South Park Self

taking it personally

Circumstances of late have conspired to give me a sudden need to be Randomly Feminist. This is mostly about a confluence of recent articles bouncing hither and yon across the 'net, but last night I also dreamed I had a massive argument with Tony Stark about my complete refusal to wear high heels, so there's that.

  • This is Bruce Sterling's Alan Turing Centenary speech, which boingboing linked to in a general "hooray Bruce Sterling Seminal SF Writer" sort of way, thereby causing me momentary insecurity and confusion. Because, while I kinda see what Sterling is trying to do there in terms of his address to Turing's marginal identity and the complexity of identity in the context of the Turing test, I also spent two days going "Huh?" and trying to work out what I was missing that boingboing obviously got. Boingboing is usually pretty sussed on gender issues, and it weirded me out that they linked without comment when I found Sterling's argument so problematical in its unthinking assumption of pretty reactionary ideas about gender identity.

    On the whole, I think I blame boingboing for not being more alert. You can't ask the question “can a computational system be a woman?” without first asking the question "what is a woman?", i.e. addressing the issues of stereotype and patriarchy and acculturation over biology and what have you. This is, I think, what Sterling is really trying to do, in suggesting that you can't expect machine consciousness to develop without lived experience, but he signally fails to do it in any sort of way which shows awareness of his own limited sense of "feminine identity". The paragraph which really got my goat:

    The two women are going to feel deep sympathy and solidarity with this tortured, alien creature who so much wants to be a woman, while having zero chance of ever having a woman’s lived experience. This entity is a woman who will never be beloved, was never a daughter, sister, wife or mother. This woman never nurtured anyone, never had so much as a pet cat. She never danced, never sang a song, never felt the sun on her skin, could not comfort a weeping child, could not weep at the graveside of her parents, never got a smile, a compliment, never saw her own face in the mirror…
    Because clearly women are all about emotion and nurture and beauty and mirrors and an experience of marginality. Only women are wounded, and might therefore empathise with a subject machine intelligence. And more horribly, only women have "identity" which is separated in some sense from intelligence or cognition - i.e. highlighting the importance of identity in cognition is done by talking about female identity, not male, because male cognitive identity is naturalised. In his efforts to problematise the idea of identity, Sterling basically re-enacts the "men do intelligence, women do emotion" trope as an extremely troubling binary assumption.

    And who the hell is Sterling to start defining "a woman's lived experience"? Why is a woman's experience necessarily about dancing and mirrors and comforting children? Can't our experience also encompass joy in simultaneous equations and running a business and driving fast cars? The world at large has never paid attention to the "woman" part of Turing's question because it's either, if you address it as Sterling does, a bloody stupid question, or, if you address it properly, it requires that you identify a machine intelligence by its ability to imbibe, digest and construct itself via about two thousand years of global culture and power relations shaping biological function as they impact on its moment of creation as a consciousness. Which may have been Turing's point, and is certainly the point Sterling is trying to make, but I don't think Sterling actually gets why it's such a tricky one, or why his own blithe assumptions about identity (and gender and hormones, oy vey) are so incomplete.

    Also, to assume that a gay man is necessarily either "feminine" or "effeminate" is quite horrifyingly unthinking. And appears to have no real point. Honestly, as pumeza and Confluency pointed out on Twitter, the main problem with his speech is that its argument is completely incoherent.

  • So, to balance things out a bit, have Nora Ephron's 1996 Wellesley commencement speech. Which kicks butt, or more specifically, stomps blinkered post-feminism righteously into the mud. By way of an antidote paragraph:

    One of the things people always say to you if you get upset is, don't take it personally, but listen hard to what's going on and, please, I beg you, take it personally. Understand: Every attack on Hillary Clinton for not knowing her place is an attack on you. Underneath almost all those attacks are the words: Get back, get back to where you once belonged. When Elizabeth Dole pretends that she isn't serious about her career, that is an attack on you. The acquittal of O.J. Simpson is an attack on you. Any move to limit abortion rights is an attack on you—whether or not you believe in abortion.
    When a highly-regarded science fiction writer, a member of a usually thoughtful and politically aware group, makes stupid stereotypical assumptions about gender identity, it's a kick in the damned teeth, is what it is. Kick back. Also, mourn Nora Ephron. She knew.

(Edited 2/07 to clarify a couple of points in which my own incoherence was annoying me.)
I think I'd need to confirm the point that Turing's test was for a 'woman'.

And Sterling does seem to harp on the 'female' experiences, assuming that only women have them, and that they cannot have 'male' experiences (which are presumeably the default: having jobs, paying bills, and making decisions).

I confess it is interesting to wonder how would CS, and AI, be different as a discipline, if it were 95% women-populated, rather than men-populated. Maybe it would be identical, but somehow I suspect not.