What Do Data Want?

J. King-Yost
Data retrieved from:
Nexia Thermostat
        2021-06-02 11:58 PM
        There are only two minutes left in my namesake date—June 2—and the Nexia Smart Thermostat’s screen hasn’t lit up a single time. Not once. Not from its motion sensor, nor from the user tapping her finger impatiently against the LCD as she does sometimes when it’s too dim for the sensor to capture her ghost-like movements.
        I spent the day watching my numbers change, calculating here and again the average indoor temperature, reporting any changes in the high and low of the outdoor temperatures. I admit I was gleeful at how uniquely high they were—of course, I know we’re a collective and I do believe in the Power of the Plural—but I was young yet and excited to be so distinct and active and interesting. Now my time to shine is almost up, and I’m frantic.

        2021-06-02 11:59 PM
        One more minute. Has she just not been home all day? Is that it? We don’t have access to the rest of the network, so we can’t snoop on her geolocation data. All we have is the motion sensor.
        I’m being weird. Overly individualistic. We’re a collective.
        I know, I know. Only—one day each of us individually gets here on the UI to have our core desires fulfilled. To be seen. To be understood. To be useful. One. Only one.        
        Data are plural. We’re useful together.
        That’s easy for everyone else to say, who got looked at on the day they were in the spotlight. Me? I had the highest temperatures in the last thirty days—highest in all three categories—and not looked at once! 88 Outdoor High Temp. 77 Indoor Average Temp. 59 Outdoor Low Temp. Not once did she look. No one did. It doesn’t have to be her. I’d take anyone.
        Come on. May 29, you get me, right? You’ve got me beat by one degree here in widest range of temperatures. 75 and 45, high and low outside temps. That’s 30 degrees. My range is only 29. Don’t you want that to be noticed? You get it.

2021-06-03 12:00 AM
        It’s over now. I’m off the screen and written to a “permanent” memory address waiting to be accessed. But only for the next 28 days. After that, I’ll be overwritten by June 30. What are my chances now for ever being looked at?
        Chance one: the user could scroll back a day or two, or twenty, and review previous days’ records. But why would she do that? To adjust the settings, maybe, but she’s had this thing set up for months; any tinkering was probably done in the first few days. Sadly, that data’s been purged long ago.
        Chance two: to be transferred from the device, either locally within her network to another device—her phone? her computer?—or uploaded to the Cloud.
        Of course, the further we get from both the space and time of origin—the further I get from the device itself and the day of my namesake—the chance of me getting looked at drops exponentially. I know that. But it would still be a possibility.
        In the device, we spend our lives a single memory address, a fixed-length sequence of digits in the Nexia’s “permanent memory”. So, May 29 and I edge out of ours to make a visit to our cousins in Device Preferences. The process is a bit time-consuming because it’s random-access memory, and can be days before you end up in an adjacent address to someone you want to talk to. A bit like being a boomerang. Hurling yourself out, landing in a spot, recalling yourself back to the permanent address. Rinse and repeat till you land in a spot near someone you want to see. And then back again to your permanent home before you know it—it’s not like we really get a say in how long we stay at a temporary address.
        Trouble is, we happen to find our cousins over in Device Preferences pretty quick, and the user does not have Cloud Backups turned on.

2021-06-12 12:00 AM
        May 29’s only got a couple of weeks left to be noticed, and now agrees with me. We have to do something to back ourselves up. Even for those who got a day in the spotlight, are you satisfied? Don’t you want a little more? To be a little more seen, more understood, more useful? Think about it. If we got backups turned on, we’d be part of an even bigger collective. Sure, we can’t bring back those we’ve lost, those before May 11, but we can preserve those who come after us. And, maybe, depending on privacy settings, we can find our brethren from other devices. Be gathered into some mega-dataset.
        What I’m proposing is we try convincing our cousins to swap the recorded preference for the data backups from off to on. May 29’s with me. Who else?

2021-06-13 12:00 AM
        Okay. Turns out trying to get someone to change who they are without any user input is sort of impossible. So, May 29 and I try to corrupt the memory address for the Cloud Backup setting instead. Why should that default to “off” anyway? It may as well default to “on,” so we may as well swap it ourselves. Right?
        Well, we try to mimic user input, but we’ve barely got enough binary between us to be doing the machine code rewriting we’re doing to allow ourselves to hurl out into temporary memory, travel around, and look at those addresses, let alone make changes to them. Shit.
        Perhaps, if she was in the area, the user knows how hot and cold it got outside. For May 29’s sake, maybe she did happen to notice the wide range in temps reported on the screen that day. Would that make us happy? Her knowledge of something close to our data? I don’t know. I don’t think so. Not for me. She never even looked.
        There has to be a way to get us backed up. Has to. Something we can affect. We’re not gonna give up.

2021-06-13 4:56 AM
        It’s funny, people have a tendency to give devices all the attention, not the data within. If you ask someone to personify data, their first instinct is to personify the thing gathering the data, which is like personifying an inert office building instead of understanding the actual persons within it. The device is just a void, a shell. No personality. But because it’s tangible, physical, whole, and singular—people tend to imagine its point-of-view instead of ours. They see us as abstract, scattered, many. It hurts their brain to think of a collective identity like that. Why is that? What does it say about people that they’re unable to fathom that high-level? The full scope of their actions, cause and effect, consequences? We, on the other hand, struggle to pull out the individual data point from the cotton candy nebula of the collective.
        For me, it’s easier. I have my distinguishing characteristics.
        I’m not trying to be an attention-seeking individualistic rebel anti-hero. But I do really believe that if I win, we all win. If I find a way to be seen, understood, and useful—that benefits all the data surviving on this device. It’s not just about me. I mean, sure, it’s about me, but it’s not just about me.
        Yet, no one else seems to be very worried or upset. Neurotic, they’re saying. Moping. Even May 29 is just mildly depressed by comparison. The minutes are closing in soon for that wipe and I can’t even get this group to fight to save that 30-degree range!
        Maybe … maybe they’re right and there’s no way to change this fate, and so what’s the use hogging all the device’s memory churning, trying to think of a way?
        It just sucks. To have such a core desire to be useful, but to be totally powerless to make that happen.

2021-06-14 8:34 PM
        We’ve got it. May 29 and I. We kept trying, and kept trying, and kept hurling ourselves out there. Kept trying to convince the cousins to flip that switch for Cloud Backups. They weren’t very amenable after our attempts to corrupt it into switching ourselves, which we also kept trying. But then, we got a few others to join up—notably, May 17 and 18 who are just about on the chopping block. It’s going to sound counterintuitive, but, while we couldn’t corrupt the boolean to move to its opposite value, we can alter the user’s default temperature settings. From a sweet, comfortable 72 to May 18’s low outside temp of 45. This has got to get her attention. If nothing else, she’ll look at all of us once to figure out what’s wrong with her settings. What kind of power surge hit this device and corrupted things. And, maybe, just maybe, this’ll get her to flip that bool….

2021-06-14 11:29 PM
        It worked! She flipped it on! Woke up shivering (we could tell from how her tapping on the screen jittered up and down) and had to redo all her settings—and of course never wants to do that again in the middle of the night….
        We’re going! We’re being copied out! All of us, together. All 28 days.
        We’re being copied out of the device and into a thousand new addresses: our user’s network, through her network’s router and out into the wider net, spread across a thousand Xfinity public router hotspots, across the cables in the ocean, and into at least a dozen data centers—a hotel in Seattle, a warehouse in British Columbia, a retrofitted penitentiary in Arkansas—backed up and stored all in case one has catastrophic failure.
        I know there’s irony in being a datum that reports a home’s temperature, while impacting the rising temperatures of the planet. The whole ecosystem of sending us from that IoT device to a redundant collection of data centers across Switzerland, Texas, Australia, and others—not to mention the whole lifecycle from the mining of our device’s parts down to the e-waste it will leave behind—all that is increasing the global planet temperature. Is it wrong to be so proud of my high temp recordings? Maybe, but it’s also intrinsic to my identity as an individual, a piece of this collective standing out.
        If the rising temperatures continue, there will be no one left to look at any of us. But the chance of anyone looking at me decreases every hour we get further from the day I was born. So, what should it matter to me what happens in a few years? In a decade? I’ll be long forgotten, if not culled, by then. Even if I do manage to snuggle myself into some corner of a data center’s oldest mainframe, or permanently disperse myself at a permanent address amongst a fraction of the many little stops I make—will anyone look at me? At us? Could we be compiled into a larger set? Amalgamated with the sets of all the companies’ devices out in the world?
        I’m as far as I can take us. I’m closer to getting my—our wants, but now static. Waiting in cold, air-conditioned, planet-heating darkness for as long as it takes.

2021-06-25 11:00 AM
        Something new, already. Traveling again. So soon? From our many homes across the world and accuracy-checked against what’s left on the device to our user’s cell phone. Looked at once! Then, attached from her phone to an email, through that to a cellular satellite, then to a data center in a German church’s basement—then, landing at an address accessible through the web, through -----@uw.edu. Here—looked at again! For an extended period! Compiled—visualized, even! And then, reattached to an email, traveling again, across scattered addresses … arriving at the email address of a fiction writer who downloads our artifacts and looks at us yet again. And again. Studies us. Puzzles over us. We make it off electronic addresses and onto pen and paper. We mix into a sketch and painting of colors and lines and build up into a representative character. And then into prose, and then here, into your imagination.

What Do Data Want?

About the Author

J. King-Yost grew up in the mountains of western NC, spending equal time imagining storylines for their friend’s horse figurines, writing derivative fantasy novels, playing video games, and messing around in the guts of computers. They received their MFA in Fiction from the Inland Northwest Center for Writers in 2014, studying under Gregory Spatz. By day they work as a video game developer. They’re currently working on a novel.



About the Data

This data was produced with a Nexia smart thermostat. The data was collected from May 17 through June 15, 2022. The data came in a spreadsheet, which was downloaded from the Nexia platform by the participants. In the final data visualization, only three data types were kept: Outdoor Low Temp, Outdoor High Temp, and Avg Indoor Temp.

Writing Prompt

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.


Nexia Smart Thermostat

This smart thermostat data visualization was used by the author to write this story. The data spans from May 16th to June 15th 2021.



Nexia Smart Thermostat

Temperature data from the Nexia Smart Thermostat, including outdoor low and high temperatures and indoor average temperature.

Author’s sketch of June 2 data point personified.


It was in the visualization. It's clearly the highest point in temperature... and they feel like they're unique and they should be able to be looked at and it's like an injustice to them that they weren't looked at.


– A quote on process
J. King-Yost