Reading the Ethics and Poetics of the Digital through John Cayley’s The Listeners

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

Earlier this year, poet-scholar John Cayley proposed that scholars and makers of electronic literature attend to the “delivery media for ‘literature’ that are, historically, taking the place of physical, codex-bound books” (John Cayley, 2017, “Aurature at the End(s) of Electronic Literature,” electronic book review). Among those emerging delivery media are so-called Virtual Digital Assistants (VDA) like Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Apple’s Siri. Capable of interpreting and producing human language, these domestic robots speak in pleasant female voices, offering access to information, music, social media, telephony, and other services. Their terms and conditions inform the consumer that once the device is activated, it records everything that is being said. The proliferation of VDA bears wide-reaching ethical and aesthetic ramifications that scholars in digital media should attend to.

On the one hand, “we are willingly installing and paying for the last mile of the infrastructure needed for the ultimate surveillance society” (Robert Dale, 2017, “Industry watch: The pros and cons of listening devices,” Natural Language Engineering 23.6, 973). On the other hand, “the arrival of speaking and, especially, listening networked programmable devices…has, I believe, important consequences for literature and for literary — linguistic aesthetic — practices of all kinds” (Cayley 2017). Cayley’s digital aural performance The Listeners (2016) offers a lens to examine the poetics and ethics of VDA. The Listeners is housed in an Amazon Echo, a smart speaker system controlled via the Artificial Intelligence Alexa. An instance of what Cayley has called ‘aurature’ (a composite of aurality and literature), The Listeners complicates our understanding of audio performance art, as text is delivered by a synthetic voice. By aesthetically engaging the slight – yet noticeable – robotic monotony of Alexa’s speech, The Listeners challenges audiences to think about the nature of transactive synthetic language and the meaning of human / AI subjectivity.

At the same time, as the title The Listeners suggests, Alexa’s ability to ‘hear’ is a key feature in Cayley’s piece. In installations of The Listeners, Alexa’s ‘recording’ feature is active, which means that all transactions between speakers and The Listeners are “sent to the artist's Alexa app and the website” (Cayley 2016). Along with the piece’s title, the recording function of The Listeners hints at the forms of social control enabled by technologies like Alexa. Alexander Galloway uses the term “reverse Panopticon” for a society which is characterized by “a multiplicity, nay an infinity, of points of view flanking and flooding the world viewed” (Galloway, Alexander, 2014, Laruelle: Against the Digital. University of Minnesota Press, 68). Alexa records not only her owners’ transactions, but also sends what she hears from guests and visitors to the owners’ account, allowing consumers to spy on each other. Like online practices such as “following” or “stalking” others on social media, Alexa constitutes a prime example of surveillance in a reverse panoptic society. In aesthetically engaging these ‘hearing’ abilities via Alexa’s transactive synthetic language, The Listeners brings computer ethics into conversation with new media poetics, offering trajectories for scholarly inquire into the ethical and aesthetic implications of VDA technologies.

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Carlos Muñoz