Despite what you might have read, Apple’s virtual assistant iPhone program, Siri, is not “pro-life”, and no one is accusing it of such.* Instead, Siri is simply obfuscatory, with apparent anti-choice biases.
The last couple of links address some of the gender- and reproductive freedom-based reasons that we should care about Siri’s poor response to abortion inquiries. Another angle, apparently lost on, for example, Ars Technica commenters, is the net neutrality angle. I was pleased to notice that Sen. Blumenthal, of my home state of Connecticut, has already addressed this.
Abortion is not the only controversial issue that Siri weighs in on. Over the Thanksgiving weekend, my little cousin was trying out Siri and asked her where she could get a dog. Siri responded that she couldn’t find any dog breeders in the area, and didn’t even search for animals shelters or rescue groups! (Of course, I was quick to remind my cousin that dog breeders are not the only source for adopting a dog.)
Obviously, a perfectly neutral online information environment is probably impossible, and no one is saying that you should be free to leave your common sense at home when you have your iPhone in your pocket, but the specifically addressable issue here is that Siri is being bamboozled – like many women are – by so-called “crisis pregnancy centers.”
* It’s pretty disappointing to me that Ars Technica, usually a great source of tech news, not only wholly fabricated the act (of accusing) described in the headline and chose to characterize the abortion access issue as a matter of being “pro-life,” but even went so far as to put “pro-life” in quotes – suggesting that the groups named in the article (ACLU, NARAL) had been quoted as making the charge using the specific term “pro-life.” In fact, neither ACLU’s blog post or NARAL’s statement ever accuses Apple/Siri of being pro-life, or even uses the term. The Ars article links to this Abortioneers post, saying that “the paucity of responses in the area of pregnancy and birth control have raised concerns that Siri is programmed to be ‘pro-life.'” Of course, no such concern is expressed in that post, which describes the poor search results as “fishy.” It’s a bit of a stretch to say that calling something “fishy” is the same thing as raising concerns about being pro-life. In fact, the only major source I could find that used the phrase “pro-life” in discussing the issue was this Slate post. And although the Slate post doesn’t make any claims that Siri is, in fact, pro-life – it merely discusses that people are concerned – the AOL-owned blog TUAW triumphantly linked to Slate in its own post, called, inaccurately enough, “Debunked: Ridiculous claims of ‘pro-life’ bias in Siri.”
In conclusion to this footnote that has overwhelmed the blog post, words matter, and people who write for a living should be a little more careful when using them.
After I started subscribing to the New Yorker, I got into the habit of reading magazines from cover to cover, front to back, as opposed to flipping around to whatever catches my eye. For magazines like the New Yorker, this is a good way to make sure I don’t miss anything that doesn’t have immediate flip-through-appeal. But for glossy fashion magazines, unfortunately chockablock with vapidity, it takes a great deal more patience to get through a whole issue in this manner. (No one buys fashion magazines for the articles, of course.) Among the major women’s magazines, I think Marie Claire has surprisingly good stuff when it comes to all the pages of
filler non-fashion content. (Elle is pretty good too, but Vogue‘s articles are just the height of worthlessness.) For example, in Marie Claire‘s October issue, there’s a great multi-page spread of portraits of women refugees – a compelling way to raise the profile for refugee issues, and especially for the women who are particularly vulnerable.
MC‘s October issue also features another timely piece, on the upcoming breast cancer awareness month and the explosion of pink products and marketing that we’ve seen in the last decade or so. The article, “The Big Business of Breast Cancer,” is focused on scams and unscrupulous business practices in the growing industry related to breast cancer charities. It makes some good points about the world of nonprofits and its relatively undemanding accounting requirements and is definitely worth a read.
Still, it seems to me that most people aren’t going to be vulnerable to these scams, which are, for the most part, pretty small potatoes. If you get cold-called by a nonprofit you’ve never heard of and asked to donate to their cause, I’m betting you’re smart enough to decline, even if they have a good name and a good story about helping victims of breast cancer. I think the relevant question that more consumers face is: how do I know if the proceeds from the pink beribboned tchotchke I just bought is really going to something helpful? The MC article gives some advice about how to avoid getting bamboozled, and provides some cautionary info about operations like pinkribbon.com – but it seems to me that you’d have to be severely lacking in common sense to think that that site is legit. However, after last year, when the usually reputable Susan G. Komen for the Cure entered into a collaboration with KFC to market “Buckets for the Cure,” one really wonders who you can trust. Although not as blatantly unhealthful as the KFC sponsorship, this year Susan G. Komen for the Cure is promoting a perfume called “Promise Me” that contains ingredients which may be hazardous. According to Breast Cancer Action, the perfume contains both galaxolide – apparently a hormone disruptor – and toluene – a neurotoxin. It’s worth noting that the Environmental Working Group’s respected Skin Deep Cosmetics Database rates galaxolide as a 2 out of 10, making it a low hazard – although that appears to be largely due to the lack of available data on the chemical. (The dangers associated with toluene, rated 10 out of 10 in terms of health hazards, are well-settled.)
Breast Cancer Action has a good page on “Critical Questions to Ask Before You Buy Pink,” and highlights some interesting, if problematic, examples of pinkwashing. BCA was the source for similar questions featured in the MC article, which also lists some well-regarded organizations that spend most of their funds on research and treatment.
Then, of course, there is the whole question of how useful is pink ribbon marketing in the first place? At what point does pink pervasiveness pass from sympathetic and civic-minded awareness and into cavalier insensitivity? Breast cancer, after all, is a serious and excruciating experience for many women, and it’s questionable as to whether sporting pink Snuggies does anything to help the victims of this disease. My friend Jenna has a good rant about the subject, arguing that the pinkapalooza unhelpfully attempts to prettify breast cancer, trivializes the experiences of those affected by the disease, and fails to celebrate the heroism of survivors. I’m inclined to agree.