Alexa, Bixby, the GPS voice, Siri.… AI (Artificial Intelligence) assistants, which operate through algorithms and also produce them, have restructured our everyday lives: from listening to music to getting a sense of where we are (if the GPS is working properly). For users, these “assistants” have become integral parts of our everyday lives. Human-machine communication, in turn, has become more intimate than ever before. However, little effort has been made to understand this intimacy between humans and machines. Instead, much attention has been centered on the increasing obsolescence of technology, as newer models and gadgets enter the market. To recognize machines as sociable and understand human-machine relationships from a different perspective, I revisit feminist STS (Science and Technology Studies) scholars’ works. Furthermore, I look at smartphones, which are usually only considered as hosts for the immaterial AI, as social.
Feminist Perspectives and Machines as Social Artifacts
Feminist scholars such as Donna Haraway (1988) have argued that the notion of objectivity, an integral part of both the philosophy of science and the scientific method, has been associated with masculinity. Furthermore, since the Industrial Revolution, capitalist production has been associated with the usage and dominance of machines and technology in manufacturing.
Wajcman (2010) demonstrates how the production of characteristics of technology and machines, which are often associated with objectivity and science, are socially created and sustained. In this sense, machines are social artifacts that convey and embody social discourse, power relationships, and social norms (Wagman and Parks 2021).
Wagman and Parks (2021) also argue that there have been several categories of human-machine relationships, which regard the machine as a “tool…companion…animal or creature, or slave” (Wagman and Parks 2021, 3). Feminist STS scholars have questioned these mainstream anthropocentric notions that position humans as dominant and deny agency to non-humans.
Mainstream understandings lack the discussion of race, identity politics, and regional differences, all of which heavily influence the integration of technology in social settings. However, the aforementioned feminist scholars’ arguments pose an important critique of our acceptance of technology as an objective and neutral product. Their critiques on the neutrality of technology are critical in understanding smartphones, which are an assemblage of high-end technology, and relationships between humans and machines. Mainstream views that view smartphones as abiotic tools, servants, slaves, or companions which only provides convenience have been prevalent and their critiques are helpful in understanding smartphones through an alternative perspective.
Smartphones As Social Artifacts
I, along with many others, quite literally live with my smartphone, 24/7. It wakes me up, entertains me with music and gossip, tortures me with incoming emails, and sometimes horrifies me with application-based tarot readings. I sometimes think it is almost an external and autonomous organ. With a simple touch, it connects me to people and places, informs me about current events, and records whatever I wish to remember. So, what does a smartphone mean to you and me (and what can it mean?), and how do our smartphones relate to us? Also, how can we think of alternative ways to form human-machine relationships that do not assume and assert the dominance of human users?
Smartphone, as the name suggests, is smart. However, the term “smart” is actually an acronym for “Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology” created by IBM in 1995 (Miller, Rabho, and Awondo 2021). Looking back in 2022, many descriptions of “smart” phones match their functions in many ways. How do smartphones help us to self-monitor, analyze, and report (to where?) and what does the usage of these functions of smartphones imply in present days’ contexts of human-machine relationship(s)?
We keep hearing about the surveillance tactics of many service providers of platforms such as Instagram. Despite these existing discourses of constant breaches of privacy, we continue to intimately relate with our smartphones. We track our health data, thereby sharing critical and intimate details of our bodies and habits (Fors et al. 2020). Have you ever wondered how many steps you have taken in a day, and felt proud or ashamed of yourself? How do we understand our bodies and everyday lives through this data? How does quantification of a user’s day and body influence a user’s notions of selfhood? Moreover, how is our data used to produce new services and products, without us getting paid?
Answers to these questions become complex if we start to think of smartphones as social artifacts. We often think that smartphones are abiotic machines and simply provide us with a service, even if this service is a site of data mining. However, smartphones in our daily lives perform agency in collecting, sorting, and sending data to a designated place. Part of the convenience of the smartphone is in its agency, its ability to effectively and affectively produce “data” that stirs emotional responses in the users. This data is also brought back to me in the form of suggestions (for content and products I can consume) in a language that evokes emotional responses in me. For example, my smartphone enables me to access social media which are full of cute animal pictures. I get a daily dose of comfort and energy from those, and I sometimes push the “like” button on pictures I adore. However, smartphones also enable my data- “liked” pictures and shared reels to be sent to the platform provider so that it shows me posts based on my preference, and in the end, to make the user – me – stay longer on the platform.
Of course, the one who pushes “like” buttons and scrolls the screen is the user. However, the smartphone, in this scene, becomes an abiotic agent which creates a reciprocal relationship between the user and the platform. It interrupts or encourages certain user behaviors over others, which can lead to unintended consequences. If we discard anthropocentric ideas on the use of smartphones, we can have a different perspective on how smartphones are affecting our lives.
Thinking of smartphones as social artifacts through feminist STS perspectives offers us a chance to contemplate how they affect us, in addition to the cultural, economic, and political implications they have. How would mainstream ideas on human-machine relationships change if we had these thoughts in our minds? Perhaps we must conceptualize alternative ways to think about human-machine relationships, such as the ones which exist between us and our smartphones.
Feminist STS perspectives and critiques are fundamental in this reimagining of human-machine relationships because they open new prospects for pondering related mainstream ideas while raising questions on what people perceive as natural and take for granted. Based on these feminist STS perspectives, I believe that we can propose different views and explanations of human-machine relationships. By focusing on relationality and not on novel functional developments, we may be able to view smartphones as active actants, that relate with us, just like biotic actants such as humans.
 Bruno Latour’s definition of actant is as follows: “An “actor” in ANT is a semiotic definition- an actant-, that’s something that acts or to which activity is granted by others. It implies no special motivation of human individual actors, nor of humans in general. An actant can literally be anything provided it is granted to be the source of an action” (1996, 373). Latour’s definition of actant as not only humans but also non-humans broadens who or what can perform agency and what agency is.
Fors, Vaike, Sarah Pink, Martin Berg, and Tom O’Dell. 2020. Imagining Personal Data: Experiences of Self-Tracking. Bloomsbury Academic. https://doi.org/10.5040/9781350051416.
Haraway, Donna. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14 (3): 575–99. https://doi.org/10.2307/3178066.
Latour, Bruno. 1996. “On Actor-Network Theory: A Few Clarifications.” Soziale Welt 47 (4): 369–81.
Miller, Daniel, Laila Abed Rabho, and Patrick Awondo. 2021. The Global Smartphone Beyond a Youth Technology.https://www.uclpress.co.uk/products/171335?utm_source=jiscmail&utm_medium=listserv&utm_campaign=21319J.
Wagman, Kelly B., and Lisa Parks. 2021. “Beyond the Command: Feminist STS Research and Critical Issues for the Design of Social Machines.” Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction 5 (CSCW1): 1–20.https://doi.org/10.1145/3449175.
Wajcman, J. 2010. “Feminist Theories of Technology.” Cambridge Journal of Economics 34 (1): 143–52.https://doi.org/10.1093/cje/ben057.