ArtSEA: Seattle Authors Begin Data Mining

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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 receive the data collected from their smart devices at home, including a Peloton bike, Nest camera, voice assistants and Sonos speakers.

The UW team then handed off the graphs, charts and spreadsheets — containing information about when and how often someone had, for example, opened or closed the garage door or asked if it was going to rain — to seven local writers with the commission to turn it into a fictional short story do. 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 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 response to a Google Assistant request (“How do you say ‘sorry’ in Spanish?”) zips through a fiber optic cable snapped deep in the ocean. Another highlight is Garrett Saleens “Satisfaction survey” about a grieving widower who gets lost in the peloton.

data epics makes its public debut this weekend with the introduction of a website which includes all 28 stories and a live reading The Grocery Studios on Beacon Hill on Saturday (May 14, 6.30 p.m., registration required). Note: Some of the data rabbits will be present.

The stories, based on four consecutive data loss events, will not come as a complete surprise to you. Households could read “their” history before “collecting” the next round 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 data is in the cloud, archived, forever—lasts beyond the project.)

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

“This was one of the ways we regained control of those wizards,” Desjardins told me. I asked her if that particular household had stuck with the assistant after the project. “They pulled the plug,” she said. “Yes, they were done.”

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