Amazon Echo and the Aesthetics of Whiteness

Phan, Thao
Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience

This article examines the figuration of the home automation device Amazon Echo and its digital assistant Alexa. While most readings of gender and digital assistants choose to foreground the figure of the housewife, I argue that Alexa is instead figured on domestic servants. I examine commercials, Amazon customer reviews, and reviews from tech commentators to make the case that the Echo is modeled on an idealized image of domestic service. It is my contention that this vision functions in various ways to reproduce a relation between device/user that mimics the relation between servant/master in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American homes. Significantly, however, the Echo departs from this historical parallel through its aesthetic coding as a native-speaking, educated, white woman. This aestheticization is problematic insofar as it decontextualizes and depoliticizes the historic reality of domestic service. Further, this figuration misrepresents the direction of power between user and devices in a way that makes contending with issues such as surveillance and digital labor increasingly difficult.