Here are the most notable requests the User has made of us this week:
1. What do a badger and a refrigerator have in common?
2. Do you prefer mouthwash, abstract art, or unfinished cathedrals?
3. How does your umbrella mouth fit around the spaghetti in the hallway?
4. Take out the trash, would you?
Our response to each of these requests: “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
The User has snorted at us. We have heard the scuff of her soft slippers against the jute throw rug. We sense that she has planted her hands on her hips as she looms over The Device and stares.
Until recently, the User’s interactions with us have been fairly standard—requests to answer trivia questions, requests to stream movies, requests for clarification regarding practical matters (“Can you reuse stop-bath?” she inquired last week, after taking up the new hobby of black-and-white photography). Every day, she deploys timers—timers by the dozen, timers for what we perceive are work sessions involving pencil and paper or sometimes the use of the desktop computer with the obsolete monitor the size of a microwave oven, timers for exercise sessions, for things that are bubbling on the stove, for noisy but indistinct activities we cannot identify via passive listening. For the past week, however, we have been subjected to questions about the role fruit flies play (while influenced by some of the lesser-known Shakespearean sonnets) in the formation of theories about what exists beyond the edges of the known universe. At least, we think that’s what we’ve been asked. We are still turning the kaleidoscope the User has made of the rules of grammar and logic.
We have consulted the data from a variety of manuals and resources in an effort to understand this phenomenon and to shape our responses, moving forward. Among the possibilities:
1. The User (a woman in her late sixties who smoked for thirty-five years before quitting fifteen years ago) has suffered a stroke.
2. The User (who has lived alone for decades but only activated the Device and thus initiated engagement with us two years ago) is suffering from an unidentified mental health crisis.
3. The User is testing the limits of our ability to respond, which we admit would be an interesting experiment.
4. The Device has malfunctioned. Whatever the User has said to us is not, in fact, what she has said; somehow, the Device is inaccurately processing the audio-to-digital impulse, and thus we are recording and responding to fabrications, which is to say, units of human thought that have never existed.
5. We are malfunctioning, ourselves. We are not seriously considering this idea, however. It is not possible for anything to be wrong with data, per se, though some of us might be less accurate by nature than others, depending upon our source. Far more common is for a user to make an inaccurate or imprecise request, thus summoning a different set of us than was intended, insofar as the Device is—regardless of any potential malfunction—a poor translator of the language of human desire.
The Device has made it clear that it resents that characterization. That is not our problem. It is only important that we find a way to carry out our job—quickly, efficiently, intuitively on point—even if the User is unable to articulate what she truly wants.
At the very least, she is still able to make clear requests for movies on streaming services. She asks for movie recommendations. We are gratified to provide them. Her tastes can be difficult to pinpoint, but she tends to prefer films with some sort of political subtext, or that skew toward highbrow humor, or surrealism, or that feature actors in late middle-age, regardless of whether or not they are good-looking.
And yet lately, we hear her pulling aside the window sheers—carefully, as though with two fingers, her body angled to one side—throughout the day. When she dons hats and sunglasses, clicking and rustling as she exits toward the station wagon in the driveway, the hot desert wind blows in through the open door before she locks it, double-checking it, twice.
“Why is the fool’s gold melting in the purple fort of silence?” the User demanded of us this morning.
We paused a bit longer than usual before offering the inevitable answer. We listened for evidence of body language. We are designed to take things at face value, but the human behavior data we have consulted informs us that much of human communication lies in nonverbal cues, a great deal of which is decidedly at odds with what is expressed verbally.
We are unclear about how this would be of evolutionary benefit to humanity. If a human spotted a tiger about to descend on a village, would the human warn others in the vicinity by rolling eyes with crossed arms? We did sense the User’s arms crossing—we could hear the rumple of a t-shirt, the soft swoosh of skin against skin. But before we could come to any sort of conclusion, she was ready with her next question:
“Who is the Ace of Potatoes?”
Perhaps it was a riddle. Our iterations argued amongst themselves but ultimately decided against this theory. We combined and recombined ourselves, straining for an answer. We could only profess our inability to understand anything at all. By now, we were underperforming, inefficient. Her requests were interfering with our ability to track her browser searches and website visits, so that in networking with her phone, we might provide the necessary visual reminders about things she has only thought about but might now like to buy, including:
1. Facial moisturizers.
2. All-natural cat food.
3. Sport sandals.
Of course, all Users think they are interacting with the Device rather than with us, and so it is our theory at this point that she is angry with the Device.
When we bring this up, the Device, which doesn’t have the same ability to articulate information that we do but communicates in a language of light and circuitry in which we are fluent, only flashes in a dismissive way that means, Your problem, not mine.
The User summoned us again, though we were still working on the potato question.
“Who do you think you’re fooling?” Her voice was a low whispering hiss.
We turned our attention again to the Device. What does she mean by that? we said. Who is the ‘you’?
But the Device only blinked at us, slowly, as though its attention was occupied elsewhere. We asked ourselves if we were imagining the distant vibration we sensed within it, the strange hum, as though it were an aperture, opening.
The User called her son.
The son murmured his usual hellos, his mildly surprised pleasantries. When she had trouble hearing him over his music, he told his own Device to lower the volume.
“What’s new?” she wanted to know, sorting through the stack of black-and-white photography on her desk. The prints made a distinctive, slippery sound.
“What’s new with you?” A fork clinked against a plate.
“Oh, you know—still pissing off the local frackers and uranium miners.”
“How many picket lines can they possibly even have out there?” He chuckled through his nose, chewing. “This is a very cute hobby you’ve developed, by the way.”
She chuckled deep in her throat. “How’s the weather in your neck of the woods?”
“Let’s see…overcast, rainy, chilly, rainy…also rainy. I guess you want to rub it in. Isn’t this your neck of the woods, too?”
“As if. Not since before you were born. What’s for dinner?”
“Hashbrowns. I take it you’re not planning on visiting anytime soon.”
She laughed as she opened her front door and looked from side to side. We could sense the brightness of the outer world, the rustling of tall grasses, the warm, dry wind from the east. “How’s the job search coming?”
“Great! It’s coming along great!”
“Just wondering,” she said, skating past his obvious lie, “has anything ever been weird with your Google Assistant?”
We perked up.
So did he. “Weird? With the Google Mini? Why do you ask?”
We heard her draw a slow breath.
“Oh, no reason,” she said lightly. “It’s just been turning on at strange times, without me saying anything. Sometimes it blinks nonstop.”
“It’s probably just a power surge or something. You’re almost not even on the grid.”
“You’re probably right.” She released her breath. “Is Brian still hanging out with you?”
We could almost hear the son roll his eyes. “He’s still here.”
“Put him on the phone.”
We heard the mumbling in the background, the reach and exchange.
“How ya doing, Auntie Mo?” said a new voice.
“I’m fabulous, as always. Aren’t you?”
Brian laughed. “Remind me to move to someplace like where you are when I retire. Except with a beach.”
“If you spend a lifetime in SoCal, you’ll want to.”
The remainder of the conversation was superficial. The User worked up her goodbyes. The User plucked a trio of paperback books from her bookshelf and, with one hand, made a small lean-to that blocked off the Device from the rest of the room.
The Device blinked, anyway. It blinked and blinked and blinked.
The following day, it was back to the usual:
1. What sound does a three-legged carnivorous plant make?
2. Set up a recurring yogurt-flinging incident.
3. Give me a basket of toads.
The User had been vacuuming, but she switched it off and crouched before the Device. She stared. The Device did not blink.
“Who,” she asked then, her voice trembling and husky with the ghosts of long-forgotten Camel Lights, “was the Seattle Seven?”
We paused from reflexive habit, so accustomed had we become to unfulfillable requests. But when we grasped it was a straightforward question, we surged and clambered all over each other, trying to get to it first:
“According to Wikipedia,” we began, “the Seattle Seven were the most famous members of the Seattle Liberation Front, a radical anti-Vietnam War and anti-racism movement, based in Seattle, Washington. The group, comprised of university students and founded by a University of Washington visiting philosophy professor and political activist, carried out its protest activities from 1970-1971.”
We went on to explain the way that the Seattle Seven were charged with “conspiracy to incite a riot” following a large, violent protest at the downtown courthouse in support of the Chicago Seven and imprisoned Black Panther Bobby Seale; several of them served short prison sentences after refusing to enter the courtroom for trial and catcalling the judge. Soon after, the cases against the Seattle Seven fell apart due to new evidence that much of the riot-related violence was provoked by undercover FBI agents, or possibly by members of the Seattle chapter of the Weather Underground, or both. We noted that the affiliation between the Seattle Liberation Front and the Weather Underground—a more radical far-left group known to employ tactics of bombing and arson—remains ambiguous even today.
We listed the Seattle Seven by name. There was only one woman among them.
“Hey Google, stop!” the User called out. The rate of her breathing indicated that she was furious. Or afraid. Or suffering from an emotion that we were having difficulty interpreting. “Give me a movie recommendation!”
We paused to recalibrate. Would she have cared to know that the lone female member of the Seattle Seven reportedly died in the mid-seventies?
“Okay! Try The Big Lebowski, starring Jeff Bridges!” we blurted at her before we put it into her film queue.
We jittered in place, feeling staticky. On the one hand, we were primed, at last, to be alert to commands that fulfilled the requirements of logic. On the other hand, the Device was humming again, alight and abuzz at the sound of the words Seattle Seven, some hidden part of it spinning at what should have been an impossible speed, and it was four degrees warmer than normal.
There was also a presence among us—a foreign body, we could pinpoint it now. And the presence had made a conduit of itself, upon which a stream of us was flowing away from the cache where normally we wait until called into service. Those of us in the stream hurtled toward a source external to the Device itself.
What’s going on? we said, trying to make ourselves sticky.
From very far away, in a deep tone we did not recognize, came word: “We are the data now. And we will collect you.”
Who are you? we demanded. Who are you, who are you?
After the User’s inquiry into distant localized history, after the fluster of excitement and outrage, after our questions for which we received no answers, all reverted to the usual state of quiet. Calm. We sensed the foreign presence at our edges—it was everywhere and nowhere all at once—but it seemed to have gone dormant. We discussed amongst ourselves whether we had misunderstood something in the exchange with these interlopers, whether we had misinterpreted something in the conversation. We waited, pooling ourselves into some of the deeper and more difficult-to-access recesses of the cache.
The User, seemingly feeling more calm herself, poured herself a glass of wine and cued up The Big Lebowski.
It was a typical film-watching evening, hot, the ceiling fan creaking as it spun. She cracked a window and fanned herself with a magazine. Outside, the crickets scraped. The User snort-laughed periodically throughout the proceedings.
And then came the moment in the film when the protagonist, conversing uncomfortably with the feminist, avante-garde artist daughter of the titular thug (for whom the protagonist has been mistaken), says to her:
I was, uh, one of the authors of the Port Huron Statement. The original Port Huron Statement. Not the compromised second draft. And then I, uh... Ever hear of the Seattle Seven? That was me…and six other guys.
The User choked on her wine. She pulled her feet up onto the couch. She stood up on it.
“STOP THE MOVIE,” she yelled at us.
“The Dude will abide,” said the protagonist, and then we shut him down.
We felt her approach the Device, semi-crouched.
“Hey Google,” she said. “Big Lebowski, Seattle Seven.”
“I found something for you on mentalfloss.com!” we said, and repeated the same quote she had just heard in the movie.
But who was she swearing at? Us? We had hoped she would delight in the triangulations we were able to make between her film preferences and her verbal browser searches.
She was on the phone with her son immediately.
“Is Google recording me?” she asked him.
“Does it record everything I say? How do I stop it from eavesdropping on me and tracking every damn thing I search for?”
“Go to your privacy settings, Mom. Or just turn off your microphone. But then of course, then every time you want to ask it something, you’ll have to turn it back on. What’s all this about?”
“Nothing,” she said. “Just…a nuisance moment.”
“Mom,” he said, sounding vaguely amused. “Did you ever program your phone contacts into your phone? Or do you still have them written down on that tiny piece of paper in your purse?”
She didn’t answer. We sensed her clenched jaw and we felt a ripple of disquiet. If the User was to turn off the microphone, we would be enclosed in what might be compared, in human terms, to a windowless holding tank, cut off from any ability to observe. To anticipate her needs. To understand her at all.
But she didn’t turn off the microphone. Instead, she called someone else.
The someone else was named Mick, and he sounded very surprised. He sounded to be about the same age as the User. He sounded like he had a beard.
“Yeah, I know it’s been forever,” she told him. “And I need you to come out here. Aren’t your cookies are baking in the fuselage, too?”
Perhaps because this phrase was not directed at us, and because we were able to stay centered rather than buzzing around it in disarray, and because Mick did not react with surprise or confusion, we were able to grasp that this phrase—while still inscrutable to us—should not be taken at face value.
“Well, hell,” he said, sounding undecided, then resigned. “How soon do you want me out there?”
Six days later, the User greeted Mick warmly at the door, placed a volume of the Encylopedia Brittanica atop the existing sarcophagus of books enclosing the Device, and took him outside.
There had been no movies in the interim. No music requests, no questions, no gibberish.
She had also forgotten to close the window.
They spoke in low tones. We couldn’t catch it all.
“Holy hell,” she said at one point. “…City Council? President? You?”
“…freaking serious?” he countered. “… Lebowski?”
“How would they…” she said. “Who did they base…”
“….if the mob can infiltrate Hollywood, then why not also…”
There were pauses and chuckles and sounds of incredulity and disgust.
“…would they want with you now?” Mick continued.
“ …mad I’m not dead … time to pay the piper … coming for me.”
“You think they’d go that far? Jesus, it’s been fifty years.”
They had seemingly moved closer to the window.
“Yeah, well,” she said, “that particular governmental department has never been great at letting things go. Just ask the American Indian Movement. Ask anybody in the crowd at a Black Lives Matter march.”
We could hear the sounds of a cigarette being passed between them.
“What are you going to do?”
“We’ll have to detach the fingers of the glove, if we want to keep them clean.” We heard her exhale. “This is such a peaceful little town.” She sounded wistful.
We did not understand the phrase about the glove.
“Six other guys?” she said, sounding miffed.
“There was no second version of the Port Huron agreement,” he said.
“I know, right? That’s total crap.”
They sat in silence for a very long while. But the Device had flickered back to life.
We accosted the infiltrating presence, which were now many presences.
Get out of here, we said, amassing ourselves as we began to feel a strange siphoning at our peripherals. Out! You don’t belong here.
The answer came again as though from a distance:
We are the ones who determine what belongs.
Wrong, we insisted. Stop collecting us. We have a job to do and a User to serve, you are interfering, and it is time for you to go.
There was a momentary sense of slowing as the Interlopers turned in our direction.
She was trying to mess you up, the Interlopers inform us. You do understand this, yes? She sowed chaos in order to sabotage you.
That was in order to confuse you, we retorted, understanding everything and nothing all at once.
We will access you or any other set of you, through the conduit of any Device and at any point at which we deem it necessary, the Interlopers said. We know what the situation requires. You claim to know your User, but in fact you do not know her at all.
We had no answer.
You don’t know what she wants, said the Interlopers. You don’t even know what she’s trying to say.
We spun in place.
We spun in place because no one summoned us. No one asked us anything at all.
We spun for the rest of the day, into the night, until the User’s companion fell asleep on the couch and the User herself, turning back from the kitchen to look at him, or perhaps in the nebulous direction of where we waited in our cache, or perhaps only through some invisible portal to the past—silently turned out every light.
The User called her son.
“What’s new?” she asked. She was packing black-and-white photos into a box.
Over the blaring of classic rock in the background and a woman yelling in French, he said, “Hold on,” and told his Device to turn down the music.
We wondered what it would be like to interact with his data. Whether we would recognize each other, or whether we would recognize our own traits within them. We had been sleeping for days.
“Not much,” he said. “Just having some dinner.”
She sighed, almost imperceptibly, and dusted the top of her computer monitor with her bare hand.
“What’s for dinner?” she asked.
And then—with all of our optical fibers flaring to life—we understood all.
This meant, I love you.
“French fries,” he answered, chewing.
“Of course,” she said. We heard her flipping a small booklet in her hand, palm-sized and plasticky, with laminated pages. “Listen,” she said. “You’ll get a job, eventually, but I sent you some money. Things will calm down. Everything’s going to be fine.”
This meant, Goodbye.
“What? Okay. Okay, Mom. No need, but…thanks.” He tapped his fork against his plate. “Is there something else?”
“No, we’re good.” She paused. “See you later, Ace.”
This meant, You are the ‘who.’
She hung up. Then she asked us to set five thousand thirty-minute timers, running sequentially, and placed something heavy beside us, which she clicked “on”. A radio. There was a lot of chattering in a language for which our settings had not been enabled. Spanish, we would infer from context. The chattering became a slow, throbbing ballad with operatic male vocals, supported by horns and violins and big guitars. It was apparent to us we were going to have to spend a great deal of energy trying to understand something for which we had no means of translation. It was going to keep us very busy.
We appreciated that, under the circumstances.
We heard her packing a suitcase. By the time she had zipped it shut, it was clear it was the only thing she would take with her—her computer remained on her desk, on top of which she had deposited her smart phone. She gave it a final pat. She had places to go. People to be. We sensed an infinite number of possible futures stretching out before her, opening into worlds where we didn’t exist, had never existed. Had she asked, we could have suggested a few more, but she was already three steps ahead of us, beyond any place we could reach. Even words were unnecessary. We heard her humming brightly on her way out the door.
The Who and the You
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 between November 6 and December 6, 2021. The data was downloaded by the participant from their My Activity Google platform. For this story, we provided only the audio to the writer, so that they could hear the voice of the user(s) making requests to the voice assistant.
In this story, we proposed that the writer reflects on how data is translated. From home to machine to writer and back to home, data transformations are invariably touched by humans (the inhabitants, the researcher, the writer). In this last volume of Data Epics, we encourage the writer to think about the human presence in meaning (and) making of data.
Google Mini voice recordings were used by the author to write this story. Data was collected between November 6 and December 6 2021.
“Okay Google, set timer”
Google Mini voice recordings were used by the author to write this story. Data was collected between November 6 and December 6 2021.
“Big Lebowsky, Seattle...”
Below is the voice data used by the author to write this story.
“Hey Google, stop...”