Wednesday 25 February 2015

Virtual personal assistants: of Louise, Anne, and the hollow woman

It is estimated that around 45 million people pass through London's King's Cross station every year. This country-sized transient population need ease of access, amenities and, to be monitored. Protection of transport infrastructure is both important for the safety of individuals and for the operation of the state.

King's Cross, before its current reincarnation, was selected to be the prominent stage for the July 7th terrorist bombings. The news in 2005 relayed grainy CCTV footage of four young men carrying large backpacks in the since partially blocked up tunnel between King's Cross Underground Station and the out-of-service King's Cross Thameslink station. Like the attacks on the World Trade Centre in September 2001 and the commuter train bombings Madrid in 2004, transport infrastructure became stage and weapon, for terrorism directed at Western states with interests in the Middle East.

It became apparent that the UK, widely reported anecdotally to have the most CCTV cameras per head of population, needed to further reinforce its monitoring and therefore, control of transport hubs. For the protection and safety of individuals, we are constantly reminded to monitor our own behaviour in stations and airports and, reminded that we are being monitored. At King's Cross a seemingly lone, automated BBC accented female voice announces departures to Scotland and the expansive North London commuter belt. Named 'Anne', she is an Atos employee and the default voice for their off-the-peg public announcement system. There are samples of her announcements here. When 'Anne' struggles for information to relay to passengers she instructs them with confidence (never aggression), to keep their baggage with them at all times or risk destruction by generic 'security services' and informed “security personnel tour this station 24 hours a day.” When I was passing through one afternoon a man rushed by on a skateboard, for us all to be greeted a few minutes later with the instruction: “This a safety announcement. It is not permitted to cycle, skateboard or rollerblade within the station building". This reaction proved that there is someone or something watching the concourse like the hawks regularly employed to keep the pigeons out. It is tempting to wonder why those monitoring the station are using a default, disembodied female voice to act out their safety and security messages, borne out of state ideology, within public space.

An answer to this lies within an installation of safety announcement technology elsewhere in the station. Automated recorded platform announcements and information messages have been established as part of the soundtrack of the British rail network in at least, my living memory. Disembodied automated voices are part of our sonic urban landscape. Without thought they don't appear immediately uncanny; as it has been normal practice for an announcer to be hidden from view. The normalcy of this could also have been embedded from a monotheistic culture expectant of a voice from above to tell us how to behave. Moving from this hypothesising, the safety and security announcer has been updated to something born in the uncanny valley at the revamped King's Cross station. You are negotiating a large suitcase around King's Cross and you want to take an escalator up to the balcony of food and drink outlets. A female voice, not unlike 'Anne', politely requests you take your luggage up in the lift instead of the escalator. Unlike Atos's 'Anne' she has a face and a body only visible from the waist up, flattened, with a familiar screen-like flickering.


Installed by British company TEW Plus, the voice belongs to a virtual personal assistant called 'Louise'. TEW Plus have sourced the technology from another British company called Tensator, who have provided bespoke virtual assistants in airports, hospitals, shops and trade fairs across the world. They are promoted as being the next generation of digital signage with a WOW factor by way of an innovative story telling 'experience'. 'Louise' runs on a loop, she points you towards the lift, she waves at you (slightly flirtatiously) and bizarrely for a virtual being beckons you towards her with the soon to be redundant index finger. She is a projection on a piece of perspex with a printed pair of generic trousers around the waistline – 'Louise' has no legs. A box containing her electrics and a speaker acts a lectern. She is a projection of an actress but, this still doesn't render her lifelike. The uncanny slips in when Louise glitches between her repeated behaviours. Some glitched facial expressions make it look like the pressure of being constantly on display for the public are taking their toll. For brief seconds she looks confused, as if she has only just woken up and can't remember what she is doing. Her hands seem out of proportion to her body, her smile too broad and constant to be real and the projection isn't completely lined up with the perspex. She lacks any kind of personality to be a convincing woman. 'Louise' is a projection of a woman in metaphor and in actuality.

It's hard not to assume pointless pity, hilarity and curiosity with 'Louise'. She lacks the authority of 'Anne'. 'Louise' only gets to talk about escalators and baggage. 'Anne' is trusted to act on behalf of the 'security services' (who enforce security on behalf of the state) warning would be terrorists and criminals that they are being monitored, to enforce the smoking ban and to make sure the rest of us know the destructive consequences of leaving our baggage unattended. This correlation with the appearance of these virtual personal assistants and their potential in promoting state ideologies occurred in the exhibition Science Fiction New Death at FACT, Liverpool last year. James Bridle utilised a virtual personal assistant in his work Homo Sacer (2014). Bridle's virtual personal assistant relayed cuttings of British and international law, treaties and statements concerning citizenship. It is assumed that the inspiration for the use of a virtual personal assistant came from Bridle's current preoccupation with the dubious deportation of asylum seekers from British airports. The virtual personal assistant is of course a familiar presence in security infrastructure at Heathrow and other airports in the UK. More broadly the rise of the virtual personal assistant as part of transport infrastructure appears to coincide with the perceived threat of terrorism. These virtual workers act to engage and reassure travellers with security information, seemingly directing resources elsewhere into other more expensive and sophisticated surveillance structures. Another parallel Homo Sacer has with the virtual personal assistants in airports and railway stations is that the woman repeats a narrative that is not her own. She is embodying something else, an ideology, a context, an idea. This is not critiqued by Bridle and nor, is a critique of this type evidently acknowledged by the manufacturers of the projections.

Despite the hyper-enthused sales pitches for the virtual personal assistant being something cutting edge and futuristic, the projections actually represent an arcane visual culture heavily critiqued by feminist discourses since the 1970s. When you read 'Louise's' job spec - she's an ideal employee who costs nothing other than installation and maintenance costs, never gets sick, never goes on holiday and always repeats the same message. Even her 'name' can't be mentioned without quotation marks, as if having an identity is laughable. Her enduring characteristics are that she is dutiful, blank and servile. Characteristics that have historically been enforced on the female body. If this is a tired hypothesis, it is only because it is derived from the creation of something that is tired in itself. In her 1985 book Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form, Marina Warner (yes, it is tiresome to quote such an old book) cites examples of female bodies used as spaces for the narration of state power and ideology. The book opens with a description of a visit to the Statue of Liberty, the ultimate symbol for the founding principles of the American state. Warner discovers that Liberty herself is hollow inside, symbolic of the female body as space for projection of the story of others. A vessel in this case, for the visibility of the ideologies of the state in the public domain.

Yes it is tenuous to suggest that a projection of a woman telling travellers in a railway station to take their bags on the lift instead of the escalator is a sinister agent of the state. However, the cultural and political contexts that enabled her to be there are ultimately state engineered. Crowd control and surveillance is an ideological passage of this current epoch. If one takes cues from the contemporary art world in considering sound as public sculpture, then it is Atos's 'Anne' who reinforces this hypothesis. 'Anne's' distilled utterances of state compliance into transport hubs echoes what Warner outlines in her text. Virtual personal assistants and their automated voice counterparts stem from an embedded Western tradition of using the woman as always on duty state cypher. If the female body is to be used as the site for something new and futuristic within the context of the virtual, it would grow somewhere from within the writings on the Post-Human by Rosi Braidotti and Donna Harraway. Not from old world orders manifesting themselves in seemingly inoccus and bizarre corporatised state solutions for how public space is managed.


Laura Davidson

Laura is a London-based writer, covering emergent themes within digital culture and artistic practices.

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