The Smart Wife: Why Siri, Alexa, and Other Smart Home Devices Need a Feminist Reboot, by Yolande Strengers and Jenny Kennedy

Catherine Rottenberg enjoys a sharp analysis of the sexual politics behind the devices that provide domestic services

November 2, 2020
Source: Alamy

For some time now, we have been experiencing what scholars call “a care crisis”. There are different facets to this crisis as well as many factors contributing to its intensification over the past decades. As more middle-class women and mothers have joined the paid workforce, childcare has become ever more costly, and while the ageing population is constantly increasing, state-funded elderly care has shrunk. These changes simply reflect a number of austerity measures that have dramatically eroded the social safety net. The lack of state and community investment in child and elderly care in countries such as the UK and the US has meant an increased reliance on the outsourcing of such labour to (mostly) female care workers, who are often immigrants or from ethnic minorities and who are underpaid, lack job security and are vulnerable to exploitation.

In their new book, The Smart Wife, Yolande Strengers and Jenny Kennedy highlight another aspect of the current care crisis, one that has been much less discussed. As well as noting the rising number of women in the paid workforce, they also point to the declining marriage and partner rates in so-called advanced societies and claim that women are increasingly unwilling to define themselves through men. Such factors have produced what they call a “wife drought”. This drought has in turn led to a boom in the development of new technologies designed to carry out domestic labour traditionally associated with the wife’s role. In tongue-in-cheek language, the authors define the technology designed to provide domestic, caring and intimacy services as “smart wives”. Smart wives include a range of new AI, internet-connected and/or robotic gadgets, ranging from Amazon’s digital voice assistant, Alexa, through the smart vacuum cleaner iRobot Roomba to expensive sex robots such as Roxxxy.

Lucidly analysing the different smart wives on the market, Strengers and Kennedy provide a trenchant – if somewhat predictable – critique of this new technology, underscoring how the smart wives are “demure and doting”, embodying passive femininity, which is then “encased within smooth and unthreatening containers”. Given the labour that these robots are meant to carry out (solving household problems), it is not particularly surprising that they have been feminised. Nor is it surprising that gender stereotypes and the traditional division of labour have informed the development of these home devices. Yet the book’s analysis is still important and timely. By focusing on the feminisation of high-tech home devices, the authors lay bare the insidious ways in which the historical devaluation of domestic labour and hands-on care is reinforced in cutting-edge technologies.

Rather than calling for the elimination of smart wives or the abolition of exploitative neoliberal capitalism, however, the authors pragmatically set out to give the smart wife a reboot. The last chapter is a mini manifesto dedicated to principles that could pave the way for a new smart wife horizon, one that progresses towards gender equity and diversity. Key among them is the development of clear ethical guidelines covering the smart wife’s design, development and interactions with the world. So, can we make our smart wives queer, eco-friendly and feminist? The authors make a good case that we need to try.

Catherine Rottenberg is an associate professor in American and Canadian studies at the University of Nottingham. She is the author of The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism (2018) and a co-author of The Care Manifesto: The Politics of Interdependence (2020).


The Smart Wife: Why Siri, Alexa, and Other Smart Home Devices Need a Feminist Reboot
By Yolande Strengers and Jenny Kennedy
MIT Press, 312pp, £24.00
ISBN 9780262044370
Published 22 September 2020

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