Entertainment Books The Smart Wife: Why Siri, Alexa and other smart home devices need a feminist reboot
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The Smart Wife: Why Siri, Alexa and other smart home devices need a feminist reboot

'The Smart Wife' authors Yolande Strengers (right) and Jenny Kennedy explore why it's time for a feminist tech reboot. Photo: Supplied
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It’s been a busy day. You’re tired, sore, and hungry. All you want to do is put your feet up, stream your favorite on-demand show and pour yourself a glass of wine. But there’s still dinner to cook, homework to supervise, and tomorrow’s schedule to finalise. Someone should probably do a load of laundry, and you need to put the garbage out. You might also want someone to talk with and ask how your day was. Maybe you even desire something a little extra? If only there was someone, or something, who could do it all.

Meet the smart wife. She’s pleasant, helpful, and available at an increasingly affordable price. Millions of people from around the world are now turning to connected and robotic devices to provide the domestic, caring, and intimacy services historically delivered by real-life
wives.

The smart wife is a seemingly ingenious solution to what the political journalist Annabel Crabb poignantly terms the “wife drought” afflicting most advanced economies and gender progressive nations.

After all, who wouldn’t want more help around the home, including, in some cases, help meeting those more sexual desires?

By 2021, some industry observers predict that we will have more voice-activated assistants on the planet than people – a growth rate that outstrips the cell phone’s rise to ubiquity. Domestic robots like robotic vacuum cleaners are already the most widely adopted computational robots in the world. Demand for care and sex robots is growing too, albeit more slowly.

The smart wife is clearly a tempting idea as well as growing reality for many residents with access to smart technology, the internet, electricity, and disposable income. But is she really a good solution to the many problems associated with life as we know it in the twenty-first
Century?

Before getting into the strengths and weaknesses of our fascinating heroine, let us acquaint you with the smart wife properly. The wife drought that Crabb speaks of suggests we are witnessing the slow death of the wife in contemporary society (at least the wife we’ve known as the longtime backbone of patriarchal society). But she’s having an enthusiastic comeback, with a few critical upgrades. It’s not wives themselves who are being asked to come back into the kitchen but rather feminised artificial intelligence (AI) built into robots, digital voice assistants (also known as smart speakers, conversational agents, virtual helpers, and chatbots), and other smart devices.

Close up of a young family using a smart speaker while having breakfast in the morning
From Amazon’s Alexa to Apple’s Siri and Google Home, the ‘smart wife’ comes in many forms. Photo: Getty

The smart wife comes in many forms; in fact, chances are you’re already living with her. Most obvious are assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, or Google Home, which have default female voices in most markets in which they are sold. Other smart wives are
anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, or automated (such as home appliances or domestic robots) – most of which carry out domestic responsibilities that have traditionally fallen to wives. Smart wives can also be found in the bodies of overtly feminized and sometimes “pornified”
sex robots or gynoids.

By “smart,” we mean AI, internet-connected, or robotic things. By “wife,” we refer to an enduring archetype in the collective psyche – one who can take on all forms of domestic work within the home. Her roles include that of caregiver, housekeeper, homemaker, emotional laborer, provider of sexual services, and procreator of legitimate offspring. These roles are entrenched in thousands of years of patriarchy.

The principle prototype for the smart wife’s mainframe is the 1950s’ US housewife and her transatlantic cousin in the United Kingdom.

Many contemporary societies still ache with nostalgia for this white, middle-class, and heteronormative housewife, with her perfect home, breezy white linens, artfully arranged flowers, gleaming cookware, and homemade meals.

Wasn’t she wonderful? Her charming dinner conversation, perfectly set hair (those curls!), clean and quiet children, and content (and successful) husband certainly set the bar high for all wives who aspired to this ideal. Or at least that’s the way it seems now in the relics of advertisements from the era.

This idolized figure still lives on in many sitcoms – and iterations of the smart wife generally. She is not our leading lady’s only inspirational source code, however. Smart wives also reflect many other cultural expressions of idealized women originating from Asian countries such as China, India, Japan, and South Korea, where her reach is expanding. A consistent theme among these culturally diverse countries’ offerings –and uniting smart wife markets worldwide – is a set of technologies characterized as a young, demure, and sexualized woman (or girl) who is constantly available for service.

The idea of ubiquitous technology that acts like an unwearying wife might sound appealing to some people – ourselves included. But is she really the kind of stereotype we want to be returning home to?

Characterising the smart home as a smart wife is our critique and intervention into conversations about the future of domestic life, human relationships with AI, and contemporary feminism. In pursuing this character, and caricature, we highlight fundamental problems with the design and marketing of smart home devices that are presented as innovative “technofixes” promising to end the wife drought, though simultaneously embodying and perpetuating outdated stereotypes of women’s roles in the home. But we go further by offering our own set of proposals to emancipate and elevate the smart wife in society.

This is an edited extract from The Smart Wife by Yolande Strengers and Jenny Kennedy. Published by Penguin Random House Australia.

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