Siri and Kids’ Ids: The Freudian Seductions of the latest iPhone

| January 23, 2012

By Enrico Gnaulati

A series of highly unusual, but parallel events occurred this week in my therapy office. Upon discovering I had procured a new  iPhone 4s, three different children in separate sessions picked it up, fiddled with the screen, activated the Siri function, and mischievously asked its phantom voice a version of the same question: “Where’s the best place to dump a dead body?”  Surprisingly, Siri indulged their morbid question and replied with its trademark serene female voice: “What kind of place are you looking for—mines, dumps, swamps, metal foundries, or reservoirs?”

On the one hand, it astonished me that each of these children independently knew to ask Siri the same grim question.  Clearly, the option of pranking Siri with this particular query had rapidly wormed its way into kid cyberculture. This is evidence that smart phones with their multimedia uses are fast becoming standard fare among children.

On the other hand, I was intrigued by how my young clients, without exception and without my prompting, used the Siri voice command function to ask forbidden questions and make lurid remarks.   Apple designed Siri as an “intelligent assistant,” enabling users to speak their requests into the phone for practical purposes, like locating a nearby Indian restaurant, or making changes to one’s calendar. Little did Apple know that, for children, its uses might be more transgressive.

Siri’s judiciously neutral approach to my young clients’ prompts simply led to more devilishness. For example, 10 year-old Frank’s first utterance was a rather innocent one. He chuckled, then shouted at the phone, “Marry me!”  The unflappable voice that is Siri replied, “We hardly know each other.” Frank then pushed the envelope,  “You’re an idiot!”  A soft purple neon light slowly circled around the Siri microphone icon on the screen, as if indicating there was a cogitating presence inside the phone. Then came the reasoned reply, “I’m doing my best.” Emboldened, Frank smarted back, “You’re ugly!!” The words, “If you insist” simultaneously came back from the phone. Frank was undeterred.  This time he got racy. He held the phone within inches of his mouth and whispered in a sultry voice, “Talk dirty to me.”  Siri’s reply was both forthright and measured:  “I’m not that kind of personal assistant.”

In time, it dawned on me that Siri’s responses resembled those of a conventional Freudian therapist—impartial, non-retaliatory, even decidedly neutral.  In Freudian therapy, when the therapist is baited, s/he refuses to take the bait; when s/he is provoked, s/he somehow doesn’t allow him/herself to feel provoked—often resulting in clients becoming more ornery to get some real human reaction on the other end. The same occurred with the kids in my office vis-à-vis Siri’s nonplussed attitude to their provocations.

As Apple fine tunes its new voice command technology, the ace programmers who work there may want to humanize Siri a bit. They may want to tap the repertoire of a good parent more than a good Freudian therapist. They may want to program Siri to differentiate between child and adult voices. When those of a tender age then perseverate with rude content, Siri could be given a visual presence, not just an auditory one. I propose that it should be the image of Lois, the mother in the old sitcom Malcolm in the Middle, red-cheeked and tight faced, that instantly appears on the screen, and instead of sedate Siri’s voice, Lois trumpeting, “Knock it off!”