Talk to me – Disembodied Voices and the Politics of human-machine Conversation
In this project we took a closer look at voice assistants, smart speakers and chatbots: Why are most voice assistants female? Why do artificial assistants have to be humanized at all? Why do they live in cylinders? What are the social and political dimensions of this technology? How can we address issues like careless handling of user data, enormous consumption of resources such as energy and raw materials, and exploitation of human labor? Can strategies of speculation be used as a tool of feminist critique in dealing with voice assistants? In interdisciplinary teams the students developed new, diverse concepts with the support of a mix of experimental formats, speculative elements, applied practice and in-depth theory. Our goal was to unlearn common assumptions of technology – and in the process to question concepts of language, gender and design. A prerequisite for this is a critical engagement with theories and concepts from the fields of voice tech, machine bias, machine ethics, feminist science-technology studies and privacy politics. There were workshops on how to prototype chatbots, how to train language models with machine learning and how to successfully establish interdisciplinary collaborative work. Through our practice-based research, the students explored the following questions: What might alternative ways of developing and designing voice assistants look like? Where is the pragmatic-useful, where is the poetic-narrative potential of voice assistants? How can we bring it to light? How can voice be given a form? Which alternatives are worth exploring?The outcome of the semester will be designs, experimental series, prototypes, performances, devices, interfaces, but also a deep theoretical understanding of chatbots, voice assistants, bias ….. The participants were industrial design students from Burg Halle University of Art and Design and students of applied media and culture studies from the University of Applied Sciences Merseburg. They tried out interdisciplinary work and sharpened their own skills in joint projects with their counterparts. As representatives of different disciplines, the students brought their respective competencies to the joint project. The aim of the project was to work out questions and methods together in interdisciplinary teams. The complexity of the topic required the networking of individual skills and subject-specific knowledge to form a collective pool of knowledge and experience. In addition, the focus was on developing a common language that enables a process of communication across disciplinary boundaries. As an extra we regularly came together in a reading club to further explore theoretical frameworks of speculation, voice technologies and history of technology through an intersectional feminist lense.