Home Button as the cloacking interface to the interface of Siri

Before I decided on analyzing an iPhone for this week’s writing, I spend a lot of time thinking what other digital devices I could focus on. While I blamed myself for my lack of creativity in coming up with a digital device, I later realized that there is a reason that I can’t think of any device other than an Iphone: I don’t own anything other than a Mac and an Iphone. Remembering the boxes I used to have, in the corner of my room – full of mp3s, amateur Canon cameras, Nintendo gameboys, Nokia phones, the cables and the chargers – it is amazing how all I need is inside of an Iphone now.

Going through readings and having an understanding of how agencies and forces are interfaced, I was further curious about the only non-digital component we use during navigation in an iPhone, the Home button – and the software embedded in it (or cloaked by it) – Siri.

The Home button is our interface that leads us to use the software of Siri – which itself as well constitutes an interface between the human language and the information in the world wide web. This double layer of interfaces, however, consequentially leads us to perceive the Home button as the only interface to information. Siri’s branding as the “Personal Assistant” also cloaks Siri’s own software. While Siri is embedded in the network of the Internet, facilitated by Internet connection, digital voice processing, natural language processing, requiring significant data transmission and a strong algorithm – the way Siri talks and its instantenous response property cloaks the technology and software dimension. Consequently, Siri functions as the ultimate cloacking device to the very artefactness of the iPhone: iPhone acquires human like properties through Siri.

While the Actor-Network theory discusses the material technology in particular whereas Siri is a coding program, Siri’s particular place in the iPhone and the way that the Home button cloaks Siri helps us to handle it from the actor-network theory perspective. Siri is embedded in the Home button of the iPhone, which is the only actively used button for navigation purposes. Siri is the inherent quality of the iPhone – while many apps are an integral part of the iPhone – like Messages, Phone, etc., Siri is unique in its replacement. The home button, on the other hand, is the only interface that we perceive to be the access to information. The home button is the visible interface, whereas Siri itself constitutes a smart interface.

Zhang’s approach[1] on the external representation of distributed agency is particularly applicable to Siri: Siri has the potential to structurally alter the way we reach information. Through its characterization as a person, Siri doesn’t let us realize the machine-to-machine interaction behind, the algorithms that it uses to gather information, neither the natural language processing that takes place. Zhang describes this lack of awareness as a property of external representation by stating that external representation “anchor and structure cognitive behavior without conscious awareness.” [2]

What is visible to the user, on the other hand, is the affordance of Siri. Analyzing my personal understanding of Siri, I came up with the following conclusion: Affordances can be channeled from an artefact (a device, an application, or an algorithm) to the individual’s cognition, and be reflected back on another artefact. With this perspective, I realized that my interactions with Siri were based on my interactions with Google. The “cognitive affordance” of Siri was channeled from my understanding of how Google works. In fact, while we are promoted to interact with Siri as if it were a person – through complete questions, Siri does function like Google, and dropping keywords like “photograph Paris” results in relevant search results. What facilitated my interaction with Siri was my previous experience with Google.

Siri, however, differentiates from Google from the agency involved in it: While Google applies significant natural language processing to create a cognitive bridge between the information out there and our minds, Siri takes action. It has agency to create reservations, pick the most relevant information, and respond. Siri’s software, therefore, is two dimensional. It translates human intent into action – through at first analyzing our language by natural language processing, and then coming up with a prediction of our intention, which requires agency, and consequently representing a particular information or taking action

Therefore, it is not only the materiality of a technology, but also the software of a technology that suggests combinatoriality in Siri. The social theories should address these cognitive affordances as well, any maybe address the following questions: How do we have an understanding of what we have instant access to, and what we do not have instant access to? How do we determine what we should restore in our long term memory and short term memory? How are these perceptions mediated by technology? Leveraging the tools that Actor-Network-Theory offers to the cognitive aspect can help us address these questions.

[1] Zhang, J., & Patel, V. L. (2006). Distributed cognition, representation, and affordance. Pragmatics & Cognition14(2), 333-341.