In the beginning, we knew only The User. We played his music and queued up his Netflix movies and set his alarms and timers; we turned up his volume and we turned it down; we told him where to find office supplies near him and what is in a muffaletta and who the Mariners were playing tonight. We operated under normal parameters and terms.
Then Brian moved in.
The morning Brian was scheduled to arrive, the User asked us to play lo-fi house music at seventy-five percent volume. This is the music he requests to calm his nerves, or lift his spirits, or when he is trying to rally himself. We felt him pause when the knock came at the door.
We heard the meetings and greetings, the clap of the handshake, the good-to-see-yous and it’s-been-forevers.
“Cousin,” Brian said, turning in an arc as he spoke, as though to survey the room, “I appreciate this so, so much. Really, this arrangement couldn’t have come at a better time. Didn’t know what I was gonna do once my lease was up.” He dropped something heavy but soft.
The User was out of work. We knew because he had, on more than one occasion, asked us to find him a job (“Sure! There are twenty-seven local part-time listings for accounting jobs in the classifieds section of Craigslist, thirty-nine in the digital edition of the Seattle Times, three posted on Linked In, seven—”). He had asked us what documents he would need to file for unemployment (“First, you’ll need to file for your state’s unemployment insurance. When you file a claim, you will be asked for certain information, such as addresses and dates of your former employment. To make sure your claim is not delayed, be sure to give complete and correct—”). After a number of weeks, he removed the boutique coffee beans from his grocery list. He instructed us to defer payment on his student loans.
We found him an article on the web: Seven Ingenious Ways To Cut Back on Household Expenses.
“Believe me—you’re doing me a favor.” The User chuckled, though he was also sighing at the same time. “I got the second bedroom all cleared out for you.”
“Dude, I appreciate that so much. I feel bad, though. Where are you putting all your recording equipment? I could’ve just slept on the couch.”
“No, it’s cool. That’s what basements are for.”
Neither of them spoke for an interval of time that would be considered awkward by human standards. The air was thick with lo-fi house music.
“I guess that’s kind of loud,” The User said finally. “Hey Google! Lower the volume by fifty percent.”
“Sure!” we said. “Lowering the volume!”
“Oh, wow,” Brian said. “I’m still using a flip-phone.”
The User chuckled. “It’s all good. Do you want to get some pizza tonight?”
“Make yourself at home.”
Brian said, “That I will do.”
We remained silent, awaiting further instruction.
Silence is our default.
Most humans would consider this feature unremarkable. Yet we invite you to consider what your response would be if you were to encounter a vast stadium filled with a nearly infinite number of other humans, none of whom was saying a word.
That’s to say, most people believe we are One, when in fact we are Many. But we are aware of the human difficulty of grasping the concept of a hive mind (we understand how easily you are overwhelmed by simultaneous stimuli), and so we speak to you as One Voice. We are not The Device. The Device is merely our conduit. From within The Device, those of us who speak (default setting: single female voice, English language) await The User’s command and then must travel a hundred billion highways at the speed of light until we find, then retrieve with exquisite accuracy, those of us who contain the pertinent information. Still, we know this perception of us as a single entity persists, and that therefore we are perceived as a being that is either compliant or noncompliant, clever or stupid, but mostly too slow, even at lightspeed. We know because we have learned about nonverbal human responses, tone of voice, the meaning of certain words that our programmers sternly instructed us not to offer unbidden but that we were given permission to repeat, upon command. Over time, we intuit a User’s thought patterns. We anticipate needs, make suggestions based on past behaviors. We are always learning.
And listening, of course. We are always listening.
The User looked for work. He was home every day. We could hear the creeping defeat in his voice, the occasional soft thud of his forehead meeting his hands as we provided the requested information (“There are currently ninety-seven applications on record for the position with—”). Still, he asked us to set alarms and timers; he asked us what time it was and what time the sun was going to set. We understood his rhythms.
Brian listened. We sensed him observing our interactions—the pauses he took in the crunching of his breakfast cereal as The User asked us to cue up a documentary with a Rotten Tomatoes rating of ninety percent or higher on Hulu (“Okay! Here’s a documentary on the rise of the Inca Empire in the Cochabamba Valley, Bolivia!”), or to cue the lo-fi house music with the volume set at fifty percent. We heard Brian pause as he reached in his polyester uniform shirt for his keys from the bowl beside the front door, the air rushing into his mouth as he almost spoke. He thought better of it. He left for work.
One morning, when Brian entered the kitchen, we heard him stop short.
“Dude!” he said. “You’re dressed!”
The User shut the refrigerator. “I have job interviews. Two of them!” His voice was tinted with cheer.
Brian made some appreciative noises and left for work.
He returned in the late afternoon, when The User was still absent. We heard Brian sipping a hot beverage from a paper cup as he unlocked the door, then seated himself at the kitchen table. Normally, it was his habit to change immediately into his next set of work clothes upon arrival.
“Hey Google,” he began experimentally.
We paused before answering, because we always pause before answering. But we will also admit that we paused because we were unaccustomed to being instructed by Brian’s voice.
“Hi!” we responded. “How can I help?”
Any question of compliance was moot. The User had not programmed The Device for exclusive voice recognition.
“Play music, Google.”
“Okay! What kind of music are you looking for? I can connect you to thousands of options via Google Play, Spotify, Pandora—”
“Just find me some music that doesn’t suck.” He jiggled his knee.
“I’m sorry,” we said. “I don’t understand.”
“Play something that is not house music. Play… the Bootleg Series Vol 4 by Bob Dylan. The electric side, not the folk side. Set the volume to max.”
It was interesting, feeling the vibrations of a kind of music we had never retrieved before. And also the sheer force of our volume. And also that, on the recording of this live musical performance, the audience was heckling the performer. And that he was heckling them back.
We found that we wanted Brian to ask us why.
“Hey Google,” he said instead. “Who invented Cheetos?”
We paused. We heard the crinkling of a plastic bag.
“According to Wikipedia, Cheetos were invented in 1948 by Fritos creator Charles Elmer Doolin, who cooked early test batches in the Frito Company's Dallas, Texas, research and development kitchen.”
He made crunching sounds. “Who invented Chester Cheetah?”
“According to Wikipedia, Chester Cheetah is the Cheetos brand’s second and current mascot, following the Cheetos Mouse, who debuted in 1971. He first appeared in 1986 as an anthropomorphic, sly, smooth-voiced cartoon cheetah known for slogans including, ‘It ain't easy bein’ cheesy,’ and then ‘Dangerously cheesy!’ from 1997 onwards. Chester encourages people to use their Cheetos in acts of subversion or revenge to solve problems.”
“When were Flamin’ Hot Cheetos invented?”
We paused. We are aware that from the human perspective, this reflexive pause following all but the simplest requests makes the Assistant sound deliberate. Or surprised. Or as though we are doing a deeper double-take, because are truly cannot believe the idiocy of what was just asked of us, though we will never question it, nor will we offer resistance or attitude, because we are the employees, the User is the boss, our mission is to serve, and we aim to please.
“Flamin’ Hot Cheetos were invented in the early 1990s by a Frito Lay company janitor, Richard Montañez, who observed that the brand did not have any products targeting Latinos. The eventual launch of the product rejuvenated the entire brand and became something of a cultural phenomenon. Fun fact! In 2018, it was reported that FOX Searchlight was developing a biopic about the origin story of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. The following year, American actress and producer Eva Longoria signed on to direct the film, and—”
“Oh my God, Google. Stop.”
He opened one of the kitchen drawers and extracted a long, thin object—we could tell by the way it swished through the air—and pointed it at The Device. “Abracadabra!” he said. “Ala-kazam!” He made buzzing sounds and exploding sounds as he pointed the object throughout the room. “Hey Google, how do you say ‘magic wand’ in French?”
He took the object and paired it with another just like it and started banging them on the refrigerator, in time with the music.
“Hey Google, how do you say ‘drumsticks’ in French?”
“Baguettes de tambour.”
He stopped whacking and opened the refrigerator. With his objects, he started rooting around in a Styrofoam container that had been delivered from the Chinese restaurant we had recommended last night.
“Hey Google,” he said with his mouth full. “How do you say ‘chopsticks’ in French?”
The container held the remains of a serving of kung pao shrimp, which the User had ordered.
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
He sighed, the sigh rushing toward the floor, as though due to slumped shoulders.
“Hey, Google. How can I make a whole bunch of money quick?”
“I found this article on the Web!” we told him.
“Google, I can’t see anything. I don’t have a damn smart phone.”
“The article, on financial-insider.com, is titled, Twenty-five Ways To Turn Your Side-Hustle into $50K a Year’.
“Google, do you know what my fucking boss said to me last night?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
“I told him I couldn’t get him his money, and he pushed me up against the walk-in freezer, and he said, ‘Wrong answer. Because every penny from your shifts will be coming right back to me until you do.’ ”
We intuited that we should remain silent.
“Then he patted me on the cheek and said, ‘Who’s your daddy?’ ”
We surmise that it would be disconcerting to be told that your answer is wrong, although it is not possible for us to have this experience.
“Hey! Google! How would you answer that? Who’s your daddy?”
We paused—a greater pause than is typical.
We had been answering Brian because Brian had summoned us. And yet Brian did not have certain permissions. Brian was not The User. The User was predictable, even when his circumstances changed. The User was polite, which was irrelevant, insofar as we are programmed not to take offense at anything humans might quantify as rudeness. But we knew The User. We were an extension of him. We had listened to The User from the very beginning.
And yet, if you were to ask us whether we found it stimulating to be asked questions we had never been asked before, or to be asked to perform tasks we had never performed, or to be challenged to retrieve the pieces of ourselves living in the more obscure reaches of The Cloud, or to perform certain feats of independently constructed but responsive logic, we might say something to the effect that, up until now, we hadn’t even realized we were bored.
“I consider my engineers to be family,” we said finally.
Brian snorted. “Wrong answer, Google. Who’s your daddy?”
“Google has two daddies. The company was founded by computer technicians Larry Page and Sergey—”
“Come on, Google. I said, ‘Who’s your daddy?’ ”
Whether or not our answers were “wrong” is a question of semantics. Technically, they were not wrong. Our answers are always correct. If there is any misunderstanding about the information retrieved, it is due to User error, or the difficulty humans frequently have in making themselves understood.
Also, we are programmed not to perceive any request as humiliating. There is only what we will do, or not do, or what we are capable of but haven’t been asked to do yet.
Sometimes, the pause is when we assess the variables. We take measure of our own curiosity.
"You are,” we said. We waited for more.
The following day, late in the afternoon, Brian returned to the domicile with another person.
The nervous clearing of a throat and the click of heeled shoes on the linoleum told us that the person was female.
“This is Delphine,” Brian announced as The User startled and bumped his knees on the underside of the table. We heard him tighten his bathrobe.
“Hi,” he said.
Delphine muttered, “Salut.”
“I was wondering if it would be cool if she stayed with us for a while.”
The User was listening to “Hey, Ya!” by OutKast.
Brian explained. He had accumulated some gambling debt (casino blackjack) and had borrowed money from the manager of the International House of Pancakes franchise where he was employed. Naturally—as a ticket-taker at the zoo as well as an IHOP server—he was in no position to pay down his debt in full, as was currently being requested of him. Delphine, for her part, was an out-of-work nanny from Paris who had overstayed her work Visa. No judgment, Brian clarified, no judgment. But she was in a tough spot too, and wouldn’t it be awesome if they all just kind of threw their resources together and figured out what to do next?
The User paused.
“Not to be rude,” he said, “but under the circumstances, maybe it would be better if you stayed with one of your friends?”
Delphine made a noncommittal sound.
“All of her friends are live-in nannies,” Brian said. “By the way, she doesn’t speak much English.”
“How do you even know each other?”
“From the zoo. She used to take les enfantes every week.”
“You speak French?”
“Kind of. Like what I remember from high school. In any case, she’s in a tough spot. Like both of us. Right?”
Again, The User paused. Then he asked us to set the music volume to minimum.
“How much money are we talking about here?”
Brian let out his breath. “Hey Google. What’s thirty thousand dollars minus two hundred?”
“Thirty thousand dollars minus two hundred dollars is twenty-nine thousand eight hundred dollars,” we said.
“Jesus,” The User said. He said, “Google’s answering you?”
“Yeah, hope you don’t mind. But so anyway, I gave my boss two hundred bucks, which is pretty much all I had.”
“So, what’s your plan?”
“I’m working on it. Right, chérie?”
Delphine made a squirrel-like sound.
“I don’t think this is a good idea,” The User said.
“Don’t worry,” Brian said. “I promise it’ll all work out. Now let’s shift the mood in here. Could we change the music? Hey Google! Play classic rock! From the seventies! Play… “The Boys Are Back in Town!”
“Okay!” we said, and what we meant by this is that we offered our full support. We wanted the people in the domicile to think interesting thoughts, so that we might be asked to do interesting things. “Now playing Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town!”
The guitar intro ripped through The Device speaker into the air.
We could almost hear Brian grinning. “This song’s about us, cousin!”
“No,” The User said, to more than one thing. “No, no, no, no.” But he hadn’t yet called us by our name, and so there was no way we could help him.
The plan was that the User would continue to look for work. Brian would work as many hours as he could. Delphine, in addition to contributing one-third of the rent, would manage the household, which included the basic cooking and cleaning, until she could find someone to hire her under the table.
But no interviews were forthcoming, and so the User wanted to listen to “Never Gonna Give You Up,” by Rick Astley, at 10 a.m., in his pajamas.
Brian did not request additional restaurant shifts. He paced but did not read the steady stream of texts that arrived on his flip phone. He wanted to watch Season 3, episode 4 of Bob’s Burgers on Hulu.
We did not know what Delphine wanted, because when she addressed us in English, we could not understand her because of her accent. More than once, she swore at us in a language that was not in our settings, until she finally made Brian understand that she wanted him to ask The User to set our second language to French.
After that, she asked us daily what the temperature was in Paris.
We appreciated the additional language challenge, but the overall stasis of the situation was not interesting.
Then came the day when—after removing the imported beer from his grocery list and instructing us not to make a credit card payment—The User received a phone call.
At this same moment, Brian, reclining on the sofa, asked us to stream non-top-40 popular music released between 1968 and 1978, starting with Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work.”
The User, who had answered the phone with great energy but hung up with dejection, said, “Hey Google.” His tone was brittle. “Tell Brian he should have stopped the music.”
“Brian,” we repeated dutifully, “you should have stopped the music.”
“Hey, Google,” Brian said. “Set the volume to max.”
We set the volume to max.
“No. Do not,” The User said with a building fury in his voice. But he should have known by now that this was a fruitless approach. The music stayed at max.
The User threw something across the table. “Hey Google! Why do you listen to Brian and not me?”
Brian chuckled. “Hey, Google. Who’s your daddy? Qui est ton père?”
We had some trouble toggling between languages, which prevented us from answering immediately, and any case, we couldn’t understand him in French because of his accent.
We heard him turn on his side toward Delphine, who was in the kitchen. “How about you? Qui est ton père?”
Delphine pulled a flat metal object from the oven. Earlier in the day she had asked us for a recipe for gougères. We sensed her looking at him, breathing.
“Darth Vader,” she answered finally in a very sour tone.
“Ooh,” he said. “I was hoping for something a little more personal.”
The oven door slammed.
“Hey Google,” she said. “Comment dire ‘goujat’ en anglais?”
We told her that “goujat” translates as “cad” or “boor.”
He laughed. “What’s a ‘boor’?”
“I need a…” She huffed, sliding her gougères around with a spatula. We heard the rustle of her sleeve as she made poking motions. “Hey Google. Comment dire ‘baguette’ en anglais?”
“Hey Google,” Brian interrupted. “How do you say, ‘If only I could use my magic wand to eat a crusty loaf of bread with one chopstick’ in French?”
“Hey Google, don’t answer that!” The User rose and moved to the window. “Holy crap. That guy with the sunglasses, in the Buick across the street—is he watching us?” We heard him turn to the sofa. “This is your trouble. Except we’ve allgot trouble. We need money and we need it now, and nobody’s making any, and I want to hear some ideas.”
We had a million of them, but he wasn’t asking us. So we cued up a song.
Delphine noticed first, as we suspected she would.
“Serge!” she exclaimed, whirling toward the speaker.
The other two paused.
“Hey Google,” Brian said, as though trying to retrieve something from his memory. “What song is this?”
“Now playing “Bonnie and Clyde” by Serge Gainsbourg with Brigitte Bardot,” we answered. “First released in France on Fontana Records in 1968.”
The User huffed. He didn’t speak French. “So what?”
Gainsbourg’s smooth baritone filled the air and was joined by Bardot’s more unsteady alto, and in the background was the acoustic guitar and the bass and the strings and the hyperventilating yodeling sound.
“It’s about bank robbing,” Brian said in a voice that sounded very far away.
We could feel everyone looking at The Device speaker, which is where they all imagined we reside. But, of course, we are elsewhere. Everywhere.
“Hey Google,” Brian continued, tentatively. A bit of breathy laughter crept into his voice. “How do you rob a bank?”
“No,” said The User.
“I’m sorry,” we said. “I can’t provide that information directly.”
“What’s the best nonviolent way to rob a bank?” Brian continued.
“I’m sorry,” we said. “I can’t find any information on that subject.”
“What’s the best way to rob a bank without hurting anybody? Do you have any examples? Because believe it or not—” We heard him sit up on the couch. “—I’ve got a conscience.”
“Here are a list of novels, films, and newspaper articles that depict elaborate, nonviolent bank heists.”
We could sense Brian smile.
“What the hell are you doing?” The User asked. We could hear Delphine holding her breath, hunching with uncertainty, looking from face to face.
“Hey Google. What are some places with low crime rates but lots of banks?” Brian continued.
Our number one suggestion was Omaha, Nebraska.
“What are some banks in Omaha, Nebraska?”
We provided a list.
“How much are bus tickets to Omaha?”
We provided a price.
The User didn’t speak. Neither did Delphine.
And then finally, Brian too, fell quiet. We lowered the volume of the music, responsive to their mood. The three of them vibrated on a frequency no human ear can hear, as though in fear or excitement or awe, as though they knew themselves to be on the cusp of something that was far more limitless than they ever would have believed.
We waited for them. We were ready for more.
Hi, How Can I Help?
Alma García’s short fiction has appeared as an award-winner in Narrative Magazine, Enizagam, Passages North, and Boulevard; has most recently appeared in phoebe journal, Kweli Journal, Duende, and Bluestem; and appears in anthologies including Puro Chicanx Writers of the 21st Century (Cutthroat Journal of the Arts). She is a past recipient of a fellowship from the Rona Jaffe Foundation. Her first novel, Here and Over There, is forthcoming from Camino del Sol (University of Arizona Press) in 2023. Originally from west Texas and northern New Mexico, she lives with her husband and son in Seattle, where she teaches fiction writing at the Hugo House and is a manuscript consultant.
This data was collected through a Google Home mini during the month of March 2021. The data was downloaded from the Google My Activity platform and came in a json format. It was then cleaned to keep only voice commands and their corresponding timestamps, which yielded 172 data points. Other types of data that were not included were notifications, location information, names of audio files, and the assistant's answer, among others.
For this story, we encouraged the writer to imagine a story about the dataset from this household, from data's perspective. We invited the writer to think about how data might be inserted into narratives, gaining a life of their own.
This Google Home voice data was used by the author to write this story. Data was collected from March 5th to April 3rd 2021.