The muses have not fled...

When BMW introduced its in-car navigation system in Germany, the system was a model of technological excellence, using a computer-generated voice to give highly accurate information about the car’s location and how to get to almost all city and street addresses. Unfortunately, a large number of drivers had a strong negative reaction to this technological marvel and demanded a product recall.  The problem? The navigation system had a female voice. German drivers felt uncomfortable with, and untrusting of, a “female” giving directions! BMW acquiesced and switched to a “male” synthetic voice.

When I dial a company, the routine is that a pre-recorded female voice ‘answers’ and tells me that I should press one for x, two for y, etc. When I plug in a GPS, a pre-recorded female voice responds to my question, how do I get to Y, with instructions that consist of turn left or turn right and the name of the street or highway all the way there. When I go on a subway, a pre-recorded female voice will tell me “doors closing”. When I go to the licence bureau, I’m handed a ticket with a letter and a number on it that corresponds to a window, and I listen while a pre-recorded female voice calls out the letter number combination  that are will tell me what windows are open.
Not the same voice. But a female voice. Washed of any accent. Blanched, you could say, to the whitest white degree.
There are the ocassional male voices. Right off hand, I can think of the throaty, airplane piloty voice in the airport warning you not to carry packages for strangers or let your bags out of sight for an instant.
But mainly we are surrounded by these fantasmal female voices.
It is as though, in some parody of the 70s feminist demand that female voices be heard, they are now being heard, evacuated of all personality, conveying the corporate message.  From the gnostic philosophy of history, parody plays a major role in the dynamic of universal history – it is a wild card and has no pre-existing political value attached to it. I am tempted to call these omnipresent, instructing and ordering voices the correlate of lean-in feminism, but that would be a cheap shot. Still, I suspect something deeply patriarchal is happening here that is culturally connected to the celebration of corporate CEOs as models of feminism.
I have read little about this phenomenon from a feminist perspective, although surely there is a paper out there. Francois Ribac, in an article in L’homme et la societe (1997), wrote a long essay on what he called La voix re-composée, these “top model” voices that are “re-assuring and dynamic, young and without accent.”  I’m not sure about the young: it is characteristic of these voices that they erase their characteristics. Ribac was interested in the fact that our projection of our own humanity on these voices is in contradiction with the fact that they are blends, synthetics.  They are machines. He traces the history of the voice-off to moments in musical history. This is, to my mind, a less interesting aspect of them, or I should say, I am less interested in the way the synthetic voice emerges in musical history than how it emerged as a corporate voice.
Clifford Nass, who has done a lot of work in the voxsynth field, describes an experiment he made with voices and stereotyping in The Man who lied to his laptop. He created a fake auction space on the web, in which voices describe items.
“Participants clicked an audio link to hear the description of each item read by a “spokesperson.” Half of the participants heard all of the descriptions read by a female voice; the other half heard them read by a male voice. To make the absurdity of stereotyping absolutely clear, we used computer-generated voices that varied only in pitch: the voices sounded more like male and female Martians than anything human. After they were presented with each item, participants were asked about their feelings about the product, the pitch, and the spokesperson.”

Anthropologically, I’d be careful about using the word “absurd”. In fact, anthropologists have found that in the “interface” with the world, personhood is routinely ascribed to beings that the educated elite in the developed countries have learned not to ascribe personhood to. There’s a beautiful and definitive essay by   Sergio della Bernardina, ‘A person not completely like the others: the animal and its status” which mixes field work and the literature on rituals in which cruel things are done to animals to make the point that the cruelty is often seen, by the participants, as a form of justice for the faults the persons – the hunted or sacrificed – committed. Bernardina recounts a ‘game’ in Spain which consists of  burying a  cock up to its neck and then, among the members of the  group that surrounds it, taking turns, blindfolded, in trying to detach its head with the blow of a stick.  The players, or one of the players, repeats a set phrase: “It’s over, m. le coq, to sleep with the chickens.”

In the cases of the voices, this is what Nass found:
“… the “female” voice did a better job selling the stereotypically female products, while the “male” voice did a better job selling the stereotypically male products. In addition, when voice “gender” matched product “gender,” participants reported that the descriptions seemed more accurate. In other words, matching the gender made the descriptions themselves more believable and the voices selling them seem more expert. Given that the voices were not human, the speakers obviously could not know anything about the content nor use the products!”

If we take a clue from Nass and cherchez le stereotype, perhaps we will find that the persistently female voice on the GPS corresponds to the notion that the female sits on the passenger side and the male drives. However, since this stereotype doesn’t override, among German BMW drivers, other of their reactions (although I must admit that anecdote sounds a little too pat), we have to unravel the overdetermination involved in the production and diffusion of these disembodied voices, the muses of our discontents and lost moments.