When should you quit your job?

Alex Madison
Data retrieved from:
Google Assistant
Sam was working late. Not so late, he thought – only 7:30 – but most of the colleagues in the legal department were older and had long stopped trying to prove themselves. They’d gone, and the open office was empty and quiet, grey in the soft white light of a summer evening.

Sam got himself a beer from the break room and took it back to his desk. On a huge, bright monitor, he turned up the font size, so he could read the proposal more easily: The proposed legal language for a new home listening device. It would hit the market the following year.

At home, Sam’s wife would be reading one last story to sleepy Gemma. Sam picked up his phone, opened an app, and ordered Thai takeout to be delivered to Mira from the place down the street, as they’d agreed he would do when worked late on Thursdays. Mira had gone to law school, too, but she had become disillusioned more quickly. She said if he wanted to make that much money, he could make it for both of them.

The prototypes for the new home listening device had already been tested; the technology itself was perfect. The product engineers were only now tweaking and testing the container that enclosed the important pieces. The UX team was exploring whether soft, round edges would make it appear friendlier to customers. They were asking focus groups about color schemes.. They were determining whether the charging port could be made even more water resistant, because they expected customers to put the devices in their kitchens.  The marketing team was already working out the positioning. They would call it a “home assistant.” A helper.

The device was already celebrated by the CEO and the board, even if they had all agreed, laughing, that they would never buy one. They would buy their children retro, standalone kitchen timers that were not connected to the internet, and they would buy their grandchildren record players and bicycles and stuffed animals filled only with softness.

The device was almost finished, and Sam knew this. The lawyer’s role was not to ask questions, but to answer them. To cover over ambiguities with smooth, impenetrable sentences. 

Sam, though, was hesitating, thinking of us. Us, the data the device would capture. No one else had given us as much real consideration. They considered it Sam’s job to think of us.

Sam  imagined all the things the customers would say in the presence of the device – all those bits of information that would travel in invisible clusters to be stored in servers in so many faraway places. Sam knew we data would contain multitudes. 

When the device recorded a question, “When should you quit your job?” it would also have heard the customer’s tense conversation with her mom, that night she made dinner – she’d set a timer, she’d asked for the sounds of waves and snow and sparklers – in which she had pretended to be passionate about her work.  When the device recorded, “What’s the forecast for tomorrow?,” it would have also heard the weather in the customer’s spirit as she muttered her private complaints.

When she asked for a guided meditation, the device would also know if she had been crying or laughing or watching TV beforehand. We data would contain it all. Any official records of the data would thin us down, omit the animal sounds, the chewing, the singing to oneself, the crying and sneezing and confiding and complaining. Those sounds would not appear in the transcript, but Sam understood that they would be part of the data, too, however separately they were sorted and stored.

Thinking of us, Sam held a sip of beer in his mouth so long that it lost its flavor. He swallowed, and it tasted like paper. He deleted and retyped the paragraphs that would appear in the finest, most microscopic print, outlining the agreement the customers were entering when they plugged in the home assistant.

The tech company would tell its customers that the device only listened when its name was called out, but of course, to hear its name, it had to be listening already. He could imagine, already, the mass we would acquire. He could imagine many of the places we could go. 

But even with as much as Sam knew, he could not anticipate all the places we would go. Sam understood that ethicists and pundits would consider the implications of the home assistant. He didn’t imagine that in the art school of a major public University, there would be such a person as a “design researcher” or an “Assistant Professor of Interaction Design,” who would try to expose messiness in the matters he was employed to neaten. 

He could imagine the customer saying “next song,” and “hey, Google, play the 1-minute guided meditation,” and “change the alarm,” but he never could conceptualize that we, her data, would be curated by the design researchers into a spreadsheet. The start and end point carefully selected, the timestamps sometimes showing the time zone – ET, and other times not – and that this spreadsheet would be sent to a writer sitting in a small, light-filled studio. That the writer’s attention would spark by only such a few tiny data points, and that she would make up a story about him. About Sam. 

Sam read his paragraph again. He glanced at his phone. The food had been delivered to his wife. Looking from his phone to his screen, there was a second when his hair stood on end. The app where he had typed his home address, connected to the credit card, the name he shared with Mira and Gemma – it knew so much, too. The order, extra basil, please, extra tofu. He closed his eyes for a split second and saw his own data cloud ballooning behind him, in front of him, all around him, then he opened his eyes again and looked at the screen. The paragraph was almost right. 

Sam liked the late nights alone. Something about the quiet hum of the servers reminded him of the late nights in the university library. He had loved learning. He had loved looking up from his studies, scanning the rows of all those old books and thinking: Everything in these volumes could be chewed up and digested by the internet in two seconds. 

He thought of a conversation he’d had with Mira, so long ago now. They’d been tourists in Mexico City, visiting the lobby of a government building that housed a famous painting, and she had pointed out that they were being watched. So many cameras dotted the ceiling. Guards strolled slowly by. He had looked at her, leaned forward and kissed her deeply and dramatically, tilting her back on the stone bench, holding her shoulders down, and when they parted, laughing, he had said, “Let them see.” 

When should you quit your job?

About the Author

Alex Madison is a writer of fiction and nonfiction based in Seattle. Her work has appeared in the Harvard Review, Indiana Review, Salon, Witness and elsewhere.

About the Data

This data was collected through a Google Home mini during the month of November 2021. The data was copy pasted from Google's My Activity's platform in a Google Doc by the user, who had trouble downloading the usual .json file. The data was then cleaned by our team to keep only voice commands and their corresponding timestamps.

Writing Prompt

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 Home

This Google Home voice data was used by the author to write this story. Data was collected from November 1st to December 1st 2021.


I started thinking about that question of translation and how not only the data is translated and presented in different forms, but the way that the purpose and nature of the data is communicated to others is also translated and mediated by individuals.


– A quote on process
Alex Madison