A Book Review by Paula Murphy.
The Computer’s Voice offers a lively, engaging study and makes an important contribution to our understanding of the ways in which film and television both reflect and shape our attitudes to technology.”
Conversing with smart devices has become an everyday occurrence: ‘Alexa, what’s the weather like today?’ or ‘hey Google, play relaxing music’. Before smart devices were capable of answering our questions and understanding our commands, it had already been imagined in film and television. Thinking about iconic computer voices, HAL 9000 from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969) probably stands out, but there are a considerable number of computer voices that have appeared on big and small screens throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Liz Faber’s The Computer’s Voice (University of Minnesota 2020) seeks to catalogue some of these, to explore their thematic functions, and in doing so, presents insights into our changing relationship with technology.
Central to Faber’s study is the concept of the acousmatic computer. Faber draws on Michel Chion’s work on acousmatic characters whose voice comes from an origin that the viewer cannot see. In terms of computers, Faber argues that such characters often acquire ‘omniscience and omnipresence’ (16). These computer characters are experienced as disembodied – there is a human voice, but no human body to be seen. They are characters in the narratives, and characters usually speak, so in a way they are relatable and familiar, but there is also an uncanny effect that comes from the lack of human body in which to situate the voice. Faber describes the acousmatic computer as presenting ‘a sort of uncanny sonic novum, simultaneously familiar and strange, old and new, present and absent’ (16).
Computer characters are grouped into interesting thematic strands that structure the chapters of the book. Faber’s critical approach to the works combines psychoanalysis and feminism, and this proves to be productive in generating readings of the gendering of computers. Computers do not have gender, but as Faber shows, gender is projected onto them, along with all of its cultural connotations. One chapter, ‘Amniotic Space’, focuses on two spaceship computers, the on-board computer in Star Trek and HAL 9000 from 2001. Faber argues that in 2001, the ship’s cold, functional interior associates it with ‘a masculine/ militaristic space’ (30), and HAL is presented as authoritarian. In contrast, the computer on board the Enterprise is ‘warm, uterine, feminine, asexual and generally passive’ (56). These two depictions of computer gender are identified as foundational for television and film, and there is a stark dichotomy drawn across traditional gender lines. There may also be some room for analysis of how these computer characters undermine or subvert traditional gender paradigms. For example, HAL is authoritarian, but his soft-spoken demeanour and his attentiveness to the crew’s psychological welfare presents nurturing qualities more often associated with femininity. The same is true of the character of GERTY, voiced by Kevin Spacey, in Duncan Jones’ Moon (see top image). GERTY is seen as ‘an ultimate technopatriarch’ (80), in a similar vein to his predecessor HAL, and yet, GERTY too displays kindness and care for the humans he interacts with, and even self-sacrifice in his offer to reboot himself in order to protect them.
While HAL is presented as authoritarian…. the computer on board the Starship Enterprise is ‘warm, uterine, feminine, asexual and generally passive’ (56).
The chapter on ‘Programming Patriarchs’ elaborates further on the gendering of computers in relation to an important group of works from the late 1960s and 1970s in the new Hollywood era. The chapter includes an extended analysis of the 1970 film Colossus: The Forbin Project, a critically overlooked film which captures the period’s technophobic fears about computer control in the nascent information age. George Lucas’s experimental and highly influential short film, Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB (1967) is also considered, as well as the science-fiction sports film Roller Ball (1975), and the science fiction horror Demon Seed (1977). Here too, Faber’s psychoanalytic approach results in some interesting readings in relation to Oedpial relationships between fathers and sons. Were there scope to broaden the field of study beyond the primary focus on American narratives, Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965), with its quietly menacing autocratic Alpha 60, is an example of the acousmatic computer that corresponds to the patriarchal programmes of this chapter.
The final chapter, ‘Behind the Screens’ analyses computer characters linked to smart devices in the modern era, and focuses in particular on two characters modelled on Apple’s Siri, one in an episode of The Bang Theory in which Siri is presented through a smartphone and as a woman, the other in Spike Jonze’s film Her (2013), in which the protagonist (Joaquim Phoenix) falls in love with a voice-interactive operating system, a ‘Siri’-type character called Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. The chapter contains some interesting discussion on Samantha’s ‘postcorporeality’ (171); the fact that she does not have a human body, but still appears to experience love and desire. This section offers lots of potential for expanding this discussion further to analyse embodiment and disembodiment in our relationships with computers and how they are represented in film and television, which might be an interesting avenue for further research.
An inherent issue with this field of research is the underrepresentation of women as creators of AI narratives. There is little that Faber can do about that, other than to acknowledge that it is a problem and to make gender a central component of her analysis, which she does. Faber acknowledges too that the computer characters explored are ‘implicitly understood as white, American and middle-class’ (11), and she notes the ‘exclusion of people of color – most especially women of color – from the landscape of artificial intelligence’ (11). This is a concerning issue that relates not only to the film and television examined, but also the fields of science and technology more broadly.
A separate conclusion that summarises the character types and analytical strands explored might be a useful addition for the reader and scholar. However, the book appropriately ends where it began, with Siri, in a pleasing circularity that picks up the thread of gender analysis that runs throughout the book. Faber writes that ‘in self-reflexively examining how we interact with gendered programs like Siri, we might even reprogram ourselves to think about gender as fluid and unrestrained by social function, body or language’ (181). The Computer’s Voice offers a lively, engaging study and makes an important contribution to our understanding of the ways in which film and television both reflect and shape our attitudes to technology.
Paula Murphy is an Assistant Professor in the School of English in Dublin City University, Ireland. Publications on technology and film include ‘Through the Looking Glass: Bodies of Data in Alex Garland’s Ex-Machina’, Film International, 17.3, 2019, and ‘”You Feel Real to Me, Samantha”: The Matter of Technology in Spike Jonze’s Her’ in Technoculture: An Online Journal of Technology in Society, Vol. 7, 2018.