In collaboration with a group of students, Audrey Desjardins, assistant professor in interaction design at the University University of Washingtonasked seven Seattle-area households for permission to obtain data collected by their smart home devices, including a Peloton bike, Nest camera, voice assistants and Sonos speakers.
The UW team then handed over the graphs, plots and spreadsheets – containing information on when and how many times someone had, for example, opened or closed the garage door, or asked if it was going to rain – to seven local writers, with the mandate to make it a fictional novella. The goal: “to make people curious and invite them to see the data differently,” Desjardins told me.
The resulting 28 stories are surprisingly less dystopian — and more moving — than I expected, even though many are written from the first-person perspective of the data or smart device. My favorite in this genre is “Severance”, by Alma Garcia, in which the response to a Google Assistant query (“How do you say “sorry” in Spanish?”) rushes through a fiber optic cable as it breaks deep in the ocean. Another strong point is by Garrett Saleen “Satisfaction survey”, about a grieving widower who gets lost in Peloton.
Data Epics makes its public debut this weekend with the launch of a website that features all 28 stories and a live reading on The Grocery Studios on Beacon Hill Saturday (May 14, 6:30 p.m., reservations encouraged). Note: some of the data guinea pigs will be present.
The stories, based on four consecutive data drops, won’t come as a total surprise to them. Households were able to read “their” story before “collecting” the next set of data. “They had a lot of time to think, ‘How does our behavior change history?’ said Desjardins. (She hopes that impact — the realization that the data is in the cloud, archived, forever — will last beyond the project.)
Desjardins also told me the story of a participating household made up of three roommates. Skeptical, but attracted by the creative potential of the project, they bought a Google Assistant and started having fun, playing with the machine by asking it questions like: “How to rob a bank? » and “Who’s your daddy?” (In the resulting story, which I highly recommend, the Google Assistant responds, “Google has two daddies. The company was founded by computer techs Larry Page and Sergey…” before being interrupted by an irritated human.)
“It was one of the ways to kind of take back control of those assistants,” Desjardins told me. I asked her if this particular household had retained the assistant after the project. “They unplugged it,” she said. “Yes, they were over.”