Monday, June 11, 2012

Selling memory and conversation: Three thoughts on Apple/Siri's latest ads

You may have seen one of these iPhone/Siri ads from this NPR article: Hey Celebs, Are You Lonesome Tonight? Siri's Gotcha  There are three aspects to the program that struck me as I read the article and watched the included ads.

First: Siri embodies the clueless alien with massive mental firepower-literally a computer for a brain-as seemingly all-knowing but lacks understanding of basic pop/cultural syntax or semantics.
My best example of this is traveling recently with my two teenage cousins sitting in the back seat of the car firing questions at the Siri program. Ridiculous questions that they would very quickly become tired of asking an adult or peer because the answers to their questions would actually be answers. Instead interaction with Siri offers either straightforwardly sincere (admitting that Siri doesn't get humor minus the occasional flash of programmed wit) or, in response to a particularly obscure or ludicrous question the phrase "I don't understand".  In this context Siri becomes a parlor game, a novelty. A harmless interactive-only version of the Turing Test where the questions being asked are designed to stump for purposes of amusement of the listeners. "Can you stump the machine?" This is the context of every friendly alien movie where the amusement comes from the watching the outsider trying to fit themselves into the daily activity/routine with which the rest of the culture is comfortable. At least it's amusing to 13 and 14 year olds.

Second: The fact you have to hit the button every time seems like an intercom system to a disembodied intelligence waiting to interact with you. The sense is not of a whimsical, helpful tool but rather the sadness of a deeply, limited conversation and the need to ask questions for almost every single thing. The NPR article suggests that "The overt message of these TV ads is obvious: By the command of your voice, Siri can help you with the mundane tasks of everyday life." Is this the true American dream-to have our questions/whims answered by simply speaking them, without labor or effort? Or is it deeper that there is something/some entity to always respond to our questions so that we never feel alone? (See this brief history of the ELIZA talk bot, built as a sort of simulation of Rogerian psychotherapy.)

Thirdly: What's especially interesting about each one of these commercials is the absence of memory. Jackson can't remember how many ounces are in a cup, Deschanel asks to be reminded to clean up her house and Malkovitch wants to know what is in store for his evening. Siri is really only helpful if the user is willing to stop remembering or at the very least cede the role of memory from the user's brain to the iPhone's memory chip. What struck me as well is the sense conveyed that not knowing or not remembering is incredibly "cool", which the use of Jackson/Deschanel and Malkovich as characters, convey.

(Not to be that old dude shaking his cane at the youngsters on the lawn but this kind of thing that draws parallels to Socrates' story of the loss of memory due to memory. Anne Blair's book Too Much to Know, which I don't have in front of me, also shares a similar story from the Muslim tradition. In both stories there is legitimate fear that writing will eliminate the need to remember. While writing has allowed for the more efficient preservation of knowledge there is something to be said for the act of remembering that, for the ancient world, writing supplanted. There's a distinct difference between purposefully recording a future event and trusting the act of recall to a tool. The paper doesn't read itself.)

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