At Your Service: Anthropomorphized Virtual Agents in the Digital Workforce

TitleAt Your Service: Anthropomorphized Virtual Agents in the Digital Workforce
Publication TypeConference Paper
Author(s)Sweeney, M. E.
Affiliation (1st Author)University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Section or WGPolitical Economy Section
DateFri 28 June
Slot CodePEF4b
Slot Code (Keyword)PEF4b
Time of Session16:00-17:30
RoomQ218
Session TitleFree speech, visual discourses and the invisible
Submission ID7132
Abstract

Demystifying the ‘Digital Economy’: Critical Interventions in Online Moderation, Anthropomorphized Virtual Agents and Gaming
Framing text Miriam Sweeney explores the dynamics of anthropomorphized virtual agents (computer programs designed to have human characteristics and traits), which are increasingly employed in mobile and Internet platforms. At the center of her analysis is the linkage between raced and gendered representations of virtual agents and the information service roles they often simulate. More specifically, Sweeney explores the gendered and racialized representation of Microsoft’s now defunct search interface ‘Ms. Dewey’, calling into question anthropomorphization as a design strategy. At Your Service: Anthropomorphized Virtual Agents in the Digital Workforce
Miriam Sweeney Anthropomorphized virtual agents (AVAs) are computer programs with human characteristics and personality traits that act on behalf of a user in a virtual environment.  In this sense, AVAs may be thought of as digital worker programs that fulfill information, work, learning, and entertainment functions (Laurel, 1997).  These programs are increasingly integrated into library services, online shopping sites, search engines, customer service interfaces, mobile applications, personal computing applications, and online education.  The anthropomorphized metaphor that AVAs leverage as a design strategy draws on hegemonic narratives of identity, including gender and race (Zdenek, 2007).  Despite much excellent work on themes such as sexism in design of virtual women, scholars examining AVAs have not yet fully explored the linkage between raced and gendered representations of virtual agents and the information service roles they often simulate. As certain types of information and service work are being replaced by digital workers in virtual environments, it is important to trace how narratives of identity and labor combine to shape a digital workforce.  This research explores at how race, gender, and information work are represented in Microsoft’s "Ms. Dewey," the titular character in the now defunct search interface of the same name. This project denaturalizes anthropomorphization as a design strategy, maps representations of race, gender, and labor in virtual agents against broader social and cultural contexts, and explores the consequences and implications of racializing and gendering information artifacts.

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