Sixty years earlier, inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen, known for his chess playing pseudo-automaton – The Turk – made what was probably one of the earliest attempts to build a speaking machine. Kempelen explored the physiology of speech production and created a mechanism to appropriate the human voice. The speaking machine could produce sounds, words and even sentences, although hardly comprehensible. In the early 1860s, a young Alexander Graham Bell created a speaking “head” after seeing an automaton by Charles Wheatstone, inspired by Kempelen’s speaking machine. It will be years later and more research and experiments that will lead to Bell’s invention of the telephone, which opened up a new field of voice communication technology, but also a long journey of wiretapping and intercepting voices.
We have since learned to give up our rights to electronic privacy and surrender to a web of listening devices or smart speakers that have taken a place in our lives and occupied our domestic spaces. A whole world of connected objects, from home assistants, TVs and household appliances to wearables, cars, and urban objects and furniture constantly observe and listen to us, but we are getting accustomed to ignore this.
But long before the existence of these now ubiquitous connected devices, prevailed a series of monitoring, eavesdropping systems and architectures of control, from acoustical wall funnels and optical apparatuses to Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon prison structure composed of a central watching tower surrounded by cells. In the 17th century, celebrated scholar and polymath Athanasius Kircher designed statua citofonica or ‘talking statue’, an early intercom system with a series of spiral-shaped funnels hidden in the walls of a building that connected courtyards and public spaces creating a giant listening device. Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler reference Kircher’s statua citofonica in their recent brilliant mapping study of The Amazon Echo – in the context of human labour, data and material resources (Anatomy of an AI System: The Amazon Echo as an anatomical map of human labor, data and planetary resources. Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler, 2018. Published by SHARE Lab, SHARE Foundation and The AI Now Institute, NYU) – talking about the Echo as a listening agent and “ear” in the home.
Alexa, the voice assistant who speaks to us through the Amazon Echo, along with other voice enabled devices and smart speakers that have taken a place in our homes, are not anymore perceived as commercial products; they are ‘actual voices’. By anthropomorphising Alexa, Siri or similar, by giving them a human-like voice, we forget what these systems really are. They become advisors, confidants, educators, they are there for us to converse with and trust them. Yes, every word we speak is probably recorded in the “air”; that invisible mesh of listening systems formed by our Alexas, Siris, Google Homes, thermostats and so on. One day your appliances will know your whereabouts, conversations, journeys, purchases, browsing histories. We tend to look at these devices as individual entities, although they are disembodied parts of a large, complex networked, corporate system. Kircher’s talking statues that reproduce the eavesdropped conversations from the street, picked from the spiral-shaped tubes, hidden in buildings, perfectly depict our surveillance society today.