Sunday, October 23, 2011

you feel me, siri?

It turns out that Siri, the imaginary personal assistant built into the new version of Apple's Iphone, the Iphone 4S, only really understands unaccented English. My Taiwanese immigrant friend tried her luck Friday night, and ended up speaking loudly, and slowly. When I tried out the speak-and-she'll-type-your-email-function I spoke the same way. Why? Because I know voice recognition software usually doesn't get my slight European accent.

This reminds me of a comment an African American student made in class once. We were talking about auto-correct functions on smart devices, and she said that when she and her friends see the suggestions for corrections made by their phones they think "I would never say that". I asked her what she meant, and she said "the phones make us text white". Meaning that their social dialect is turned into standard English by the auto correct function.

Does this matter? I think it does. What happens is that software that is marketed as decreasing the distance between human thought and technological representation is creating not less but more distance for some people. It can't be good for the companies, because it of course reinforces the alienation experienced by underrepresented groups.

I don't know a lot of black slang, but in a small experiment I just asked Siri one question that I do know: "You feel me, Siri?". I asked her three times. She responded, "I don't really like these arbitrary categories", "OK", and "If you insist".

"You feel me?" is a tag-question, much like "You know?", that establishes rapport between speakers. Appropriate answers are "Uh-hu", "Yeah", or anything else that shows that you understand, agree, and want to hear more. A metallic "Go ahead!" from Siri would have been fine.


Cameron Morris said...

Love this! My first question about Siri was where does the name come from (they sure didn't go with a plain Jane name). It looks like it's of Scandinavian origin (like you, like my sister's husband, like my nephew) which means that if Siri only understands unaccented English she probably wouldn't understand her fellow Scandinavians :)

Lotta K said...

Too funny! And true! Different names can be cool, but please don't BE too different...

Anonymous said...

I have a southern U.S. accent and Siri has not understood a single thing I have said to it. I hate it. It drives me crazy. It pops up all the time when I have not wanted it to do so. I want my husband to take the iphone and give me a regular phone without the nusiance "assistant."