My dissertation is now available in IDEALS, the UIUC institutional repository. You can access the full-text copy of it here: https://www.ideals.illinois.edu/handle/2142/46617
Not just a pretty (inter)face: A critical analysis of Microsoft’s ‘Ms. Dewey’
Increasingly anthropomorphism is used as a design strategy in computing interfaces to make them more accessible and intuitive to users. Technologies are never neutral, and always consist of a complex arrangement of technical, social, and cultural (ideological) aspects. Computing interfaces designed to have the characteristics of people raise ethical questions about what it means to explicitly gender and racialize technologies. This project explores these broader questions through a case study of Microsoft’s former search engine interface, “Ms. Dewey.” The titular character featured in the interface was anthropomorphized as a sexy librarian virtual agent who performs search results in response to user queries. I explore how the Ms. Dewey search engine is gendered and racialized and, ultimately, how Ms. Dewey reveals specific assumptions about gender, race, and technology in the search engine. I conduct an interface analysis that investigates the semiotic and material aspects of the interface in terms of technological and cultural affordances, finding that gender and race function as crucial infrastructural elements that frame the search process and results as more explicitly ideological rather than instrumental. This research contributes to understanding the broader implications of anthropomorphization as a design strategy, blending concerns of technology design and cultural beliefs about gender and race.
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