CME TALK: Thao Phan | Amazon Echo and the Aesthetics of Whiteness, 16th May 2019

May 6, 2019


Thao Phan is a Research Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute of Citizenship and Globalisation. She is a feminist science and technology studies researcher who specialises in gender, artificial intelligence, and algorithmic cultures. Her work examines the gendered dimensions of AI across different cultural sites: scientific histories, film and the cultural imaginary, and voice-controlled digital assistants.



On November 6, 2014, Amazon surprised the tech community by casually unveiling its newest “futuristic gadget experiment”, the Amazon Echo. Choosing to forego the usual fanfare of tech launches, the Echo was announced using a press release and a string of promotional material. These images and videos were often sentimental celebrations of middle-class family lifestyles with the Echo smuggled into scenes of blissful domesticity. Rather than depict the Echo as something radically new—as a disruption to domestic patterns—the promotional material figured the Echo as in continuity with, and indeed conserving, already existing family structures. This use of conservative nostalgia is certainly not unique to the Echo. As Lynn Spigel has argued, it is indicative of broader historical trends in marketing new domestic technologies, from the “homes of tomorrow” of the 1930s-1950s to the smart homes of the 1990s to present. She notes that these “nostalgic returns” are usually marked by hierarchies of social position and class privilege with promotional discourses often romanticising white, middle-class nuclear family structures. 

This paper extends on Spiegel’s argument to examine the dynamics of gender, class, and race embedded within promotional material of the home automation device Amazon Echo and its digital assistant Alexa. While most readings of gender and digital assistants foreground figures such as the housewife, I argue that Alexa is instead figured on an idealised vision of domestic service. It is my contention that this vision functions in various ways to reproduce a relation between device/user that mimics the relation between servant/master in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American homes. Alexa, however, significantly departs from this historical parallel through its aesthetic coding as a native-speaking, educated, white woman—a representation that contrasts with the historic reality of working-class, racialised domestic service. I argue that this representation is not only disingenuous but strategically misrepresents the direction of power between user and device in such a way that makes contending with issues such as surveillance and digital labor increasingly difficult.



Date: 16th May, 2019, Thursday

Time: 4:30-6pm

Venue: Monash University, Caulfield Campus, Building S, S801



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