Ananova Gives Technology a Human Face

She looks right at you. She blinks her eyes. She smiles, or frowns, or shakes her head. She reads the news. Her lips move as she talks. She's Ananova, "your personal information assistant."

Ananova is a real-time animated talking head on the World Wide Web. She is advertised as the world's first virtual newscaster. If you go to her website, she will read you the latest headlines. Her mission is to give a "human face" to the news. Ananova is a product of the Press Association, the biggest private news provider in the UK. Her makers have gone to great trouble to provide her with an attractive physical appearance, and a cute, perky personality. Ananova's face is somewhat doll-like, but with a postmodern-cool demeanor that makes her hipper and more up-to-date than Barbie. She is white, with big eyes, high cheekbones, a thin nose, and short green hair that comes down in a cowlick over her forehead. At first, Ananova was described as a cross between Posh Spice and Kylie Minogue. But viewers are encouraged to send in photos of other people they think look like her. I myself find that she bears a striking resemblance to Leslie Miller, the hip 'n' funky news anchor for the Fox affiliate in my home city of Seattle. And indeed, Ananova is bland enough-which is to say, "pretty" in a conventional enough way, and with far less facial detail than an actual flesh-and-blood woman-that she can attract numerous comparisons.

Ananova's website provides an extensive back story, in order to give her "a full-rounded personality." Ananova is 5'8", and 28 years old. She's a fan of Oasis and The Simpsons. She's a "logical creature," all digital code, but she still shows interest in the strange, illogical foibles of flesh-and-blood human behavior. She claims to be "bemused" by the way she's become a Web celebrity. She gets mad if you compare her to Lara Croft. Most important, though, she's on the job 24/7, researching and reporting the news. Like the audioanimatronic robots at Disneyland, she never takes a coffee break or threatens to go on strike.

Ananova just went online this past April, and for the moment her range is rather limited. Her voice, optimistically described as having a "transatlantic" accent, instead sounds characterless, robotic. The animation of her face is merely adequate. And she is only accessible from a single website. But improvements are promised soon. Ananova will eventually be able to make appropriate facial expressions, depending on the tenor of the stories she is reading. She will appear, not just in a web browser, but also on mobile phones, PDAs, and other portable devices. And users will be able to "personalize" the content that she offers, as well as certain aspects of her appearance (but apparently not her skin color, or her svelte figure). Imagine: in a couple of years, I'll be able to call up Ananova on my pocket wireless device, ask her for the evening's movie schedules, and have her read them to me, wearing bondage gear, from a virtual newsroom that looks just like the main deck of the starship Enterprise.

Bigger than Ananova herself is the marketing hype that surrounds her. Her makers have gone to great lengths to create a fictitious "buzz." The Ananova website includes quotes from email Ananova has received, together with links to supposedly "unofficial" fan sites and parody sites. Like politicians and celebrities, Ananova's makers deflect satire and criticism by showing that they themselves are in on the joke. There is no such thing as bad publicity.

On the day of Ananova's launch, I saw several reports about her on the nightly news. The live newscasters tried to make light of Ananova's potential. But they did it in such an anxiously defensive way, that I could only conclude they really feared her as competition. And indeed, in comparison to the faux smiles, calculated wackiness, and lame demonstrations of camaraderie that TV news anchors are so prone to, Ananova's straightforwardly robotic demeanor seems downright appealing. Newscasters today use so much makeup and hairspray that their faces tend to be rigid as robotic masks anyway. Ananova's range of expression may be limited, but no more so than the TV reporters' strictly codified gestures: the earnest nods of the head, and the looks of amusement or concern. And in this age of photo ops and prefabricated media events, everybody knows that television actively shapes the news, rather than just passively reporting it. If we are going to have manufactured personalities reading manufactured headlines to us, we might as well go all the way.

Ananova is not unique; she's part of an ongoing trend. Despite the failure of past attempts at anthropomorphic interfaces, like the much-ridiculed Microsoft Bob, we are sure to see more of these figures in the years to come. Research and development continue, in the fields of artificial intelligence and speech recognition and synthesis. Already Motorola is promoting its own answer to Ananova, a similar female figure called Mya, who is supposed to go online before the end of the year. I see no evidence that the public is clamoring for these humanoid devices. But there are a number of reasons why businesses favor them. For one thing, figures like Ananova are touted as answers to the interface dilemma. It's often said that people have difficulty programming their VCRs, let alone configuring their computers. What could be more soothing than a friendly, pliant cyberbabe who cheerfully offers to do the hard work for you? Beyond this, simulations like Ananova give a "human face" to giant corporations. It's not technology per se that needs to be humanized, so much as the multinationals that control it. Anything that gives them a friendly, folksy, or hip 'n' funky feel saves them from appearing as abstract, and as menacingly impersonal, as they actually are.

All this is a logical development for a culture as media-saturated, and ultra-commodified, as ours. As Donna Haraway observed in 1985, "our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert." Even earlier, in his 1969 science fiction novel Ubik, Philip K. Dick imagined a world in which consumer appliances would have personalities, talking back to, and demanding payments from, the human beings who want to use them. Dick's nightmare has now become the e-marketers' ideal. The point, I think, is the widening gap between what our technologies are potentially capable of, and the uses to which we actually put them. Why should we want to make our machines seem more "human"? And why do we define what's "human" in such limited and standardized ways? Ananova has the characteristics she has (white, young, and presumably upper-middle-class), because those are the traits that give her authority as somebody who can be trusted to tell us the news. It's depressing, and yet all too predictable that, of all the ways that might be imagined to embody or personify the vast flows of postmodern "information," the Press Association has chosen the most obvious one: the stereotypical figure of the friendly, available Single White Female.

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