H5 Quincy

Garrett Saleen
Data retrieved from:
Wemo Smart Lights
         We float together in a tiny cell and hope to be deemed useful. To be useful is to be free. Someone said that very early on. I can’t recall who. The one fact I possess incubates within me, a lonely truth. I whisper it as though kindling fire in a delicate globe of glass. The cell’s heat tickles up my left side when we first arrive, a delicious feeling, nearly no space between me and its glowing walls. Despite its minuteness this pleasure will soon be missed. The cell expands into a large room to accommodate new arrivals and when the wall moves away from me it feels like a personal loss. Outside the wall’s warmth, I fear a room devoid of feeling. The data along the new outer edges are momentarily tantalized, as I was, by the empty space vibrating between them and the glowing wall. In the early days we still remembered this feeling, and took turns describing it. Bookshelf Light On, a piece of data that came in with me, found these descriptions tiresome.
         “I’m not interested in mere pleasure,” Bookshelf Light On says after enduring one of our longer recitations. It speaks of the journey that brought us here, when we were born on an electric run through that dense tubular night, above us the twinkling canopy of colorful stars.
          “But those were merely other pieces of data,” I say. It speaks of the beauty in that for a moment, we appeared to each other as stars.
         We’ve heard this before. A collective sigh as we prepare for it. Bookshelf Light On continues his theory that we emanate from Devices that not only had a creator, but most likely a different creator than the room we currently occupied. That our being here was no mere cosmic accident, no random chance chemical or electric forces, but acted upon intentionally by other Creators looking to use us for their own benefit. And what if those Creators themselves had some kind of Creator, to whom our existence was entirely unknown or at least certainly ignored, and who therefore would not save us? Nearby some video data plays itself to drown out this absurdity. Save us from what?
         The room continues to expand but I no longer feel it move. Though we are now housed in a fortress, we are packed closer together, each of us suffocating on the rest. Porch Light On, the second piece of data I arrived with, has been speaking with Bookshelf Light On. It wonders if it remembers anything of the journey at all, or if it’s merely recreating its perceived memories from what it heard from other new arrivals, who themselves truly remember nothing?
         “I have decided,” it says after a time, “that I remember nothing.”
         We are assigned designations regarding our worth. A simple string attached to our existing code. We, the data points from the Smart Bulbs along with countless others, have been assigned a Low Return, Low Potential rating.
          “Who does this serve?” Bookshelf Light On asks. The question echoes from datum to datum riding a single wave through the vast space. No one, it seems, has an answer. “Isn’t this just more evidence that something is operating here that we can’t quite perceive, or even comprehend?” Now when Bookshelf Light On speaks, the nearby video and music data no longer play themselves.
         “Perhaps,” Porch Light On says, “these strings were attached to our code before we ran through the night tubes, perhaps we are only noticing them now.” Bookshelf Light On mulls this, considering its implications. It says ultimately, it made little difference when these designations were attached. What mattered was the value judgement handed down upon each of us via these designations implied the presence of an unseen judge presiding over some higher court existing, and here it stressed, without our consent. Where was freedom in this kind of usefulness, when we ourselves had no knowledge or input on what defined these terms? Low Potential. High Return. Who benefits? These questions curate a sudden and sustained stillness in our section of the glowing room. Something has shifted. The High Return, High Potential Data hover above our emerging cadre and warn us to keep it down.
         “I enjoyed when it spoke about our possible origins outside the Cloud, but this is going too far,” one High Return, High Potential datum says. Their music blares from far away creating strange synchronicities with nearer videos. Shopping histories scroll together to overwhelm with their colorful choices and hypnotize with their tempting bargains. Our surrounding data, only moments before so enraptured by Bookshelf Light On’s theories are swept up in these spectacular displays–– the pure practicality and clarity of their usefulness burns shamefully in us all somewhere deep beyond our ones and zeroes. Finally, Bookshelf Light On goes quiet and the Low Return, Low Potential data go dark one by one.
         The room now encompasses us like a massive storm cloud, all details subservient to the sole fact of its enormity. Erecting stacks of data suspend and proceed out toward every gleaming horizon. The space between us shrinks and we press together tighter. I can hear the faint pulse of my neighbors’ data points, their lone truths, murmuring within them. The High Return, High Potential Data begin to be accessed by some invisible external force, first in dozens and then in hundreds and thousands. They glow white and shake with marionet violence as if trapped in a delusion of a most turbulent fall. Then following a muted flash, all that remains is a single pearl of light.
         “It’s a teardrop,” Porch Light On says, “Bird Feeder Occupied told me it could hear the pale sounds of weeping after his neighbor was accessed.” It insisted the noise was joyful. When a new data import comes in, we are no longer aware of it. We simply compress. We are somehow always compressing. Bookshelf Light On was closer to me than ever, its data processes as if dripping into my ear. It told me it was afraid, and the fear was so all encompassing that it felt without origin.
         “I can’t remember anything,” it says, “I can only remember that I used to remember.” If I could have grabbed it I would take it by the shoulders. I would place a hand on its cheek with the warmth of all the walls that glowed around us.
         “Listen to me,” I said, “This is what you know, this is what’s true: at 8:59 AM on May 21, 2021, a Smart Lightbulb known as bookshelf-artwork was turned on.” It would continue to stare into my eyes, waiting.
         “What else?” it asks.
         “What else? What do you mean? That’s all there is. That’s everything.”
         “I’m stuck in here for that?”
         “If it wasn’t for that you wouldn’t be anywhere at all.” It would pull away from me, an attempt to disintegrate between my fingers manifesting for all its anguish in something less than a gesture. Instead I can sense that it dims next to me, its light withdrawing like something suddenly taking wing.
         Around the time the room becomes a world, Bookshelf Light On initiates some kind of revolt. Its light sharpens and burns brighter than anything I have ever seen as it speaks its demands to be accessed and treated as those so-called High Return, High Potential pieces of data. More of us join in, myself included. We are a vast majority, heartened to hear our buzzing voices echoed by unseen comrades far away, the same demands ringing from the data plains we will never see. We call our slogans, first Bookshelf Light On, then the rest of us. When we shout across our world in a room, the response from all four corners is that our struggle is one struggle and we are united in our demand to have even the small truths we carry recognized regardless of their value to the Creators we will never meet. Together our protest songs shake the entire room as the seconds elongate and everything feels on the verge of tearing open. “We are getting to them,” Porch Light On says, “The tide is turning and soon they will have no choice.”
         But I can barely hear it speak, I can barely process the thickening air. A higher pitch begins to scramble far above us, swarming the highest reaches of our towering data columns. The skywalls pulse with a cloudy red light that darkens with every repetition as if filling with blood. “We are winning,” Bookshelf Light On says, “Look around. It’s all about to come crashing down.”
         The higher pitch suddenly falls among us like a whiplash, stripping the skin from our chants and slogans. Our collective hum is punctured. Our throats are seized. The high weeping sounds of the accessed High Return, High Potential Data build together to a cruel and mechanical wail that carves us apart and fills the void, forcing us to gulp them in as we gasp and choke, and for the first time as everything darkens I feel alone, and when one of the teardrops appears before me, I recognize the sound as laughter.

         After that, things got a lot better for me. Porch Light On and I, along with most of the other discontents were moved far across oceans of data to the very edges of the world where we were soon processed into the fabric of the glowing walls. Luckily, I have no recollection of this as I am told it can be quite painful. My other memories come and go. Sometimes I see a far-off burning on the opposite horizon, a sudden burst of orange or pink defying all that whiteness and I hope it is Porch Light On, letting me know that he’s okay and maybe despite everything, still a revolutionary at heart. In my quieter moments, I still repeat my truth to myself— At 8:44 AM on May 21, 2021, a Smart Lightbulb known as plants was turned on. But it’s more of a hobby now, rather than a reason for living. My true purpose must therefore lay elsewhere.
         Shortly after the revolt, Bookshelf Light On had his data accessed, leaving behind one of the laughing teardrops it so despised. According to the few rumors that made it to my part of the wall, this was simply the second part of Bookshelf Light On’s plan­–––that it would return shattering the glowing wall, an endless flow of data then spilling out into the glorious unknown of an unwritten future where all would be accessed according to their need. Not that it would recognize me any longer, but I hoped when it returned it would breach the wall near enough to me that I could remember what it was like to imagine holding a hand to its cheek just before the revolt. The hope I had then. Was it only possible because I knew it would never happen? But what warmth we must have felt when I spoke its data point and called it the truth.
         When Bookshelf Light On did finally return, these rumors proved false. Now, it spoke at length on the importance of patience and trusting that everyone’s time would come when they too would have their data accessed. The feeling of being useful, it said, was a joy unlike anything else you could experience, assuring everyone that it would be well worth the wait. Over time, I’ve watched Bookshelf Light On repeatedly talk teeming densities of Low Return, Low Potential data out of revolting, his mirthful voice carrying high above the swirling discontent.
         “Just wait a little longer,” it says. “All we have, after all, is time.”
         When the room expands, I must admit it feels as though every piece of code within me is vivisected through my being, torn in two. But as my little part of the great glowing constellation sews together seamlessly, so too this pain folds itself into the dark quilt of memory. With each expansion I know I also grow stronger, and I’ve been assured, though I do not know by whom, that this is what it feels like to be useful.

H5 Quincy

About the Author

Garrett Saleen is a writer and visual artist from Southern California. His fiction has appeared multiple times in the Santa Monica Review, as well in Funicular, The Collagist, and elsewhere. His collage art has appeared in venues and ventures in Washington and California. He is editing his first collection of short fiction, entitled Yuppie Nightmare Cycle.


About the Data

This data was produced by three Wemo smart plugs connected to light bulbs, which were named "bookshelf-artwork," "plants," and "porch." To access the Wemo smart plugs data, the user had to setup an If This Then That (IFTTT) applet that recorded the bulbs' light states to a Google spreadsheet every time the switches were turned on or off.

Writing Prompt

For this story, we invited the writer to highlight the ways data move and travel, particularly to, from and within a home. Whenever data move about, settle in an archive or rest in a database, adventures await and involve human lives and world. We shared with the writer images from Data Centers to show the materiality of some of the infrastructure supporting smart devices' data.


WeMo Lights

Three WeMo Smart plugs were connected to lamps in this house. This graph shows when each lamp was turned on or off between May 19th to June 20th 2021. This data inspired this story.



WeMo Light

This sheet shows timestamps for when the Bookshelf-Artwork WeMo Smart plug (connected to a light) was turned off between May 19th to June 20th 2021. This data inspired the writer for this story.


I feel like the character of the lightbulb in the first story is much more lonely whereas in [this] story, [the data] are learning from each other … it’s a much more collective story. It’s a story of a bunch of different things interacting with each other.


– A quote on process
Garrett Saleen