“Just Use the Keyboard”: Review of The Computer’s Voice: From Star Trek to Siri by Liz W. Faber

“Just Use the Keyboard: Review of The Computer’s Voice: From Star Trek to Siri by Liz W. Faber

Lisa Meinecke

Under Review:

The Computer’s Voice: From Star Trek to Siri. By Liz W. Faber. University of Minnesota Press, 2020.

There is a scene in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (a.k.a. The One With the Whales) in which engineer Scotty encounters computer technology from the mid–1980s. Scotty at first erroneously assumes that the computer is capable of responding to voice commands, before he realizes with consternation that he has to enter his commands via keyboard; in 1986, the idea of using one’s voice to interact with a piece of technology was set firmly in SF’s futures. Liz W. Faber’s book, The Computer’s Voice: From Star Trek to Siri, is a highly innovative study of the (cultural) history of such voice–interactive computer technology, from early fictional computers in the 1960s, when almost all information technology was still brand new, to today’s digital voice assistant Siri.

The book opens with an introductory chapter outlining Faber’s theoretical framework. The following five analytical chapters are dedicated to analyzing representations of voice–interactive (or, in Faber’s terms, “acousmatic”) computers in popular culture, always juxtaposed with the history of computer technology from the 1960s onward. In the concluding chapter, Faber situates and contextualizes the voice assistant Siri in the theoretical, aesthetic, cultural, and historical frame of reference she established. The main themes carved out in each chapter correspond well to the roughly chronological structure of the book; the more contextual sections mesh almost seamlessly with the pop cultural analysis.

Faber introduces her methodology thoroughly. She convincingly shows the benefits of combining feminist psychoanalytical film studies on the one hand with sound studies and the history of computation on the other hand, and rightly argues that psychoanalysis can be employed as an interpretive frame for understanding how underlying power structures always already infuse technology. The addition of sound studies allows for a delightfully subtle geekiness throughout the book.

According to the typology of acousmatic computers outlined in the book, there is a main (gendered) difference between those computers on space ships and those in terrestrial settings. Because space is a hostile void in which humans cannot survive unprotected, Faber argues that space ships are always already coded female, nurturing, and womb–like. In contrast, terrestrial settings allow for more varied expressions of gender roles, because terrestrial space is already predefined as human–dominated.

The first chapter compares the ship computer of the Enterprise in Star Trek (1966-69) and the HAL 9000 computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as originating in competing ideologies of the space age: Star Trek draws from the optimistic sense of freedom and the drive to explore. 2001, in turn, narrativizes the oppressive technological threat of dehumanisation. The second chapter shows that similar representations of acousmatic computers further expand these metaphors and symbols established by TOS and 2001. I particularly enjoyed the analysis of the 1974 parody Dark Star in which the ship’s computer’s personality is that of a nagging mother, pivoting the oppressive technological horror of 2001 into commentary on technology as numbingly ineffectual. 

The remaining chapters discuss human–made terrestrial computers, which come in a variety of different genders, bodies, and social roles. Chapter three focuses on representations of paternal and/or filial relationships in the context of New Hollywood cinema and prevalent sociopolitical anxieties about the Vietnam War. Faber argues that films like Colossus (1970), George Lucas’ THX 1138 (1971), or Demon Seed (1977) discuss broader cultural anxieties about militaristic technology in the cold war as well as patriarchal power structures, raising questions about shifting masculinities and the roles of fathers and sons. In direct chronological and thematic continuation to chapter three, chapter four connects the narrative of idealistic young men who have no paternal figures left to struggle against and thus have to struggle against each other — TRON (1982) — with the new domestic technologies of the home computing industry of the 1980s — Electric Dreams (1984).

Chapter five, the last of the explicitly analytical chapters of the book, traces the contested history of gender and computer use in the 1990s. The chapter turns to computer assistant systems in familiar and domestic settings. Faber argues that domestic and professional computer systems in Fortress (1993), Smart House (1999) and Eureka (2006-2012) reveal racialized and gendered power structures in the domestic sphere: voiced by white actors, these systems control specifically white and middle class US–American homes, in which the father works outside the home, while unpaid reproductive labor in the household falls to the wife/mother. Introducing domestic technology to these narrow gender roles, according to Faber, may free women to enter the workplace, but also renders paid domestic labor done by Black and POC women invisible. 

Concluding the book, chapter six starts with a detailed account of the history of Apple’s voice assistant Siri and introduces her contemporary (pop) cultural context. Representations of voice assistants in popular culture, such as Samantha in the movie Her (2013), imagine voice assistant computers no longer as domestic help, but as potential romantic partners for human characters. Faber shows Siri is heavily indebted to the imaginations of fictional domestic computers from the 1990s and 2000s (see chapter five!), which in turn draw from the older narratives analyzed throughout the book.

Feminist psychoanalysis requires conceptual precision in order to avoid the pitfalls of circular reasoning. Occasionally, this relative rigidity means that there is no space for further contextualizing interpretations. Mostly, this is a feature, not a bug: Faber’s writing is concise, clear, and accessible. There is only one occasion where this commitment to methodological neatness does the book a (minor) disservice. While Faber argues her point about gender roles, race, and domestic labor commitments in chapter five convincingly, I would have liked to see a little more exploration into how this may or may not affect the characters and their environments. The book is theoretically and methodologically complex, but not heavy to read; the prose is serious with a clear critical voice, but never humorless. A lot of the book’s maybe surprising levity is due to Faber’s smart selection of her pop cultural texts, including critically acclaimed films as well as less known (and more commercial) productions. All considered, The Computer’s Voice is an ambitious theoretical project, but also a well-argued and informative interdisciplinary study of the intersections between popular culture, gender, and computer history.

Lisa Meinecke is a doctoral candidate at LMU Munich. Her dissertation focuses on representations of artificial intelligence and robotics in North American popular culture. Her research interests are popular culture studies, the history of social reform, and science and technology studies. Lisa also had the privilege to work in research management with the EU-funded robotics project ECHORD++ and the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft.

Transparency Statement

This review was commissioned by editor Sabrina Mittermeier, who is good friends with the author of this review, and is also acquainted with the author of the reviewed work. A review copy was provided by University of Minnesota Press.

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