The voice of Alexa is everywhere. It is estimated that 70% of recorded voices in the UK are female or female sounding. But what are the consequences of having such gendered voices encoded into our space? And what is the potential of voice technology outside of commercial contexts? In this episode, we speak to the learning partners and students of the UAL Feminist Alexa workshop to explore what voice technology could be, and why we need an alternative to the default Alexa.
Communication within the domestic space has long been associated with intimate and private dialogue between members of family. The sounds of conversations around a dinner table, bedtime stories, spousal confessions, sibling turmoil etc. are produced in the four walls that surround the many kinds of spaces we designate and imagine as our home. These are private, personal and deeply guarded spaces.
But now, our understanding of a home is shifting, moving from a physical architecture bound between four walls to one whose barriers are transparent, commercially permeable and enmeshed in the ‘internet of things’. Our dwellings are becoming virtual, interconnected and hyperlinked spaces, and this digital expansion brings with it massive societal and ethical implications.
As networked technology has entered our domestic dwellings (c.1920s with radio, 1950s with television), we have gained access to new information and sensory experiences, while simultaneously chipping away at the meaning of intimacy and the importance of privacy – rendering these sensitive moments vulnerable to interception, quantification and commodification. With antenna, phone lines, modems, satellites, and now 5G, we have been networking our homes to a greater and greater extent since the 1920s. In so doing, we are bartering our right to privacy for access and entertainment. The curiosities, desires, conflicts, experiments, whispers and bellows from inside the home can now be amplified into a networked catalogue, potentially accessible to solicitors and institutions alike.
For this work we collaborated with sound designers Rob Clouth and Jakab Pilaszanovich to build a soundscape that these machines internalise while ‘sniffing’ homes for data from which to ‘learn.’ Using the British national anthem as a template, we use the domestic landscape to feed into an algorithm that sequences sound through concatenative synthesis, mosaicing sounds of cleaning, toothbrushing, the TV/radio on, chatter in the house, familial drama…
Concept by Legrand Jäger, with sound design by Rob Clouth and Jakab Pilaszanovich.
Photographer Paul Blair Gordon was commissioned by Legrand Jäger to create a series of images that look at the home and the human senses while talking and listening to machines. The series uses cinematography as a reference in the composition and dialogue between the images.
Legrand Jäger is a critical design practice based between Berlin and London. Guillemette Legrand and Eva Jäger graduated as a duo from their MA at Design Academy Eindhoven in ‘contextual design’ and have continued to interrogate culture with their research-driven, critical design practice that investigates how the designed world, especially new technology, is shaping ethics. Their film, performance, soundscapes and objects have been shown across Europe in museums such as Palais de Tokyo, Van Abbe Museum, Pera Müzesi, and Design Museum London. They are currently designers in residence at the Design Museum London focusing on Dwelling through the lens of the smart home device.