ArtSEA: Seattle writers take up data mining

In collaboration with a group of students, Audrey Desjardins, assistant professor of interaction design at the University of Washingtonasked seven Seattle-area households for permission to obtain the data collected by their in-home smart devices, including a Peloton bike, Nest camera, voice assistants and Sonos speakers.

The UW team then handed over the graphs, plots and spreadsheets – containing info on when and how many times someone had, say, opened or closed the garage door, or asked if it was going to rain – to seven local writers, with the mandate to turn it into a fictional short story. The goal: “making people curious and inviting them to see the data differently,” Desjardins told me.

The resulting 28 stories are surprisingly less dystopian – and more moving – than I had expected, even if many are written from the first-person perspective of the data or smart device. My favorite in this genre is “Severance,” by Alma García, in which the answer to a Google Assistant query (“How do you say ‘sorry’ in Spanish?”) rushes through a fiber-optic cable as it ruptures deep in the ocean. Another highlight is Garrett Saleen’s “Satisfaction Survey,” about a grieving widower who loses himself 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 at The Grocery Studios on Beacon Hill on Saturday (May 14, 6:30 pm, reservations encouraged). Of note: some of the data guinea pigs will be in attendance.

The stories, based on four consecutive data drops, will not be a total surprise to them. The households were able to read “their” story before “collecting” the next round of data. “They had a lot of time to think about: ‘How does our behavior change the story?’ ”Desjardins said. (She hopes this impact – the realization that data is in the cloud, archived, forever – lasts beyond the project.)

Desjardins also told me the story of one participating household consisting of three roommates. Skeptical, but drawn in by the creative potential of the project, they purchased a Google Assistant and started having fun, messing with the machine by asking it questions like: “How do you rob a bank?” and “Who’s your daddy?” (In the resulting story, which I highly recommend, the Google Assistant replies: “Google has two daddies. The company was founded by computer technicians Larry Page and Sergey—” before being interrupted by an irritated human.)

“This was one of the ways to kind of regain control over these assistants,” Desjardins told me. I asked her whether this particular household had held on to the assistant after the project. “They unplugged it,” she said. “Yeah, they were done.”

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