To help me imagine the different ways that users could interact with the system I was imagining I wrote a short design fiction. This was also an assignment for David Womack's class, on narrative and interactivity.
THE WATER IS WARM
Every time Janelle passed the house, her shoulders hunched forward and every other time she passed the house she would look behind her as fast as she could, wary with imaginary scenarios. In winter the hood of her coat blocked her quick peek, so she hiked her shoulders up more and walked faster, letting the anxiety boil then ebb.
She’d never been mugged, but her best friend was pushed from his bike once, by three guys who took his bag while he tried to stand back up. Hedges and hip-height fences had seemed the most insidious fixtures for all of them, for six months after.
The thing is, the block after the house was like baked bread. And the block after that. For the rest of her walk, which she walked every day, she would let her mind wander through her latest projects and inquiries. These parts of the neighborhood surprised her daily, with jutting pipes, missing bricks, and cobblestoned avenues.
But the house was never not there. And it seemed such a small thing that none of her conversations ever seemed to have room for it.
Friday morning, her eyes opened in her own home and gazed along the folds of the curtains, diffusive in the morning light. She breathed in deep and let her memory come back from the night before. High boot heels thudding on the concrete till she flexed her feet upward and the sound deadened. The two of them, her and her newest compatriot, leaning forward beneath a steel pole, ducking toward an open field. The high wire fence keeping the city caged away.
Rolling over she pulled her phone to the pillow and scrolled through last night’s history—each heartbeat and step was recorded as a bit of meaning, and as she pieced together the night, the data stretched into trails of memory. The location of the map at 2:15am was listed wrong. They had wandered into a basement-level bar, not the diner next door. This was true because the candle light had softened her guard and they’d discussed the last days of the lives of their grandfathers. Afterwards, he walked her home.
She tapped through the correction certain of having spent her time wisely.
Downtown, the morning was evaporating in bursts of orders. Greg jogged back to his desk to check the compiler. The council met in 53 minutes and he was still running analysis. Each week, a riot of local residents poured into the auditorium to discuss the city’s agenda and he presented the council members with a summary of the past six days. Where was the worry located? The joy? The apathy, the unconsidered, or indignation en masse?
Two years ago he’d pitched himself as a champion for civil rights and algorithms. Everything new. Fuck the NSA. His software was an open platform to which anyone could report their state of being in a given place—if they felt creative or inspired. Maybe they felt too poor, or underwhelmed at their options. More than a star review on a cafe, he had pitched this data as allowing politicians, in close-to-real-time, to examine the social effects of their zoning laws, or emotional backlash to a particular policing method. And everyone else could see it too. The people weren’t just the generators of data, but the owners.
Only now he was weary. It turns out emotions tell their own stories, and more insidiously, retell themselves differently all the time. It turns out when a snapshot of aggregated emotions are used to make a judgement call on the reality of a shared public space, the knots of qualitative data get tangled untenably. People get defensive. Last week a fight on racism and gentrification had ransacked the council for five hours.
Every day now, after hours, he was back at the source code—reconfiguring the weights and dimensions of the emotional schemas—digging to where the record of life lapped at the symmetry of his designs.
Janelle shuffled forward another inch, closing the gap in a line for discounted salad. It was 12:35pm on a Wednesday, and the day was dragging. The cafe created exhaustion, as if she needed to stand at perfect attention in order to wait with 30 people for sundry greens and half an avocado.
Distraction started to gnaw, and she pulled out her phone to flip through her history. Four hours ago gleamed bright—a diffuse blue light beaming over her face. The lines on the screen pulsed out into lightly drawn curves, and she remembered how weightless her steps into the office had felt. She used to think she attached memory to the big places in her life and she used to think she let that memory dictate her reactions. But something else was happening. Life now felt more solid than that.
She scrolled forward, flipping through the morning to the current moment, then pushed through the fabric of the screen to describe how she felt. Reddish-brown, thick, viscous. That sludgy feeling was on the screen already, the haptics of her mobile reconciling readings from sensors perched along the veins of her wrist.
She knew she was smitten with the data. It’s as if it all could measure a feeling she’d had her whole life that she didn’t know the name of. Like the feeling of her hands getting sweaty before something big. Like the feeling of something that matters happening. The app would ask her questions even when it knew her response. She knew this, and she still loved it.