Published September 30, 2018

The podcast Sandra introduces a world in which the eponymous ‘virtual assistant’ is not in fact virtual, but composed of many human assistants speaking through a single anonymizing electronic voice. In this world, people hired to control this virtual assistant take an aptitude test to determine their specific sub-specialty (birds, relationships, etc.). Only requests relating to those subjects will be routed to them and their responses are relayed to the users of ‘Sandra’ through a single modulated voice.

For me, what was most interesting about Sandra was the possibility that technology might encourage rather than discourage human-human connection. Sandra is an anonymous system: the humans who run Sandra are anonymized by a voice modulator. Given Helen’s conversation with her mother-in-law and her openness in sharing about her job, it seems that it must be broadly known that those running Sandra are people. Despite this, the show posits that because this virtual assistant is anonymized, users are comfortable sharing intimate information in the form of their questions and in the form of data.

I have experienced a form of this technology-mediated connection in the form of conversations through call centers. Despite that the reasons I would call into a call center are often annoying, time-wasting issues, I cannot help but start to feel a sense of connection with the person on the other end of the several minute call. As the conversation drags on, I find that I am more and more interested in a glimpse into the life of whomever I am speaking with. Occasionally, we start an ‘actual’ conversation, one unrelated to the issue at hand, and I leave the conversation having had a glimpse into their life. In Sandra, this glimpse is one-directional: she looks into their lives but is anonymized by an electronic voice.