Conference Agenda

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Session Overview
PaperSession-20: Assistants
Friday, 04/Oct/2019:
9:00am - 10:30am

Session Chair: Alex Louise Bevan
Location: P514
(cap. 220 - fixed seating)

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9:00am - 9:20am


Luke Munn

Digital Cultures Institute, New Zealand

How is trust fabricated today? This paper argues that the persona of ‘Alexa’ bypasses concerns around surveillance and privacy, defusing anxieties not via the rationality of a convincing argument but through the relationality of Alexa as a singular presence.

In many respects Alexa is actually more invasive than other technologies. Amazon has encroached into the very heart of the home. Moreover, the company’s patents delve further into the subject through voice identification, mood monitoring, and health detection. But this encroachment is carried out by her, rather than it, a warm and welcoming persona. The team’s aim is to develop something that is friendly, can turn off your lights, chat about anything, and empathize when you’re having a bad day (McGirt 2018). The goal is to construct something chattier, more affective and emotionally attuned. In doing so, Alexa embodies what theorist Byung-Chul Han (2017) has called “friendly power.”

The result is that Alexa feels different. Instead of an algorithmic bundle of technologies, Alexa is experienced as an affective persona. Alexa thus delves deeper into the inner life of the subject while shrugging off the anxieties associated with cold, command-and-control technologies. Rather than an all-seeing eye, she is an always listening voice, a friendly companion. And rather than emanating from a central agency, she is co-located with the user. If Big Brother no longer characterizes contemporary power (Harcourt 2015), Alexa might be described as a “small sister.” Small sisters work alongside instead of above. Small sisters are multiple, sited, and supple.

9:20am - 9:40am

Trusting smart speakers: a typology of invocationary acts

Chris Chesher

The University of Sydney, Australia

Smart speakers such as the Google Home have the seemingly magical capacity to respond to user invocations in natural language. I argue that these are invocationary acts. In terms of Austin’s speech act theory, smart speakers interpret what the user says (locutionary: speech-to-text), what their statement does (illocutionary: artificial intelligence), and attempt fulfil the obligation of the user’s command (perlocutionary: AI & text-to-speech). The smart speaker responds with its own speech acts; in Searle’s terms it might assert facts (representatives: e.g. answering a factual question), ask the user to do something (directive, e.g. asking a question in a quiz game) communicate a psychological state (expressive: e.g. answering the question ‘Do you love me?’), commit to a future action (commissive: e.g setting a timer) or make a declaration (such as confirming a purchase). User invocations are most often directives, and are most often initiated with the ‘wake word’ ‘Hey Google’. The computer’s response comes automatically through what I call invocationary acts. In this case, the user’s invocation is answered by the evocation of synthesised speech, sound, music and/or images. Drawing on an analysis of 300 commands drawn from online publications, I developed a typology of invocationary acts: Search, Lookup, Error, Media, Third party search, Location, User data, Random, Scripted response (often randomly selected from multiple answers), Interaction (applications such as a tutorial or a game), Device (controlling media, or smart home devices) and Clock. This analysis points to the limitations of the voice user interface paradigm.

9:40am - 10:00am


Nancy Baym1, Limor Shifman2, Christopher Persaud1, Kelly Wagman1

1Microsoft Research, United States of America; 2Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel

Often hated during its lifespan in product (1996-2006), Clippy – Microsoft’s Office Assistant, became a pop-culture icon in its afterlife. Delving into the plethora of memes featuring Clippy, we ask: why should a questionable character from a software program that has been out of use for well over a decade have so vibrant an afterlife? If Clippy has become a rhetorical resource, what is it being used to do? We propose that Clippy’s dual status as the original natural-language digital assistant, one that fell critically short in its ability to actually assist, makes it an ideal vehicle for critique of today’s ubiquitous assistants. An analysis of 1,148 meme instances collected from five sites led to a twofold argument: First, Clippy humor relies on the contrast between types of intelligence; Clippy is often too good at one kind, while lacking in another. In particular, Clippy lacks interpersonal intelligence: it serves as a disruptive mediator between its user and the world, as well as other human beings.

Yet this failure in “knowing its limits” and adapting to its environment is also what gives Clippy character. This suggests that digital assistants must attend to multiple kinds of intelligences; attending to any one over others may create an endearing character but not an effective digital assistant. Furthermore, the fact that the unbending yet personality-filled character of Clippy remains ungendered or male gives us insight into the pliant and empty characters of the female gendered Alexa, Siri, and Cortana.

10:00am - 10:20am


Jakob Linaa Jensen

Danish School of Media and Journalism, Denmark

In this paper the medieval period is used as a prism to analyze and contextualize the intersection of mutual surveillance, corporate capitalism and information control. It is claimed that the interplay between big tech companies, nation states’ battle for control and citizens’ participatory surveillance, for instance exercised through social media, resembles medieval principles of feudalism and tight social control. As such, this is basically a paper discussing power related to the Internet, as it turns 50 years.

The main argument is that apparently distinct social phenomena related to the dominance of Internet technologies share the same logics of control, surveillance and power as the feudalism that dominated medieval society. The states and big corporations both compete and cooperate, just like the states and the church in Middle Ages.

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