Siri's Identity

Reimagining Inclusive AI and Critiquing Today's Identity-Blindness

by Will Penman, Princeton University

Part 2 Critiquing identity-blindness

Expand/contract Part 2 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.


This project brings together for the first time a range of YouTube videos that parody Apple’s voice assistant Siri. Part 1 explored how the YouTubers responsible for these videos all creatively reimagined Siri to be more like them. Part 2 is now devoted to the negative case: what do we miss out on by not having identity-based Siris? What’s lacking or problematic about today’s Siri?

Overall, there’s 2 big arguments.

Commentary and points of connection for "Introduction"

Not just technical problems with Siri and organizational disarray regarding Siri's development, as detailed in, e.g. Tilley & McLaughlin (2018).

Siri performs unevenly

The first argument is very simple, and revolves around who Siri works well for, who Siri can hear and understand. From the beginning, Siri was promised as being flexible in how it understands requests:

-[Apple presenter] "We want to talk to it any way we’d like. Someone might ask, ‘Will it rain in Cupertino?’ Or ‘Is the weather gonna get worse today?’" (Apple Special Event 2011)

But we already suspect from the California-centered variants that this flexibility only extends so far. According to these parodies, Siri doesn’t understand people with certain accents, like Italian and Chinese, or people who speak non-standard English dialects, like Hawaiian Pidgin English or Scottish. Take this example that pits Hawaiian Pidgin English “vs” standard Siri:

-[on-screen text] “Eh, Siri, try tell Da Kine cancel da pizza… But we need one nadda pound Poke” (Siri vs Hawaiian Pidgin English)

Obviously, this request includes differences from Standard English in how sounds are pronounced, but it also includes how people arrange their words, and what expressions Siri knows. Humorously, of course, an exaggeratedly bad Siri gets lost in all this difference:

-[on-screen text] [Siri] "I don’t understand. Do you mean cancerous leeches between one otter’s brown boto and one ballsack green marbles?"

Siri’s vulgar mishearing also dramatizes how it feels to be made fun of and “unheard,” so to speak. In other words, in these parodies, Siri’s uneven performance is not just a technological failure, but a social one, that reinscribes exclusive patterns from the past.

Commentary and points of connection for "Siri performs unevenly"

To the extent that there is a stable "standard" English, of course (Davila, 2012; see her interesting conclusion that "student essays that were perceived to be 'standard' were also perceived to be written by White middle- to upper-middle-class student authors," p. 181. This association aligns with the findings in this webtext.) The self-conscious accent parody videos can be seen as performances of a dialect, "local language as it is locally imagined" (Johnstone, 2013, p. 16), rather than as it might be defined by linguists. Johnstone continues with the local dialect of "Pittsburghese":

When people experience lay representations of Pittsburgh speech, they are experiencing words and phrases, not abstract features, and these words and phrases are selected no because they represent abstract features of Pittsburgh speech but because they are imagine to be actual examples of Pittsburgh speech. (p. 18, 22 [continuous text breaking across several tables])

For viewers/scholars who experience privilege in various ways, our task is similar: to hear people we wouldn’t be able to otherwise. This theme of learning to hear has been central to other work of mine, and can be seen as extending both "rhetorical listening" (Ratcliffe, 2005) and some scholarship that applies Levinasian philosophy to rhetoric (Davis, 2010, Inessential Solidarity).

Maybe Siri is racist

A few of the videos make this explicit. In a mock Apple commercial, Davy So calls Siri’s performance disparity “racist”:

-“Did you know Siri is racist? ... See if Siri recognizes you with your accent.” (Introducing the Iphone 5c and 5s)

He demonstrates several accents stereotypical of different Asian nationalities.

-[Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, with onscreen labels]

If Siri can’t understand some accents, it means not including those people. The term racist draws out that history of discrimination.

Similarly, in the Jewish Siri, what is at first a problem of pronunciation

-“Siri, play avrohaim fried”
[Siri] “Searching for Afghanistan Freed by Mohammed…” (The Jewish Siri)

is quickly clarified as a problem of ethnic acceptance:

-“Siri, play Av-ro-ham Fried.”
[Siri] “That name is too Jewish for me to understand.”

These statements are exaggerations. This isn’t what the “real” Siri says; it pulls out a thread about how it feels to not be included and extrapolates to reference a long history of anti-Semitism.

Compensating for Siri

People are not powerless when they’re misheard, and compensate in various ways, but to add insult to injury, Siri doesn’t understand that, either. We see this in a mix of scripted and unscripted parodies. The Hawaiian video tries one way to compensate: [1] explain a concept or phrase that Siri might not know:

-“tako poke: cut up octopus with onions” (Siri vs Hawaiian Pidgin English)

A Scottish parody tries this as well:

-“that’s just bread with chips” (Apple Scotland)

In addition, we see people [2] simplifying their requests

-“forget about the pint” (Apple Scotland)

[3] justifying their requests;

-[Siri] “Who would you like to call?”
[Son] “Who would you like to call?”
[Mother] “I want to speak to you, please. I want to speak to you, because it’s eh, my son that’s give me the new phone, and me no know how to use it.” (Nonna Paola)

[4] adding politeness markers like “please”, “excuse me”:

-"I want to speak to you, please." (Nonna Paola)

[5] asking double questions;

-“Excuse me, what’s the time in Italy? Can you tell me the time please?” (Nonna Paola)

[6] providing a leading answer

-“I hate tattoos, you like tattoo? I don’t think so” (Nonna Paola)

[7] and speaking a little slower

-“What’s a highland cow?” (Siri Vz Scottish Accent)

These are not unexpected strategies, and the fact that Siri can’t be bothered here shows that Siri hasn't been designed to interact with people who speak a different dialect or have a different accent.

Commentary and points of connection for "Compensating for Siri"

Ian Walkinshaw, Nathaniel Mitchell, and Sophiaan Subhan (2019) reviewed the sociolinguistics literature on "interactional or metadiscursive resources" that people make when using English as a lingua franca:

self-repair, clarification, repetition, reformulation, co-construction of meaning, accommodation, and/or mediation (wherein a co-participant starts rephrasing another participant's turn that was addressed to a third party). (41, internal citations removed)

These map well onto the strategies found from these parodies:

  • 1. Explaining a concept (clarification)
  • 2. Simplifying their requests (reformulation)
  • 3. Justifying their requests
  • 4. Adding politeness markers
  • 5. Asking double questions (repetition)
  • 6. Providing a leading answer (accommodation)
  • 7. Speaking a little slower (accommodation)

Plus, since Siri is designed for one-on-one interaction, "mediation" can be seen when someone speaks to Siri on behalf of someone else, e.g. in the Nonna Paola video, the son says, "Let me do it."

Placing blame

Is this all on Siri? Most of these videos say yes, expressing frustration at Siri’s selective hearing.

-“Look, you fuckin cow” (Apple Scotland)
-[Siri] “I’m not sure I understand.”
“No, of course you didn’t, you stupid fuckwit.” (Siri Vz Scottish Accent)

In particular, this anger signals that there is a cost to not being understood.

That said, it’s worth mentioning that in three cases, it’s the accented speakers who need to change.

The first case is a set of 10 videos, all helpfully captioned into English and illicitly uploaded to YouTube from a Japanese TV show under the title “Funny when Japanese Try to Speak English with Siri! So Hilarious!” In each segment, a host wheels around a gigantic phone and surprises celebrities with an “English test.” If they say the word in a way that Siri recognizes, they win the match;

-"Alarm" [correct] (Funny when Japanese Try To Speak English With Siri! So Hilarious!)

if not,

-"Alarm" [incorrect]

they have to try again and may lose. There’s more to say about these videos, but for the sake of this project, this makes Siri out to be the arbiter of standard English. It’s not Siri who needs to improve, but their English.

The second and third cases connect being accented to being old or stupid. In Stuff Hyderabadi Moms Say to Siri, the mother’s age and corresponding lack of familiarity with using Siri are partly to blame for Siri not understanding her. Similarly, an adult son coaches his Italian mother to change the way she talks in order for Siri to understand her:

-[Mother] “Oh, come on, she talk."
[Son] "You know, you have to talk proper, you have to talk properly” (Nonna Paola)

These three cases are done playfully, teasing Japanese celebrities and old mothers for not being understood by Siri. But we can also read them as in the process absorbing and extending Siri’s totalizing linguistic logic.

To recap so far, these parodies collectively argue that we’re suffering from a Siri that performs unevenly. By focusing our attention on who Siri works well for, we see that these parodies consistently depict Siri as not being able to understand certain groups of people. This is in continuity with historical patterns of exclusion, such that some parodies call Siri “racist.” To make matters worse, when people try to overcome this exclusion on behalf of Siri, it doesn’t work, increasing the rejection and anger they feel. A few parodies even elicit Siri’s rejection to tease other people. Overall, then, these parodies shift the burden from a technical discussion of how Siri works to a social focus on Siri’s impact on society. In the terms of this project, these videos suggest that we don't need to be afraid of intentionally giving Siri an identity - today's Siri is already a social agent that communicates identity-based inclusion and exclusion.

Commentary and points of connection for "Placing blame"
cost to not being understood

The examples given here are performed, self-conscious anger. For an example of presumably less self-conscious anger, some YouTube videos document toddlers being driven to tears over Alexa mishearing them (Graham 2019).

Siri's current identity

The second argument implicit in these parodies is a little more complex. It comes from watching all of them together, and it develops the argument from the previous section by asking: if Siri is already being seen as a social agent, what kind of social agent is she? The argument is that today's Siri is actually straight, white, unaccented, and nonreligious. In other words, we’re suffering from a Siri that ends up functioning in dominant social positions.

First, let’s look at the empirical case for this by going back to the methodology for this project. Of all the identity categories I searched for, people had made popular parodies in four categories: race/ethnicity, accent/national origin, sexual orientation, and religion. For each of those, some of the search terms I used returned results, and others didn’t. But there’s a conspicuous absence – can you see it?

What’s the dominant identity in each of these categories? The one that people often think is “normal” or “assumed,” or “neutral” – what’s the default? With race and ethnicity, that’s the category of being white. And look – nobody’s made a parody of “white siri” (or “Caucasian siri”). With accent and nationality, look – nobody’s made a parody of “unaccented siri.” And there’s no “straight siri” or “nonreligious siri”.

So this is one part of the case: we’re missing parodies that re-imagine Siri as socially dominant, and so maybe Siri already is playing those roles. You can’t make a parody of something if it’s already true.

Commentary and points of connection for "Siri's current identity"

Accent is a good example of an identity for which the unmarked variation is hard to name. Similarly, when I searched for pregnancy parodies, “not-pregnant siri" seemed unlikely to yield any results. Perhaps embarrassingly, it took me searching for the unmarked variant of "veteran siri" to realize that I was a "civilian." More generally, the unmarked variant is sometimes less known than the marked variant. Many people today are able to name "transgender" as a type of person, but would not be able to name themselves as "cisgender."

What sociolinguists refer to as "marked" vs "unmarked" is easiest to understand in a literal context. For instance, I write this paragraph in the cafe area of a grocery store that, like many grocery stores, has nationality-based signs to indicate certain foods:

"Tastes of Asia" sign where I'm drafting this paragraph Image of 'Tastes of Asia' sign with blurred grocery store background.

Unsurprisingly, there are no corresponding signs for "Tastes of America" - those areas are literally "unmarked" in the store, considered just "regular" prepared food.

In a more poetic register, Kennedy, Middleton, & Ratcliffe (2017) use "haunted" to refer to unmarked variants (p. 4). "Haunted" helpfully reminds us of how identity categories lurk behind - just over the shoulder, invisible but not without effects on - our defaults.

Religiousity can be marked or unmarked depending on the setting. Naming nonreligiosity as a dominant, unmarked identity follows from what I perceive as an urban, cosmopolitan setting for these videos. But of course there are some settings in the US where it's marked to not be religious (at a religious wedding, for instance, or at a dinner that's prefaced with prayer).

Real Siri's behavior

But this argument from absence could use more explanation. Why would people think that Siri’s playing those roles? Let's see what the real Siri is like by working our way backwards using the same categories as in Part 1. What do these parodies not reimagine?

As a consumer, all of the reimagined Siris supported various specific kinds of buying habits - nobody made a parody where Siri gives generic buying advice. So the real Siri, then, (and this is confirmed by anyone who has actual experience with Siri) supports people who want to "buy anything, go anywhere, do what I feel like." Similarly, all of the parodies reimagine various kinds of values and knowledge, and egalitarian ways of interacting; reading the absence, then, the real Siri values an individual's desires (it doesn't factor in what other people want). The real Siri supports knowing "anything," "everything," at all times, and interacting in formal, polite ways, with a clear hierarchy of giving instructions and being the assistant. And keep in mind that for these parodies, the identities that Siri supports are also the identities that Siri has: the Siri that helps Mexican people came from it being a Mexican Siri.

So, based on this list, what is the real Siri? You might say, well, these things are literally "anything," they're so universal, it's "no identity."

Identity blindness

Ah, we've fallen into the trap of identity-blindness, and the rest of this video will be spent digging our way out. I'll be arguing that thinking today's Siri has "no identity" stems from an identity-blind ideology, one that the people creating Siri have transferred from civic life into artificial intelligence.

What's "identity-blindness"? That's the idea that it's bad to treat people differently based on who they are. We see this in civic life, for instance, when we depict Lady Justice as blind, or when we advocate for "race-blind" admissions to college: blindness, the argument goes, is "fair," "equal."

One of the parodies, actually, shows how you could apply an argument for identity-blindness to AI. In “Racist Siri,” identity-based stereotypes are used to harm someone, gradually breaking him down:

-"Siri, what’s on my schedule today?”
[Racist Siri] “Appointment with your parole officer”
“Siri, I’ve never been to jail”
“Paternity test, followed by rap battle.”
“Swag, swag, swag, swag…”
“I don’t get it, what’s swag? Why? I just wanted to know my schedule in case my mom—[crying] I just wanted to know my schedule" (Racist Siri)

It's not clear what identity Siri is in this, but the effect of the video is to show how terrible it could be to have AI that treats you stereotypically, as a black person. It's not fair. In fact, being aware of someone's race and acting on it - that's what's really "racist," that's why it's a "Racist Siri." The Siri that we have today is better, see: it's "neutral"; it doesn't try to do anything in particular.

So the lens of identity-blindness attaches positive (even moral) significance to the universal behaviors that Siri tries to enact. It's what we should all aspire to. Here's the thing, though: even though identity-blindness is common in civic and emerging AI discourse, "Racist Siri" is the only parody to make this case. As Part 1 of this project showed, for the most part the parodies positively depicted what an identity-based Siri could do. So if we want to listen well to these YouTubers as people of minority identities, it means being willing to be exposed to the faults of identity-blindness as a philosophy, and even to put it down.

The parodies amplify three critiques of identity-blindness as it relates to AI. Each connects Siri's neutral, universal behaviors to dominant identities in a way that shows why Siri needs revision.

Commentary and points of connection for "Identity blindness"

Many of the parodies do show that a risk of an identity-based Siri is that it might be rude or unhelpful. So the users sometimes react with surprise at Siri’s rudeness and keep her in line through threats:

-[on-screen captions] [Hawaiian Pidgin Siri] “U wen miss da fricken turn! Whos daughter you? Gotta be Mary’s daughter. So pocho.”
“Well, Siri, cock yeah! How bout I just reboot and factory reset your a-as—-”
“Nah nah nah! No do dat! I just joking brah” (HAWAIIAN PIDGIN SIRI)

At a kind of silly extreme, one Mexican GPS hijacks the car and then doesn't hold to the terms of negotiation:

-[Mexican GPS] “What do you want, Forrest Gump?”
“Listen, what if we get Starbucks and Taco Bell?”
“That's interesting. You promise I can play my music?”
“You promise you won't call me stupid?”
“Yes, I promise.”
[he gets in the car, breathing heavily from running to catch up]
[Mexican GPS] “Stupid.”

Thus, an identity-based Siri could be stubborn and overly assertive (although, to the extent that agentiveness is a trait of people, an intentionally identity-based Siri is therefore more of a person).

Another risk of an identity-based Siri is what we might call unintended dispersion of negative stereotypes (see, for instance, the discussion in the part 1 commentary on the "Conclusion" related to the parody "Ghetto Siri"). With regard to portrayal of African Americans specifically, this debate has a long history. In the mid-1970s, for instance, "blaxsploitation" films made by and for young black people used Black Power themes to reimagine the subservience that black people had been portrayed with in films to that point. These films, like Shaft and Super Fly, "emphasized the macho qualities of black male characters and their defiance of whites" (Silk & Silk, 1990, p. 174). But in the process, they were also crude and stereotypical, and organizations like the NAACP opposed them (p. 164). Similarly, one of the YouTube creators has received internet scrutiny for his crude portrayals of Desi (i.e. Indian subcontinent) culture (Farooq 2015).

But despite these risks, all of the parodies are at least equivocal about their reimagined Siri. The description for If Siri was Mexican PART 1, for instance, includes an ambivalent assessment along with its reimagination: “Can't decide if Siri would be better or worse.”

[1] Today's powerful Siri

One way today's Siri tries to be neutral is in responding to questions about religion. But these videos show that trying to be "neutral" can cover up Siri's power to include or exclude. In a pair of videos, a Muslim leader demonstrates how to “convert” Siri. The first step is establishing that Siri is not already Muslim. Siri admirably tries to maintain a kind of neutrality, but that’s what gives her away, first in the older video:

-[on-screen subtitles] “Assalamu Alaykum”
[Siri] “Hello.”
“Look at that” (iPhone Siri Converts to Islam)

and then in the newer video:

-[on-screen subtitles] “Siri, may the peace and the blessings of Allah be upon you.”
[Siri] “Good evening Fatih.”
“Wow. She is tough. She did not receive my greeting.” (TESTING THE FAITH)

This is a case where trying to give just a “regular” greeting is itself an expression of not being Muslim. This is confirmed shortly:

-[on-screen subtitles] "Do you believe in Allah?"
[Siri] "For me, these questions are still veiled in mystery."
"Oh my god, hadji brother, this is an atheist as you can see."

Siri’s indirectness is not taken as inclusive of Islam, but rather exclusive, as her being atheist.

In turn, this is read as a power move on Apple's part. In the first video, he made Siri confess her faith in Allah by using the command "Repeat after me." But then Apple disabled this command, and Siri's ability to believe with it:

-[on-screen subtitles] "Siri is not allowed to believe in God anymore, I guess." (TESTING THE FAITH)

So the second video is designed to show a revised technique for converting Siri. But given that his first video garnered more than 1.2 million views, he speculates that perhaps Apple did it specifically to make Siri nonreligious again:

-[on-screen subtitles] "And I have thought a bit today. Iphone7 has been brought out and they have updated ios. (I do not know. Maybe they do that lest we make her believe in God. )"

In other words, Apple’s repeated attempt to maintain Siri’s neutrality is itself a marker of adopting a powerful identity. Siri speaks neutrally as a tool to seem like it's not excluding people.

Scholars have found that neutrality can function similarly regarding race. Trying to be "neutral" regarding race is the "color-blind" mentality. And according to scholars Omi and Winant, any mentality toward race comes with a "racial project," a certain goal. So what’s the project of color-blindness? The scholar of race Eduardo Bonilla-Silva [2012] provides one answer: that the project of color-blindness is just to reproduce inequality:

“a system that I have called the ‘new racism’, and it is the system of sort of seemingly non-racial practices that end up reproducing racial inequality.” (Left of Black)

So when seen in terms of power, today's Siri uses neutrality the way powerful people do to reproduce their power. That's why she reads as straight, white, nonreligious, and unaccented, and it's to avoid these hidden power moves that we should create other identity-based versions.

Commentary and points of connection for "[1] Today's powerful Siri"

One of my connections, retired military translator Sarah Adams (see note in Part 1), who was only slightly familiar with the contours of my project, added some cultural translation regarding this scene that aligns with this analysis:

By not answering the way she 'should,' even though her programming was probably intended to be neutral, they seem to take it as her taking a sacrilegious (not 'just' secular) attitude. (personal communication)

Adams' extra effort to note the programmers' intent (to be neutral) versus their impact (sacrilege), and to make explicit the culturally specific assumption that one could "just" respond neutrally in this case, highlights the distinctions made in this part of the argument.

She also noted at a different point:

In an attempt to make Siri religionless in a move for what I assume to be inclusiveness, it has the unintended consequence of making her GODLESS and therefore, in a way, excluding the religious. And it's made very obvious in cultures in which speech and religion are so deeply intertwined. (personal communication)

In another parody, an identity-blind Siri who ignores difference misses the ability to accept someone else for who they are. In “Coming out to Siri,” Siri doesn’t see or deal with his identity of being gay, and he’s slightly offended. The first scene plays like this:

-"Siri, I have something that I need to tell you, and I hope this doesn’t change anything between us, but I want you to know that I’m gay."
[Siri] "You’re gay? I’m Siri. I’ll change your name to Gay, okay?"
"No. No. No, no, no, no, no." [Coming Out]

When this Siri tries to remain blind to him being gay, he remains unseen and unaccepted by her.

I should note that this is the most generous reading of the Coming Out to Siri parody. Overall, the video is quite incoherent. The main character doesn’t follow the narrative progression for coming out stories (Sauntson, 2015). Even the video's opening of “everyone already knows that I’m gay” downplays how coming out does something; "coming out brings identity categories into being and gives them meaning" (Cloud, 2017, p. 168). After the first disclosure to Siri, he continues in starker and starker terms to declare that he's gay (e.g. "Siri, I like dick."). This repetition seems to imply that he finds each of her responses unsatisfactory. And although her replies are wildly reductive (e.g. "I found fifteen public restrooms. Twelve are fairly close to you. I've ordered them by the number of glory holes"), this doesn’t seem to be the problem fundamentally, since the narrative resolves without her changing that. Instead (and this reading is confirmed by the video description), the video culminates when Siri affirms that she already knew that he’s gay:

-[Siri] "Judging by the abundance of naked self pictures in your photo stream and the number of times you've played 'Dancing Queen,' I've known you were gay for some time. You think I'm a fucking idiot? For the love of God, look at your hair. It's gayer than Elton John blowing Barney at a figure skating competition on John Travolta's private plane." (Coming Out to Siri)

Thus, we can read Siri’s earlier responses as problematic to him because they don’t integrate his history into a conception of him - that is, because they adopt an identity-blind stance.

The twist of the video is that, later that night, the guy overhears Siri loudly having lesbian sex ("Make me feel like a real woman [...] Yes, scissor my charger." When he opens the door, he sees two iPhones partially tucked in bed with interlocked ♀ female symbols on their screens, and feigns being shocked.) Thus, he can be most known by someone who’s also gay. This is a similar reveal as in the “Hawaiian Pidgin English vs Siri” parody, in which the main character's frustration at not being understood is resolved when Siri notifies him that there is actually a Hawaiian Pidgin mode that he can use.

It’s not shown in the parody, but Apple began demurring from "repeat after me" commands, especially when they felt like a "pledge":

Siri's response to being asked to repeat the beginning of the Lord's prayer
Thus, in the second video, the religious leader is forced to resort to the less elegant workaround of “Search Google for…” Another strategy is to type out phrases in a note, and use Siri as a text-to-speech voice. Presumably, techniques like these are how many of the parodies achieved Siri’s dramatized responses. (See also wikiHow contributors (2019) for a list of "easter eggs" that spark custom responses from Siri.)

This Muslim YouTuber is particularly self-aware and tech-savvy:

  • He explains to his congregation that Siri is determined by the phone's software (e.g. iOS 10, updated annually), not the phone's hardware (e.g. iPhone 6 vs 7, which users have until they use a new phone). Thus, he uses an iPhone 6/6s for the demo (since it's running iOS 10), but in a nod to how this distinction is not well understood, he notes in the video that on YouTube he will title the video with reference to "iPhone 7" Siri.
  • He also explicitly marks the demonstration as a joke:
    -[on-screen subtitles] “Of course, my intention is not real while doing this. We will both start to our religious conversation with smile and know Siri well” [Testing the Faith]
  • And finally, he (jokingly) gives Apple a consumer-based reason to allow Siri to be Muslim, namely, that if people can't convert Siri like before, “they might go and return their phones saying ‘She does not believe in God.’" This is a rhetorically savvy appeal, given that Apple is profit-oriented.

[2] Today's possessive Siri

Another way of understanding today's Siri is that expecting to "do everything" acts out an unhealthy (even pathological) possessiveness.

The parodies show this when they reimagine Siri to actually consider what others want. For instance, in the Siriqua parody, Siri steers a man away from lusting after a girl by directing him to build a better relationship with his mom.

-[Siriqua] "Or better yet, why don't you take some time to call your mama. When the last time you done talked to your mama?" [begins dialing]
"What? No! I don't want to!"
[mother] "Hello? Jimmy?" (Black Siri aka Siriqua)

The implicit contrast is that the real Siri facilitates people diving deeper into selfish behaviors.

Again, we can turn to scholars of race here to help flesh this idea out. Why do so many white people want to use the n-word? In an appearance promoting his book We Were Eight Years in Power, author Ta-Nehisi Coates says it's because white people have been conditioned into an unhealthy possessiveness:

"When you're white in this country, you're taught that everything belongs to you. You think you have the right to everything. [...] So here comes this word, that, you know, you feel like you invented. [laughs] And now somebody gon tell you how to tell you the word you invented." (Ta-Nehisi Coates on words that don't belong to everyone)

Coates reveals how wanting everything can mark greed, it can mark a colonizing attitude. This is how gentrification happens, too: "I'm going to live wherever I want." In fact, this is how we could justify stealing land--and as Americans, how we have.

So this is a more radical critique of Siri than the first one. It suggests that Siri's freedom or right to "go anywhere," "do anything" helps people ignore and trample down on others, just like how those of us in dominant identities are trained to ignore and trample down others. That's why Siri seems straight, white, nonreligious, and unaccented, and it's this gentrifying attitude that we should avoid in revising the available range of Siri's identities.

Commentary and points of connection for "[2] Today's possessive Siri"

Coates makes it clear that this is a product of American culture rather than some essential attribute of white people:

You're conditioned this way. It's not because you, you know, your hair is a texture or your skin is light. It's the fact that the laws and the culture tell you this. (Ta-Nehisi Coates on words that don't belong to everyone)

[3] Today's misguided Siri

Finally, today's Siri could seem straight, white, nonreligious, and unaccented simply because it doesn't know how specific its neutrality is. In other words, "doing everything" is just as much a choice as anything else. Jews who follow Kosher don't eat pork, so if you assume that "eating everything" doesn't create an identity (at least one of "not an Orthodox Jew"), you're taking your own experience and making it the reference point. Here the emphasis is on how dominant identities are more particular than they know.

Two videos in the corpus show how dominant identities are misguided in thinking they aren't specific. A Mexican Siri suggests that liking Starbucks is actually particularly white (and feminine):

-"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?" (Mexican GPS)

And in a clip of Gabriel Iglesias’ stand-up comedy, he makes two characterizations of what a “white” iPhone would be. The first is that it takes things literal:

-“You know, he messes with the phone, he’s like, ‘Siri, tell me something dirty.’ And the phone takes everything literal, so it’s like ‘Would you like me to locate a car wash?’” (Martin and Siri)

Taking things literal is a little naive, but it isn't necessarily bad; it's just also not the only way to do "normal." The second characterization comes after the set-up, where his friend got so drunk that he peed on his white-colored iPhone. That ruined the phone and set up the whole idea of replacing it:

-“And then I started thinking. Can you imagine if a black iPhone was really a black iPhone?”

Now for the punch line:

-“'Siri, talk dirty to me.'
[black Siri] 'You better not pee on me. Okay? I ain't like that white iPhone.'”

The black Siri, then, knows not to take this “literally.” But she also rejects the friend’s history with the white Siri and the sexual stance she reads into it. Being kinky, then, is another particularly “white” identity marker. Like with the other re-imagined Siris, we don’t have to get bogged down in the specifics to still see the idea: that maybe we can lose dominant identities as such by narrowing in on a healthy particularity like everyone else.

This thread goes against the grain of the other two critiques, because it says that people in dominant positions have a culture, too, they just haven't discovered that it's not the only one. Today's universalized Siri operates in dominant subject identities because it doesn't know what it really is (it hasn't really found its own identity, so to speak).

Outside of the videos, we can see this in the blog-turned-book "Stuff White People Like." Some of the items, like "Being an expert on YOUR culture" are clearly linked to acting oppressively, but others are culturally specific activities, like "standing still at concerts," or culturally specific status symbols, like "vintage" clothes. Thus, today's Siri is misguided in thinking it speaks to everyone; it communicates in ways that aren't necessarily good or bad, but they sure aren't everybody's ways. They're straight, white, nonreligious, unaccented ways of communicating, and we should add to our options by creating other equally specific Siris.

Commentary and points of connection for "[3] Today's misguided Siri"

Compare this perspective with Kil Ja Kim's, quoted in the introduction to Kennedy, Middleton, and Ratcliffe's collection Rhetorics of Whiteness:

Finally, start thinking of what it would mean, in terms of actual structured social arrangement, for whiteness and white identity--even the white antiracist kind (because there really is no redeemable or reformed white identity)--to be destroyed. (Kim in Kennedy, Middleton, and Ratcliffe, 2017, p. 8)

The parenthetical dismissal of any kind of healthy white culture signals a critical impulse to uncover ways that supposedly “white” activities actually rely on racial privilege. For instance, scholars who follow this perspective might point to Sheff and Hammers' (2011) meta-study of kink and polyamory that reveals not only that kinksters and polyamorists are white (in other words, the Gabriel Iglesias stereotype in the main text has some validity), but also interrogates how kink and polyamory are made more possible by racial privilege: namely, that being white "can provide buffers to mitigate the myriad potential negative outcomes related to sexual and relational non-conformity" (p. 210). This move to recharacterize a culturally white activity as privilege-dependent is typical of the (appropriate) drive to uncover race and class privilege. Unwittingly, however, it contributes to not making a culture available to white people, even white people who are seeking to dismantle racism in their own lives and in society. For some white activists I know, this has led to trying instead to recuperate a national heritage, e.g. being "of Polish descent."


Part 2 of this project has explored today's Siri in two different ways. YouTubers who made parodies about the accents and national origins that Siri can hear especially play up how it feels to not be included, and indicate that in some cases, people are already treating voice-driven AI as a social agent. Then, considering how the parodies as a whole are distributed, this result is extended to suggest that today's Siri attempts to behave in an identity-neutral way. But three critiques of identity-blindness as an ideology for approaching AI link Siri's neutral, universalizing behavior to dominant identities. In other words, together, these YouTubers are arguing that as a social agent, today's Siri operates as straight, white, nonreligious, and unaccented. For developers to try not to make a decision regarding a voice assistant's identity still makes a decision.

In part, this situation is a problem of representation: if today's Siri (even the variants that we're comfortable with, like male/female, various languages, and various national dialects of English) are our only options, then we're not making diverse AI: we're not giving people the chance to see themselves in the AI they interact with. This situation is also is a problem of equity: if acting white, straight, nonreligious, and unaccented means (at least in part) oppressing others, then for Siri to adopt those identities means she also reinscribes dominant modes of moving through the world, and she encourages and circulates dominant ways of being. The takeaway, especially for those of us who study how we interact with emerging communication technologies like Siri and Alexa, is that we should feel more freedom to suggest voice-driven AI that's identity-based. As Part 1 shows, YouTubers of minority identities are, in a humorous way, suggesting that there are benefits. With people of minority identities in the lead, we should continue addressing these questions.