Conversations with Siri: Is all communication created equal?

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Alisa Wiersema
CCT 748 – Irvine
January 23, 2013

This week’s readings concentrated on a variety of discussions that in some way or another addressed communication through the form of a model or representation. The examples presented in these readings made me think about my own patterns of communication, as well as any conscious problems I may have had communicating with others. However, as pathetic as it sounds, I came to the realization that my major issues with communication largely occur between my iPhone and myself when Siri does not understand what I am asking her to do. This realization seemed to fit well with the introductory readings.

Anyone with an iPhone will probably admit to being frustrated by Siri at some point because we initially feel like another person did not comprehend our requests, rather than instantly acknowledge the fact that we are speaking to an inanimate object. Stuart Hall’s discussion about televisual signs could be applicable to highlight this issue between people and their smartphones. As he states in ‘Encoding, Decoding’,  “reality exists outside language, but it is constantly mediated by and through language.” Given that Siri can mediate language and respond to people verbally, we tend to treat the technology as a real person and go as far as referring to it/her by name. Our perception of reality gets a bit twisted when we engage in conversations with Siri because we use its/her ability to “speak” our language as a means for engagement. Despite this, we are also aware of our own reality whenever Siri misunderstands the conversation or cannot respond the way a human would be able to respond. Additionally, we are also aware of our human reality whenever we attempt to trick Siri into saying something inappropriate or coax a humorous statement out of her collection of responses.

However, as Hall goes on to explain: “There is no intelligible discourse without the operation of a code.” This assertion is what quickly reminds people they are speaking to a machine whenever Siri cannot answer properly – the communication codes between the two parties are completely different since Siri’s code is literally that of a computer. From anecdotal experience, it is safe to say that we often expect our technology to relate to the world in a human way, as though our phones are an extension of our minds. There are so many personal elements available to us — from GPS locators, to maps and favorite settings — that we grow accustomed to having our technology tailored to our specific preferences, that we find it strange when our phones do not automatically continue tailoring these preferences into the more technical operations. In this sense, our codes are not in sync, and our discourse cannot be intelligible.

Floridi also discusses this kind of interaction in the “Life in the Infosphere” section of Chapter 1. Siri seems to be the perfect example of the blurring between what he describes as the “here” and “there” thresholds; people using this technology are interpreting information first hand and offline, while simultaneously receiving digital, intangible information from the little voice living in their phones. His example of GPS tracking also highlights this idea.

Even so, as easy as it may be to “communicate” with technology, we cannot admit to treating all kinds of communication the same way. No matter how human-like Siri’s answers may be, feeling misunderstood by your phone feels a lot different than feeling misunderstood by your peer. After all, as James Carey wrote, “Men live in a community in virtue of the things which they come to possess things in common…such things cannot be passed physically from one to another like bricks.” Therefore, as brought up in our first class discussion, despite having similar overarching models of communication and comprehending the basic issues of miscommunication or disruption, ultimately, the medium does tend to be the message.