Re/framing gender identifications in (inter)actions with virtual conversational partners

[abstract] As Susan Jarratt so eloquently states, “’Rhetoric’ at its most fruitful has historically functioned as a meta-discipline through which a whole spectrum of language uses and their outcomes as social action can be refracted.” Acknowledging this, we (a computer scientist and a rhetorician) collaborate to offer an interdisciplinary exploration of human-computer interaction as it re/frames gender identifications. In this presentation, we will focus on what (inter)actions are elicited in users by designers of virtual conversational partners.

Conversational agents are human-like interfaces that interact with users using natural language. They function as virtual docents, online shopping assistants, and airline reservation agents. Talking with machines, though, produces unique problems with believability and credibility that extend to both the human and the artificial conversational partner. Beginning with Eliza, a famous artificial Rogerian psychologist, designers of conversational agents have been entangled in the Western tension between logos (rationality) and ethos (characterization). In an attempt to endow agents with a believable character, designers have historically relied on a stylistic rhetoric (a modern ethopoeia or “bag of cheap tricks”), using what Judith Butler refers to as “normative” gender stereotypes in the agent’s language and physical appearance. Images of femininity have proliferated and become the projected images of male fantasies and ideal womanhood. These characterizations of conversational agents in turn have re/framed the identity of the human conversational partner. The result has been an undoing of the agent's credibility as witnessed in the derisive comments, virtual rapes, and volleys of verbal abuse from users that have been documented in the literature by computer scientists. Consequently, Kenneth Burke’s assertion of “language as symbolic language” takes on particular significance in the virtual environment.

We are concerned with this dis(inter)action of gender identity because it degrades women in an ethos that is no less than a drag performance. Such dis(inter)action re/frames the everyday negotiations of gender identity between real human beings. Because ethos is an unavoidable component of dialogue and forms the basis for believing and being persuaded by another's speech, it is important that designers begin to consider the centrality of rhetoric to their enterprise.

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