I, Chatbot: The Gender and Race Performativity of Conversational Agents

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2006
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Amidst the various forms of electronic literature stands a class of interactive programs that simulates human conversation. A chatbot, or chatterbot, is a program with which users can “speak,” typically by exchanging text through an instant-messaging style interface. Chatbots have been therapists, Web site hosts, language instructors, and even performers in interactive narratives. Over the past ten years, they have proliferated across the Internet, despite being based on a technology that predates the Web by thirty years. In my readings, these chatbots are synedochic of the process by which networked identities form on the Internet within the power dynamics of hegemonic masculinity. Chatbots, in this light, model the collaborative performance humans enact on electronically-mediated networks.

These computer programs stand as the nexus of various roads of inquiry and present a useful model for gender construction and racial formation enacted over electronically-mediated networks. Chatbots are actor-networks, bringing together programmers, artists, and machines to develop interactive entities. To match their interdisciplinarity, this dissertation brings together humanities, scientific, and sociological approaches to analyze chatbots in their broader historical and cultural context. Particularly, I blend textual analysis, cultural studies, and survey research. Central to the work is a survey of the makers and users of chatbots. Once a sense of the makeup of the community has been determined, subsequent chapters apply race, gender, and labor theories to the interpretation of specific chatbots in action. These interpretations are preceded by a look at Alan Turing, whose provocations about imitating humanity and performing gender set the tone for the debates that surround chatbots.

The chatbots in this dissertation are used for websites, interactive fiction, interactive drama, adult entertainment, and educational contexts. From ELIZA to A.L.I.C.E., these chatbots span the history of chatbots, ending contemporary applications, such as Tactical IraqiFaçade, and my ownBarthes’ Bachelorette. In this context, this dissertation enters debates about narratology and ludology, offering directed poetics and systemic exploration in its place. The dissertation also considers other relevant cultural objects, such as the Chess-Playing Turk and cinematic cyborgs appearing in Simone , Thomas est Amoureux ( Thomas in Love), and Blade Runner.

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Scott Rettberg