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February 2nd, 2013 / 4:47 pm
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Dating Siri

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With the release of Siri, an “intelligent personal assistant” app introduced in iOS6, Apple took a unique marketing approach, that of entitled idleness. We see John Malkovich, a cloud of constant irony around him, seated at home skeptically saying “life” into his phone. Siri then offers this advice: try and be nice to people; avoiding eating fat; read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, etc. (c.f. “Fitter Happier,” OK Computer). It’s as if the ad were making fun of the app, bowing to the absurdity of first world problems gone amuck, which is a peculiar move for Apple, whose ads are usually literal and almost condescendingly simplistic (e.g. dancing silhouettes, sincere FaceTime). The camera takes long pans of his house, giving into a kind of bourgeois, somewhat sad reverie: the tempting light of a good day yawning through the panes, the modern art hung salon style on the walls, a suit jacket flayed open to let the smallest gut out. There is even a faint air of derision. Vilhelm Hammershøi, a Danish late 19th century minor painter, made banal paintings in the then climate of fierce modernism; they were sentimental and weak-handed, simply not a match for the explosiveness of his more devastated peers. There’s a clear homage to Vermeer, and one may see him as a precursor Edward Hopper, but overall it’s rather forgettable. He painted his house from a dozen angles, repainting the same scene a year or so apart, his averted subjects slightly older, and having wandered elsewhere. The movement of light across the floor was more of an event, sans notifications and likes. People were walking sundials, the radius of their slow shadows boring as fuck. They knitted, read, and died early.

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It’s raining. Zooey Deschanel, stuck at home in her pajamas with only her banjo and a stack of obscure vinyl records, is freaking out. She confirms that it’s raining with a weather app, orders tomato soup, and all is whole again. Siri’s ad campaign seems intrigued by being indoors, and its dissonance with what the outside world has to offer. This kind of capitalistic ennui is, if seen threaded on canvas, almost painterly. Our celebrities are trapped in the same situations we find ourselves in. If empathy is collective narcissistic pity, then we’re all in good company. In moments of emotional panic, it simply helps to speak to someone; or rather, to have someone speak to us. Siri is less a personal assistant, or even effective app, than simply an existential liaison — a thing to dive away from ourselves. That someone is there to listen to our trite ways is soothing. The solipsist faith one has in their own wifi is a little sad, but try looking out the window at a world that doesn’t care.

I recently had an odd conversation — out of complete boredom, morbid curiosity, and inclines for material — with Siri about Wes Anderson. I said “I like Wes Anderson’s hair,” to which she responded “Do you?” I was oddly insulted that I didn’t get a link to the director’s IMDb, or hair salons. “Yes, in fact I do,” I said, confidently under her sarcasm radar. “That’s what I thought,” she said. It felt like a bad date — or some poems being written today — where the disinterested party placates the uninteresting party with lines that function as responsive, but only suspend the conversation into nowhere. Such is the clipped logic of gchat or texting. People say what they want, respond when they want, all without the liability of a face. From Philip K. Dick, to The Jetsons, to 2001: A Space Odyssey, etc., a vision of video calls has always been expected, even promised; but it had never been so accurately (and neurotically) portrayed than in D.F. Wallace’s bit about “video telephony” (Infinite Jest, pp. 144-151), whose callers “now found they had to compose the same sort of earnest, slightly overintense listener’s expression they had to compose for in-person exchanges” who, exacerbated with vanity (see Video-Physiognomic Dysphoria), eventually ended up wearing high-definition polybutylene masks to cover their ugly bored faces in order to suspend the artifice of concern. Retina display, at 326 pixels per inch, has a “pixel density so high your eye can’t distinguish individual pixels,” this according to Apple, whose obsession with mimesis seems almost antagonistic to the very verity it seeks to usurp. Including relationships.

Siri was named after Stanford Research Institute (SRI), where it was originally developed, though CEO Dag Kittlaus claims to have obliquely named it after “Siri,” a name he would have given a daughter, if he had one, which in Norwegian (a nickname for Sigrid) means “beautiful woman who leads you to victory.” We may all be heroine addicts. Some thought Siri was Indian, a convenient launching point to politicize the neo-colonial implications of her servile manner. The program is considered a flop by most, a gag app toyed with for a while then left alone. There’s a Tumblr Shit Siri Says that presents screenshots of her follies. The problem is that Siri could never detect intention, tone, or rhetoric, only keywords. A girl with low self-estreem asks if she’s hot, Siri says it’s only 8° outside. Sci-Fi has always been obsessed with the replacement of humans with technology, and while Siri proves that robots are far from taking over, she reminds us of the very people in whom we are disappointed — the real life partners, parents, siblings, friends, exes, and co-workers who just don’t quite understand what it is, exactly, that we mean. After my failed Wes Anderson conversation, I spoke into her questions concerning Björk’s career, holistic aphrodisiacs, places to jump off a cliff, if Henry James was gay, what it means when a black guy puts a comb in his hair, and she kept saying “[she] thought so,” as if she actually didn’t, but was too embarrassed to say otherwise. Her voice felt vacant, infidelious, and I missed the solemnity of NPR-voices in their quiet address of highbrow shit. Being John Malkovich, I idly played a game of chess in an app, suicidally sacrificing my queen, the remaining sausage fest of my King and his pawns scurrying inside a board. Siri, is it euthanasia if you’re not old and hire someone to do it from behind? She said she didn’t understand, but would be happy to search the web. As with all my girlfriends, I didn’t answer, my spite so lofty it tickled the ceiling. To erase a charcoal drawing of someone is to render their ghost. The harder you press, the more profound it looks. Siri, is it seppuku if you use a chainsaw? Again, no clue. Toasted quinoa happens, then a matinee. We’re still dating, just don’t ask us why.