and points of connection for "Conclusion"

To me, the most cringe-worthy portrayals of an identity-based Siri in the whole corpus come from the parody "Ghetto Siri." (Although “ghetto” can be a location, it can also be used as a circumlocution for poor blackness. "Ghetto Siri" makes it clear that it is adopting a black racial identity, rather than just a locational identity, when a white user asks Siri how to be more black, and she rejects the request:)

-"Siri, how do I become more black?"
[Ghetto Siri] "[Dings twice, as though the request was ill-formed] ...Shut your bitch ass up" (Ghetto Siri)

In "Ghetto Siri," Siri is recruited as a surveillance tool to support lustful desires. In the first scene, Siri warns a girl not to have sex with a guy because he has a small penis. In a later scene, Siri shows two guys a girl's butt:

-[Two guys in a hallway see a girl walk by.]
"I would kill to know what she got in them jeans."
"You? I think I'm gon ask Siri what she got in them jeans. Siri, what she got in them jeans?"
[Ghetto Siri] "Damn. Shawty got a donk. Here’s what I found. [Picture of a woman's butt.]"
"Damn!"
[They celebrate.] (Ghetto Siri)

These provide a racialized vision for big tech's surveillance capabilities. Instead of what Siri can "find" being restaurants for us to spend money on, what this Siri can find is salacious photos and intimate sexual knowledge. Perhaps my squeamishness here should be resisted; why is it so much worse to imagine a surveillance apparatus devoted to sex than to profit? But it's not even just these two scenes; in one scene, ghetto Siri can't understand someone with an Asian accent, implying that this kind of exclusion is particularly ghetto. I admit that I tried to exclude this video from the corpus, rationalizing this to myself by noting that it didn't technically come up as a search result for “black siri” and it was “so silly.” More than any other, I worry that this video conveys an essentialist understanding of race: that, e.g. objectivizing potential sexual partners, is what makes someone black. The reminder here is that any identity-based version of Siri would need to be developed as something that is contextual: bound to a place, time, situation, audience - and therefore able to adapt and morph.

Influential in my thinking on this is Jonathan Rossing's (2014) analysis of comedic sketches ("Prudence and Racial Humor") and his (2016) theory of humor as a rhetorical skill for civic life ("A Sense of Humor"). Listening generously is particularly important for people who occupy dominant subject categories because irony and other humorous forms are used to navigate power differences (Morgan, 2002).