Five summers ago, I was invited to visit an eccentric acquaintance on a picturesque island off the East Coast. The island was divided into two parts: the shingled, sea-beaten summer homes of the inherited wealthy, and the year-round homes of the working people who serviced the island’s various amenities—the old-timey movie theater, the upscale restaurants, the twelve-dollars-a-beer bars.
The acquaintance and I had become friendly years prior in San Francisco, where I had been a student and he was, by his account, a high school drop-out tech millionaire. Let’s call him Matt. I’d found him funny, kind, and more down-to-earth than the archetype would suggest. Like many Silicon Valley guys, Matt’s small talk ran five sizes too large, from the purpose of fidelity in modern society to various bodily functions he was attempting to outsmart. But he always seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say in response. Our conversations often took on the appearance of a mutual interview: Matt, interviewing me as though for a job, unsubtly trying to determine how intelligent I was; me, interviewing him as though for a profile, shamelessly provoking and storing up his most memorable lines.
It didn’t seem out of character, then, when years later Matt reached out to ask me for help on a potential moonshot philanthropic venture related to artificial intelligence and education. I happily agreed, and a few weeks later, Matt invited me to join him at his summer house, graciously encouraging me to bring along my then-boyfriend. We booked tickets later that night.
When we arrived on the island, we rented exorbitantly expensive bikes and used Google Maps to find our way to Matt’s house. The weather seemed almost self-congratulatory with temperance: sunshine diffused through fast, bright clouds; heat offset by a steady sea breeze. The house itself was beautiful, stuck in time. It had belonged to Matt’s family for generations and was littered with trinkets that went back as far as the Civil War. The floor was made of long, splintered wooden planks, and the dusty windows looked out onto a semi-wild expanse of tall, bleached grass. The Atlantic was somewhere beyond the grass; you could hear it, but you couldn’t see it.
We stayed on the island for just a few days. Matt was almost constantly busy, glued to his laptop and his phone, occasionally running mysterious errands. It wasn’t until the last full day of our trip that he decided it was time to discuss the project. Hearing him talk about the potential of artificial intelligence was like reading the script to an action movie: the possibilities were exhilarating and the vision ambitious, but it was hard to believe it’d all get made. Still, I offered my perspective in earnest, and Matt listened closely before suggesting we go for a walk on the beach. We set out, climbing a set of steep, sandy paths before arriving in front of a calm sea. Waves broke, metronomic, between two panels of rich blue. Matt began to tell me, with flat-line sincerity, about how he felt it was reasonable to assume that we were living in a simulation.
I had heard this idea before, always from men for whom life looked pretty great: wealthy men, white men, intelligent men, respected men. Here was yet another. What was it about the idea that this all might be a game, someone else’s game, that struck such a chord among those who were by all accounts winning?
I thought back to another conversation we’d had in the kitchen, two nights prior. Matt had been describing his approach to dating—a topic which he’d clearly given a great deal of thought, studying the criteria that the various four-letter billionaire tech moguls (Elon, Mark, Jeff, Bill) had used when selecting a “mate.”
“I don’t want to be with someone who has my skill set,” Matt began, “I want to be with someone who has strengths in another area, who can fill in my blind spots.” He went on to describe a woman he was seeing, who he was flying out first-class the day we left. He liked, for instance, that she was good at reading people, that she was perceptive and sensitive to things like art and literature, that she was knowledgeable about cooking and food culture, that she understood his world but was not exactly of it and so could objectively add something to his field of vision. I found this odd but charming: better than the engineers I knew in college who thought it was “dating down” to be with a humanities major. Unlike them, Matt spoke eloquently about how selecting a partner was among the most pivotal choices a person made in life.
“So if we’re in a simulation,” I said, snapping back to the moment, the beach, Matt’s expectant look. “How would partnerships work?”
Matt grinned. “That would depend.”
“On who controlled the simulation.”
Happy Wife, Happy Life
Look: he wanted a wife. Don’t we all? Someone to think ahead about our needs; someone to make our homes and our lives orderly; someone to tend to our emotions when they’re raw and sore. Someone to track and manage the infinite details of living; someone to be responsible for our moods; someone to balance the books. We all want someone who knows us so intimately they can predict what we’ll want; someone who picks up our loose ends without complaint; someone who fills in our weaknesses with her strength; someone who does what it takes to help us succeed. Someone who attends to our desires eagerly, with a smile. Someone who means it.
But, you know, we’re progressive. We want a wife, but we want her to be happy. More than happy, we want her to be fulfilled. We want a true wife, a born wife, a wife who would feel imprisoned by any other role, so that to be our wife is in its own way a golden opportunity, a liberation. We want a wife who wears her responsibilities like a privilege.
And who could blame us! Regardless of gender expression or sexual orientation—everyone needs a wife. There isn’t enough time in the day to fulfill the demands placed on a modern human: to be available to work throughout all our waking hours; to show determination and ambition so that we are not made redundant; to service debts and taxes and run a cost-effective household; to source and consume healthful meals three times a day; to exercise our bodies the recommended amount; to maintain mental well-being amidst chaos; to care for dependents (aging parents, young children); to be present and attentive to those we interact with; to find, build, maintain, and perpetually assess the longevity of meaningful and fulfilling partnerships; to get eight hours of quality sleep. Literally: how does one do it?
For most of Western history, the answer was: the wife. Now what?
An App of One’s Own
The new answer, for those with a little disposable income, may seem obvious. Food, laundry, health, money management, well-being? There’s an app for that, honey. By which we mean: there’s underpaid labor, and a massive tech conglomerate ready to profit off that, honey! Seamless your dinner, Cleanly your laundry, Babylon your doctor’s visits, Wealthfront your savings, Headspace your sleep. Such services are either entirely automated or rely on poorly compensated human workers as a stopgap. The end goal is the same: to take work which, for most of history, has been uncompensated and drive the price of it up as high as possible to the benefit of a minute number of venture capitalists, company directors, and shareholders.
There’s an app for that, honey. By which we mean: there’s underpaid labor, and a massive tech conglomerate ready to profit off that, honey!
Of course, those with more substantial disposable income can still cut out the digital middle man and hire underpaid labor directly into their home, or proceed directly to what I like to call “artisanal wife” mode: choosing a partner with a wide set of skills who will focus their energies on servicing your various needs, without the economic imperative to pursue paid labor themselves. And then there is the highest echelon of earning power: the bunker-deep pockets of the billionaire class that reaps the profits of the underpaid workers, holding the entire sick, inverted pyramid of wealth on their shoulders like a packed delivery cooler. For those at the top, it’s always been the “lady of the manor” approach: a wife who manages an entire fleet of, you guessed it, underpaid labor. Judging by the number of extraordinarily ambitious and competent women in my graduating class whose aspirations have been funneled into marriages to hedge fund scions, the “ladies of the manor” remain in high demand.
For those without any disposable income at all—a rapidly-growing demographic made perpetually larger by tech-accelerated inequality, because irony isn’t part of Silicon Valley’s vocabulary— there are virtually no options. Most working-class women have no choice but to work one job or several—often in the precise, underpaid sectors being automated by technology—alongside providing caregiving labor at home. The direct and knock-on consequences of this second (or third, or fourth) shift labor are borne out in the growing chasm between the life expectancy of the rich and the poor. Meanwhile, the privileged middle remains perpetually marketed to by apps and products designed to give the illusion of technology-supported self-sufficiency, masking the interdependent web of individuals and stakeholders which make up any given household service.
Picture it: a bearded dad stands alone in the kitchen making a stir-fry. “Eloise?” he calls up to the ceiling, “Dinner in five.” His voice is loud but calm, pleasant. The kitchen is lit with clean blue LED lights. Four bright yellow lemons sit in a clear glass bowl, next to a full, meticulously balanced ceramic fruit platter. The only sign that there is cooking taking place is the cutting board in front of him, topped with a mound of chopped neon bell peppers. An open bottle of craft beer is placed on the center of the kitchen island; Dad wears a casual chambray button-down shirt. This is all very relaxed, the tableau suggests, but also pristine; homely, but perfect. Dad is easy-going, dinner is effortless. Eloise arrives promptly and slides into a seat at the kitchen island, where Dad serves up a nutritionally void but photogenic bowl of stir-fried cabbage. “Enjoying that?” He asks, self-satisfied, as he watches her eat. Eloise raises her eyebrows and nods. “Mum will be pleased!” Dad exclaims, and gently asks Alexa—the female voice that lives inside a smart speaker on the kitchen counter—to add stir-fry vegetables to his shopping list. She does so dutifully. Dad and Eloise retire to the sofa, where they eat ice cream together and Alexa plays a Philip Pullman audiobook.
Mum will be pleased! Or, as the identical German ad, in which the bearded British dad is simply swapped out for a slightly younger- looking bearded German dad, puts it, Mama wird sich freuen! The subtext is clear: Mother isn’t here, Mother is “leaning in.” But we—a progressive, modern family, assisted by an unobtrusive yet highly skilled and patently stylish, artificially intelligent smart speaker—are thriving.
We are fast approaching the social breaking point of a historical movement in capitalism that has simultaneously brought our waged life into our private life (what’s a private life?) and the tasks of the domestic into the commodified world. In the nineteenth century, as industrial capitalism boomed, the state shunned responsibility for care work, cementing it firmly in the private sphere—giving rise to a particular kind of Victorian, feminine responsibility in the home. The twentieth century saw the rise of a “family wage” for the working class; families were expected to survive on the husband’s work alone, further ensnaring women in unpaid care roles. Pre-sexual revolution, the labor of the twentieth- century wife served as a critical support structure for the male worker. Though he was waged and she was not, the family finances depended on their combined work in clear and distinct gender roles.
During the manufacturing decline of the 1970s, as wages began to plummet for working-class men, capitalism Trojan-horsed its way into feminist liberation, warping a necessary social cause—freeing women to pursue aims outside of housework—to suit capital: freedom means working for capitalists! The result has been the normalization and subsequent necessitation of the two-wage household. Across the industrialized world, the cost of living has soared while wages have stagnated, to the point where what could once be afforded on one salary can barely be afforded on two. At the same time, right-wing commentariats lambast the low birth-rate and the death of family values, framing feminism as the root of all evil, carefully eschewing the reality that liberal and conservative governments alike have chosen the enrichment of a few over the social reproduction of the many.
Without federal assistance in the form of publicly funded childcare for all, wage protections for workers, or a universal basic income—to name but a few of the creative opportunities at hand—the individual becomes increasingly reliant on her employer. It is no coincidence that technology companies, particularly keen to co-opt and commodify historically feminized care work, offer the most pointed range of reproduction-related benefits for their employees: egg freezing and paid parental leave abound, though often not childcare.
The end result is that we now all have at least three jobs, three modes of survival to tend to: our financial survival, the survival of our communities, and the survival of our family units. The state has long shirked its responsibilities in each sphere; now, the wide, slobbering maw of the tech industry waits, ready to commodify whatever it can.
Rage Against the Machines
Perhaps you can sense the despair in my tone. Certainly, when I have broached this topic with men, the most common response has been: But come on, isn’t that better than before?
“Before” being the presumption of a wife’s place in the home as “natural” and “right,” unpaid and largely unseen? The electroshock therapy that presumption necessitated when housework drove a generation of wives clinically mad? Legal rape? Or should we go a touch further back to “wife as property”?
Is today a better state than those “befores”? Yes, of course it is, though a lobotomy might be too.
To pay wages for housework would require a wholesale transformation of the economy, revealing at the core of capitalism a fundamental reliance on the unpaid labor of women.
What troubles me, what keeps me turning the matter over and over in my head, is this: for centuries, women asked for recognition of the value of “women’s work”—which is to say, the practical labor that makes the world go round and has historically been placed on the shoulders of wives and mothers and daughters without question. Many simply asked that the work be recognized as just that: work—not a calling, not a natural state, not a pure act of love. Others asked that men take on their share of domestic labor, and in so doing, free women to pursue other, potentially more fulfilling or stimulating forms of work—and leisure. And through the Wages for Housework movement led by Silvia Federici, women even asked that that value of their work be recognized in capital’s primary currency: a wage. This demand was more radical provocation than concrete policy proposal, one which attempted to speak the language of capitalism in order to undermine it. To pay wages for housework would require a wholesale transformation of the economy, revealing at the core of capitalism a fundamental reliance on the unpaid labor of women.
How strange and predictable it is, then, that wages for housework have, at last, become widespread—but in the form of our subscription to digital services and gig economy labor. This work has become concretely valuable at the precise moment its value can be effectively captured by a small cadre of men sitting at the top of the tech industry.
This didn’t happen overnight, and it didn’t happen by accident. It is no coincidence that the first artificial intelligence boom began around the same time as the sexual revolution; no coincidence that the history of women in computing has been roundly overwritten by the myth of male coding genius; no coincidence that the voice coming out of your smart device is almost always a woman’s. Stemming from a fundamental arrogance on the part of men—the idea that work historically performed by women is so straightforward, so mindless even, that it can be effectively programmed— the latter part of the twentieth century saw a rise in technologies aimed at making traditional women’s work faster, simpler, or redundant.
Robot mistresses, digital nurses, smartphone secretaries, algorithmic wives, and app-based mommies: huge swathes of the modern tech boom are a reaction against women’s partial liberation from housework and our increasing resistance to performing unpaid and undervalued emotional and sexual labor. When small-minded men are terrified of losing something, they belittle it; they puff their chests out and stomp their feet and declare they do not need it at all, that they have something better at hand anyway. And the rise of personified technologies in particular is a mass response from a male-dominated industry to the revelations of the twentieth century: the sexual revolution and women’s movement that upended traditional gender roles, and the economic pressures requiring women to seek employment outside of the home. The first wave of at-home artificial intelligence—embodied by Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana, and the nameless personality living inside the Google Home—was designed to replace or supplement roles historically filled by women: mothers, wives, mistresses, secretaries, nannies, even sex workers.
Robot mistresses, digital nurses, smartphone secretaries, algorithmic wives, and app-based mommies: huge swathes of the modern tech boom are a reaction against women’s partial liberation from housework and our increasing resistance to performing unpaid and undervalued emotional and sexual labor.
Of course, in addition to being historically female, these roles are almost always underpaid or undervalued. As philosopher Helen Hester notes, the same tasks Alexa and Cortana perform for a premium are not just ill-remunerated but often resented and mocked when performed by human women. A smart device’s insistence on helping is clever and valuable; a wife’s insistence on helping is taken for granted or viewed as frivolous nagging. It’s no surprise many women no longer want to take on the roles they’ve been programmed to perform, or that still more of us simply cannot afford to, regardless of what we desire. The system is malfunctioning; we’ve gone off script. Tech, looking for a fix to the glitch, has found it at the intersection of cheap labor, algorithms, and automation, which in concert perform thankless female labor (with no bitching or aging) for an upfront cost, to the enormous financial benefit of the overwhelmingly male industry leaders and stockholders.
Much of the writing about the sexism latent in the tech industry, and the development of artificial intelligence in particular, has focused in on three concerning realities: the dramatic underrepresentation of women at virtually every level of the industry (and the self-perpetuating, demi-god-in-a-sweat-drenched-hoodie culture that serves as both the primary cause and effect of this lack of gender diversity); the gender bias being coded into tomorrow’s (and today’s and yesterday’s) algorithms by virtue of this lack of diversity; and the portrayal of many personified tech products as servile and female, chief among them Amazon’s Alexa and the Google Home which, if not real AI, still stand as most Americans’ first experience with something even remotely close.
What concerns me as much as these developments is the broader picture of which they form only a part: a world in which the exact forms of labor women have fought to have recognized and remunerated—chief among them caretaking labor, tedious household labor, buoying-the-male-ego labor, service-with-a-smile labor—are being co-opted, monetized, and sold back to us as shiny, premium, cutting-edge tech, the intermediary step of individual households outsourcing such tasks to workers primarily from the Global South having been insufficiently profitable for the Silicon Valley brain trust. As automation rises, technology will increasingly undercut the wages of these workers; the human workers who depend on these precarious gigs are viewed by the tech industry and the broader economy as a temporary inefficiency.
This is the dark ethos of the twenty-first century: most of us are performing labor that can and will be at least partially automated. We work, and as we work, we audition for the right to continue working. There is no room at the negotiation table; any unpaid work will remain unpaid until, in due course, we will pay to have that work done for us by automation. And like that, the mainstays of human life become premium services we pay for. Like that, the value only flows up.
The Future is Fembots
Pop culture and advertising have reacted in lockstep with the rise of household technologies. Disney’s Smart House, released in 1999, showed an overworked female computer scientist developing the perfect AI “smart home” to liberate women from housework, only for the “smart home” to become increasingly unwieldy and possessive—hormonal even—after a motherless teenage boy tinkers with the code to make the artificial intelligence behave more maternally. The happy ending comes when the scientist reprograms the smart home and settles down with a nice man.
More recently, Her and Ex Machina played into the heterosexual male’s neuroses that feminine affection is, in a sense, always a ruse and as replicable as code. The British television series Humans shows male and female bots—designed to perform care labor in family households and the homes of the elderly—driven to rebellion over a desire for recognition. Many early advertising campaigns for Google Home and Alexa, like the one described above, portrayed modern men aptly assisted by gentle, obedient, disembodied women. Such visions of techno-capitalist feminism abound: women empowered by technologies that free them from the unsavory realities of pregnancy or household labor or sex; men taking on new, progressive roles as a result of their obedient female-voiced assistants.
It has been quite some time since we’ve seen a direct cultural portrayal of feminized tech that has any real teeth. But if we look back to a time before Lean In feminism, there have been more honest attempts. Much of Bryan Forbes’s 1975 horror film The Stepford Wives feels oddly familiar, even millennial in its sensibility, from its pared-back interior design, its fetishization of upstate domestic life, and its portrayal of a certain type of liberal man who—while paying lip service to progressive ideas—yearns for a wife who will let him call the shots. Based on the 1972 novel by Ira Levin, the film follows Joanna Eberhart as she moves from New York City to Stepford, Connecticut, with her husband Walter and their two children. Walter quickly joins the local Men’s Association, where former technology and entertainment moguls relax with scotch and cigars. The women of Stepford, meanwhile, are uniformly beautiful and obedient, spending their days ironing sheets, watching children, and preparing casseroles: a hybrid of tradwives, Instagram influencers, and spam bots. Their husbands adore them.
Joanna, an aspiring photographer, felt coerced into moving to Stepford, but she tries to put on a game face. Hoping that her new suburban lifestyle will offer her the chance to focus more on her art, she is understandably creeped out by the passivity of the Stepford wives and her husband’s secretive involvement in the Men’s Association. She soon forms an alliance with the two other women in town not yet obsessed with housework: Bobby, an outspoken New York feminist, and Charmaine, a tennis-playing trophy wife. Together, they attempt to start a women’s group. But when they gather the women of Stepford together, the wives fall into discussing a litany of household tips: advice on starching their husbands’ collars, brand name suggestions, and vague musings on their domestic contentedness.
In the end, it becomes apparent that these beloved wives are robots, modeled on the human wives of Men’s Association members, who are summarily murdered once their robot replacements are ready. (The seventies were not known for their subtlety.) Unlike in the camp, feel-good 2004 remake, love and corporate feminism do not save the day. On the advice of a psychiatrist, Joanna tries to escape, but ends up strangled to death by her robot replacement.
The messaging is a little too obvious to be worth digging into at length: housework deadens a part of a woman, and men are desperate for control. What really stuck with me about The Stepford Wives is the way the men watch the women, both the human Joanna and their robot wives. In one scene, a Men’s Association member draws Joanna with incredible skill, making sketches of her face and her eyes. In another, a man records her voice, allegedly for a hobby project; preying on her kindness, he claims that his childhood stutter has made him fascinated with language and accents. The men look at Joanna with admiration and desire: she is beautiful, spirited, and kind. There’s lust, but it’s not quite sexual. It’s as though they genuinely want to understand the way she works, if only so that they can reconstruct her according to their own desires and ideals. It’s the same way they look at their own wives, always with a knowing confidence in their eyes.
I wonder, sometimes, if this is what it all comes down to. Perhaps our moment is just catering to a particular kind of man, the kind who longs to look at those who serve him, without ever feeling the unsettling tug of need. Who desires nothing more than to look at a woman—real or simulated, no matter—and think: I made you.