Photo by Alexi Berry
When Siri, the iPhone’s voice activated assistant hit the market, it was met with instant success. Commercials touting Siri’s usefulness and companionship, parodies demonstrating her care and concern for her operator, portrayed the idea that Siri was the perfect assistant, and perhaps even more. Besides the leap in artificial intelligence that made this attractive, this post will suggest it is actually human loneliness and the desire for a perfect partner that has also contributed to its success.
In nearly all of the iPhone Siri commercials, the main character is alone. He or she poses a question to Siri, and she responds with perfect advice and a caring tone. Although a partner is evident in some commercials (Samuel L Jackson is preparing dinner for a date, a man tells Siri to let his wife know he’ll be late) in many there is no evident partner. In fact, in a recent commercial, John Malkovich seems to use Siri as a surrogate partner. In one of the Malkovich commercials she provides life advice; in the other commercial she tells him a joke that cracks him up. He’s sitting in an easy chair, no evident dilemma, simply seeking companionship.
The search for a perfect partner is a common theme in Americana. Psychological theories address its origin. In Jungian psychology what a person wants in a partner is projected, through unconscious processes, onto an unsuspecting interest. The person only sees what fits into their ideal, and disregards what doesn’t. Eventually the projection fades, and the individual is left with an imperfect, and sometimes ill fitted, partner. The projection itself, according to Jungian psychology, is simply the person’s ideal, which is often a balancing counterpart to their masculine or feminine side.
Even if one doesn’t accept Jung’s elucidation of the search for a perfect partner, it remains difficult to deny the idea of it in America. It permeates our films and novels. In fact, the idea of the soul mate or perfect partner has its roots in ancient stories, but that isn’t the point of this article. The influence is so strong that many seek their ideal, believe in soul mates, and believe eventually they will find their “one”.
Beyond the perfect partner aspect of Siri, there is the unconditional positive regard she provides for her user. In a couple of commercials a child is seen asking Siri questions about whether it will snow or not, or “what does a weasel look like?” There is no parent in sight to query. Siri seems to provide a viable substitute for companionship and unwavering attention: she provides perfect advice, seeks to rescue one from dilemmas, and offers companionship. She accepts compliments graciously, and genuinely seems to care about “her” user. She never gets upset; even with ridiculous questions users ask. (I have heard she has been programmed to respond to “What are you wearing?, with “Why do people keep asking me that?”)
There are some weaknesses in my argument: Siri is a female voice, and I am suggesting Apple is attempting to market the perfect partner. The perfect partner aspect would obviously not apply to heterosexual women. But, in support of Siri being closer to a perfect partner and providing unconditional positive regard, according to CNN tech, technology usually uses a woman’s voice because both males and females find it more suitable.
Despite the weakness, it is still possible Siri’s popularity is at least partly a result of the human search for a perfect partner. A very successful old movie, “The Stepford Wives”, (the remake wasn’t as successful) focused on men getting the perfect partner, who just happened to be robotic. To my knowledge there is no movie called “The Stepford Husbands.” Marketing often focuses on the male purchaser, because males comprise more of the purchasing power in this culture.
If Apple isn’t marketing a partner, a comrade, or a cyber soul mate, then why are so many of the central figures alone? Even the famous are alone in the Siri commercial. As mentioned John Malkovich, as well as Zooey Deschanel, both rich and famous enough to have plenty of potential partners around them incessantly, are hanging around the house alone, chatting with their artificial intelligence device. Perhaps, by making stars seem alone and possibly lonely, Apple taps into the market of those looking to find comfort from another, even if it is an electronic device.
We are growing lonelier as a culture. Despite technology that offers to bring us closer (video calls, Skype, FaceTime, video gaming that allows for playing with others not present in our home) we are more isolated. People are becoming more engrossed in electronic communication and distraction. Everyone can relate to seeing people out to dinner, and rather than engaging in conversation they are absorbed in interacting with their phone. Consequently people are becoming more isolated from one another. Rather than improving personal relationships, many are finding solace in their electronic device. Perhaps, as technology continues to advance at an amazing rate, it will eventually perfect a substitute for human contact.
Griggs, Brandon. Why Computer Voices Are Mostly Female. Oct 2011. CNN Tech. http://www.cnn.com/2011/10/21/tech/innovation/female-computer-voi...
Copyright William Berry, 2012