Smart House

 

 

 

My partner and I were among the first adopters of the privately-subsidised “smart home” scheme.

 

We sold out just before the ‘33 Crash. Not that we were any more prescient than anyone else — obviously, we weren’t among the critics, those saying right from the start that it was a horrible way to live, that it was in fact antithetical to the very notion of “home”, and that as long as humans were humans, no-one would want to live in a “home” like that…

 

No — we were early adopters.

 

On the other hand, we weren’t in the “idealist” camp either… We didn’t believe that this was the next step, logical and inevitable, in the way that lives were lived in the 21st century. Or, at least, we had no strong opinions about this.

 

We bought in because it was cheap: 35K for a new house in a decent neighbourhood in Auckland.

 

People usually congratulate us when they hear we got out in 2032 — but we sold out not because we foresaw the problems that would bring Fletchers/IBM down.

 

We got out because our relationship broke down.

 

*

 

We were both 22 at the time. The house was fully furnished, like a hotel.

 

We grinned at each other, kissed both light and playful, and then long and serious, then ran around the house and eventually landed on the bed.

 

We lay in bed for the rest of the day, listening to the sawing and the hammering of the other houses still being built, watching the light fade. Closely intertwined on the crisp new sheets, I rested my head on Pam’s chest while they played with my hair, lightly gathering a handful near my head and then running their fingers fully along its length, before relinquishing their hold (lingeringly slow, as if reluctant to release), resuming again at the crown.

 

We rested but did not sleep. In our new surroundings we were excited and alert, but we remained in repose nonetheless — and as we lay there, the bed noted the duration of our repose, scored the movement of our limbs to deduce the quality of our rest, and recorded the rate of our heartbeats.

 

*

 

The Fletchers/IBM houses looked like old colonial villas. They clashed with the rest of the street, like they’d fallen from the sky and squeezed themselves, with considerable exertion, into every little gap. These houses seemed to call back to a slower time, one with more leisure to dwell upon little details, like the intricate fretwork looping along the verandah. The bay window (a solid, bovine thing) jutted forward to blankly mull the street. Our house evoked a distant (probably fictive) lost time wherein things were stable and dependable: the neat horizontal lines of the weatherboard would reflect your gaze, calm and placid. The weatherboards were a little slow, in their coat of easy-going pastel blue — but they could be counted on. They were set with tall elegant windows, and while these windows may not have had much energy or ambition, and may even have been over-proud, or self-satisfied — still, you could rely on them to be constant: sober and unblinking presences throughout all your days.

 

*

 

Our friends avoided visiting, though few were straight up enough to say, “Your house is creepy.” Reihana was the first to pay a proper visit, and that took about a month.

 

“So — what’s it like?”

 

We laughed. It wasn’t like you could feel it harvesting…

 

“Well, c’mon though — what’s different to an ordinary house?”

 

But at that time, it didn’t feel that different. I talked about wanting to decorate and arrange things, and Pam talked about how skittish everyone was to enter.

 

Reihana nodded slowly. She was underwhelmed.

 

It got dark. Pamela leaned over Reihana to close the curtains in the bay window. Over the remains of our meal, I passed Reihana the joint and she leaned forward to receive, reaching out lazily, elegantly, then withdrawing back into the couch — comfortable wherever she found herself, even in our strange house; still quietly in control of the situation — even when reclining. Pamela watched and waited, smiling. I have a strong visual memory of that moment, that scene, for some reason.

 

It was one of the moments I felt most satisfied with the house, with the space we had created.

 

*

 

Before I met Pamela, I had a beat-up internal combustion engine 2019 Nissan Altima. I left home in it, without a place lined up. The backseat was piled with old clothes and blankets, and it was both exciting and soothing, like a mellow come-down, to drive aimlessly through Auckland at night, radio low. At first I stayed South, parking up in dark industrial areas, avoiding the parks where car-sleepers congregated; later, I parked up over the Shore, round Orewa ways, where you could wake up to waves and seagulls. I got a proper place, but would still occasionally sleep in that car, parked in the driveway — and those weren’t necessarily stressful nights: that car was just my space, my own so-many cubic metres of space on the teeming surface of the world, and I didn’t have to be upset to want that comfort, that security and ease. Pam had better wheels, so I sold mine for scrap (as if internal combustion engines weren’t enough of a lemon, I’d fucked the suspension and the gearbox).

 

In the Fletchers/IBM scheme, I saw an opportunity to recreate that space, to resurrect that feeling of being parked in the driveway, safely rolled up in my duvet — but this time in the form of a larger, more socially-understood structure, into which you could invite others to participate in your safety and warmth — an opportunity to carve out a little sacred space on the teeming surface of the world with someone I loved as much as I then did love Pamela.

 

*

 

The next day, in passing, Pam told me that they thought Reihana had been flirty with them.

 

*

 

I spent much of the time that I was supposed to be working playing with the house. Legally, as the owner, you got access to everything the house harvested, in the form that the house sold it — but to most people, this was a meaningless wall of abstracted .txt files… I thought I’d be able to make something of it, at least — and I met with surprising success.

 

IBM was at great pains to stress the I&IDOA principle: that is, all data that their houses harvested were immediately and irrevocably deleted once abstracted. Yes, the house recorded you, both audio and video — but this was immediately deleted and never stored, with the house “abstracting” your data for sale — pulling out whatever information it had been trained to pull out, and then anonymising the data before selling it onto third parties. Such parties would want to know what kind of people they were paying for, what demographics — but nothing personally identifying you, specifically, would be handed on. You also got a record of all the third parties to which the house sold your data — but these were opaque entities that onsold to yet other parties, whom they were under no legal obligation to disclose — so you never really knew where the house was shooting your information. In theory, that wasn’t a problem, as it was all abstracted, and the raw data from which the abstractions were derived — the hours and hours of video and audio — all this was “immediately and irrevocably deleted once abstracted” — so it would never turn up on the internet, in a court-room, a job interview; legally, you couldn’t be forced to use it to incriminate yourself.

 

IBM had first rolled out their services in the “developing” world, under the guise of a humanitarian venture. I found some ready-made HUDs designed to visualise smart house data. The pre-made HUDs were good guides for building my own, but they were glitchy, all in Portuguese or Urdu, and they couldn’t analyse all the modalities of data that our house was pulling from us.

 

But I managed to build a good one.

 

The house harvested a lot of truly random shit. Initially, it was amusing — but soon, it took on a strange, endearing quality — an aesthetic pleasure, even. The house assiduously monitored air flows, temperature gradients, the play of light upon surfaces — absolutely every surface was assigned a score: for sun fading, for our attention — for the different emotions that the house inferred we felt whenever our gaze came to glance, for milliseconds or less, at the kitchen counter… It was absurd — could you make money out of that?

in this fantasy,

this imagined lover was really

a placeholder, devoid of personality

 

But it was fascinating — if you looked long enough. The house logged the minute changes in everything, in every surface and item of furniture, and scored the most mundane of our interactions with these. It recorded all our actions — actions of the most banal and trivial flavour, actions you immediately forget once completed — things that not even the most self-absorbed person would think worth saving. There was a kind of beauty in the ebb and flow of our personal routines: for, before living in houses like these, we might dimly intuit the shape of these patterns — but we could never really see them — at least, not without enormous effort, and even that would only result in the barest fragment of all the information that I now had access to. Mostly pointless information, true, but that’s what gave it its flavour of something salvaged, its revelatory quality of something discovered: the shapes and patterns that emerge from the semi-conscious act of living your life… There were a lot of euphemistic terms for this data: “metadata”, “digital exhaust”, and so-on — but to my eyes, what was really “meta” about it? It was more personal than your fingerprint.

 

More problematically, I found that it was relatively trivial to deanonymise. Different data-sets pertaining to the same individual used common “tags'' for each “actor”, for ease of cross-referencing — every actor was assigned many tags, but you could fairly easily collapse them into one from context clues. Privacy activists and data experts had testified that the anonymisation was illusory and that true anonymisation was incompatible with the commercial raison d'être of the house — but I was surprised at how little sweat it took to crack. The overarching I&IDOA paradigm still stood: I had no access to the original audio or visual recordings from which the data were derived — presumably, these were in fact deleted once abstracted.

 

Sometimes the harvesting felt crude, ill-suited to gaining any real insight into real people. But sometimes, it felt achingly intimate. Pamela was usually up and out the door before I woke. But through the house, I could look down upon Pam’s morning routines: I could pull out of the labyrinth of .txt files a simple track of where Pam went in the house, overlaid on the floor-plan. What I got was a thick, messy scribble, concentrated around the bedroom, the kitchen and the bathroom. I would watch that scribble accumulate, day after day, as Pam visited the same places every morning, every evening… One sunny morning, they paused for a long while, doing nothing, by the bay window, the house logging their mood as content; another morning, they spent half an hour poking around under the house. And so on. You had to put in a lot of effort to get anything out, and it might not seem like you got much for that effort — but to me, these were exciting discoveries.

 

To be able to see Pamela’s routines and their deviations therefrom, to see these little hidden things that only they could see and that they would most probably instantly forget — to see these things amplified, to pull them apart and play with them… It was like one of the many myths wherein a god takes a mortal as a lover. Yeah, I know that sounds sus — I know. And you won’t believe me, it’s fine — Pamela didn’t believe me, our (their) friends thought it was bullshit too — but, although I did start massaging pictures out of their data with fundamentally intrusive intentions, it quickly moved beyond that and — this is the stuff that Pam didn’t believe — it became more a function of love… I believe that — it’s true. Or, if it wasn’t quite that, then, at the very least, it was a function of infatuation: I looked up to Pamela — they were the kind of person I would like to be. I was enthralled with them: the slightest minutiae of their day were not without significance — and when all this mountain of minutiae was rendered accessible and could be carefully gathered together to compose these shapes, these contours, these hidden lines of a life that nobody else could see, not even them: it was beautiful — so beautiful that, honestly — sometimes I would cry.

 

But I did do some shady shit, I’m not gonna lie.

 

Conversations were where I most overstepped. It wasn’t the content of our conversations — I didn’t think Pam was hiding much from me. I looked instead at the emotive records associated with Pam’s conversations: what mood did the house clock Pam as experiencing during these? Were there any trends to be found, and how might those evolve over time?

 

And it was during one such session that I happened upon an intriguing little folder called “untruths”.

 

There was nothing serious in this folder. One time, we were talking about a movie; I’d been saying how good it was; they’d said yeah, they liked it too; and the house had labelled that a lie.

 

I spent at least a week digging into how the house made that call.

 

It turned out that Pam and Reihana had been talking about that movie the day before, and Pam had there expressed a contradictory opinion.

 

It wasn’t easy to pull this out of the abstracted data. There were no transcripts of our conversations, as per I&IDOA — all that remained was just what the house deemed to be the substance of our conversations: not just what was said, but also the emotional content (how it was said) and the relational purpose of the conversation (was the speech produced to provoke or curb behaviours in the other person? Were the speech acts successful in this? And so on). All of this was represented by little abstract text chunks, ascribed to anonymised actors. So it was hard, and yeah, I always had some degree of doubt as to whether I’d got it 100% right — “it” being what interpretations the house was coming up with, what emotional weight or intent it ascribed to our actions — and nevermind whether the house got those calls right in the first place! Yeah, I had doubts…

Our house evoked a distant

(probably fictive) lost time wherein

things were stable and dependable

 

I kept a few hard drives of our data.

 

I’d find myself asking Pam little questions — what did you think of that? Wasn’t that person a dick? And so on. The next day, I’d run the conversation back to see if they’d been truthful, or if there was some extra shade of emotion there that I’d not picked up on — the prospect of which was exciting, because it felt like I was gaining a deeper understanding of Pam as a person. Of course, the house could’ve just been wrong — it forwarded our data back to IBM to refine the house’s harvesting methods, to improve its accuracy at speech analysis, reading emotion, predicting behaviour, and so on. The house was constantly evolving and it was not infallible. It could be getting Pam wrong. I wondered.

 

I spent at least as much time (possibly more) poring over my own data… It’s hard to say where the line is crossed between wanting to know more about yourself to become a better person, and just plain narcissism. I like to think I was trying to be a better person.

 

*

 

When I was young, I had a fantasy about a lover. I saw two people, driving at night through gently drifting snow. The image probably came from some American movie — I’ve never seen snow.

 

We were a little unit, moving through life like I would later aimlessly cut through the night in my Altima. A team, durable and devoted — up for a challenge.

 

But already, there was a warning sign: in this fantasy, this imagined lover was really a placeholder, devoid of personality — an outline — psychologically, they were blank. I would imagine warmth — later, when I was parked outside in the driveway, the warmth of the duvet would be their warmth (maybe this warmth helped stick the image of the snow?). It was hard to say where the erotic component of this feeling ended, and where simple enjoyment of warmth, both physically and as derived from unaffected emotional intimacy with another human being, began, or what the proportionality between these components was. As I drove alone at night, that person was often beside me. That I wasn’t going anywhere wasn’t important: movement was enough, with the radio and the night insulating the space around me, and I didn’t feel lonely — I felt hopeful and energetic, in large part due to the blank beside me — watching me — encouraging… That imagined warmth and sympathy hurt on one hand, because I ached for it and it wasn’t there, not yet — but overall, this fantasy kept my mood level: it calmed me and occupied the recesses of my mind that anxiety probably would’ve otherwise claimed (I could feel it probing, outside the car, looking for a way in…).

 

I’ve learnt, of course: I expect a lover to be a fully-realised, autonomous person, with all that entails… and I don’t really need that crutch anymore.

 

The fantasy might’ve done more harm than good.

 

*

 

One evening, Pam told me that Reihana had propositioned them: that her and her partner found them attractive, would they like to…? Obviously, they needed to talk to me first: I could participate too.

 

“And what do you want?”

 

“I’d like to” they said, in their usual, straight-forward way.

 

*

 

I went over our data, trying to pick apart intention and mood — looking for lies, things I’d missed. This brought up the rhythms of my anxiousness: intensifying, dampening — some shame, or guilt, slowly rising to soak it all… Was the house wrong? Not in terms of morality, but in terms of its evaluations, in the efficacy of its measurements. Then, what might we be helping it get “right?” To what purpose would our failing relationship be put? It was failing, I felt: Pamela was clearly more enamoured with Reihana, and honestly, I couldn’t fault them there much… Would our data be used to stop others breaking apart? Or, to just disinterestedly study the process of it — of how insecurity, jealousy (perhaps), could come together and wreck things — could you measure that? Put it on a scale? In a later iteration of our house, perhaps, if you granted it permission, the house might inform you — based on what it had learnt from our case, and from thousands of other cases so tediously similar — perhaps the house might warn you: hey — watch out — your shit’s going bad… it’s not gonna last… And hey, that was a valuable thing to contribute to, was it not? At least our pain was useful — at least the house was producing something valuable, something bigger than our small, flailing downward trajectory…

 

And in the current instance, surely such a house would point — directly at me — me: that’s the one, that’s who’s doing it — that’s the responsible party…

 

But there was still an intoxication produced, by all that I had at my fingertips. There was an erotic charge, of so closely focusing in on Pamela, that made me quite horny for them, in the initial part of this phase. To them, our relationship probably seemed healthy — certainly, the house didn’t indicate that they felt otherwise.

 

*

 

The insurability crisis being in full swing, Reihana and her friends found a cheap place in Tamaki Drive. Pamela spent a lot of time there.

 

They asked me around a lot.

 

I resisted as much as seemed socially acceptable.

 

And through all of this, the house watched: recording and codifying the manner in which we were pulling apart.

 

*

 

Pamela said that I was distant. They saw me withdrawing and wanted to know what was up. I wasn’t helpful: I didn’t want them to think it had anything to do with Reihana — I even encouraged them there, to some degree… And though that might have been the catalyst — somehow, I honestly don’t think that was the actual problem… I did actually become accustomed to the idea of them and Reihana — and I still liked Reihana.

 

Pam’s stress levels rose briskly throughout this time (the bed, with its prolonged and close physical contact with us, produced the best data pertaining to stress).

 

*

 

We began to pseudo-fight: no raised voices, no dramatics — just frustrated questioning and impasses, after which one of us might leave, or we’d both separately try and distract ourselves until it was time to sleep — sleep that our bed would record the duration of, counting our separate heartbeats, measuring the time I spent twisting and turning until, inevitably, I crept out of bed, pulled up my HUD, and got stuck into the day’s events. I focused on the house’s score of Pamela's rising frustration, their anger — their sadness. By this stage, I was doing this with no real object — I’d already lived it, after all.

 

But there was a kind of power there. Not to change anything — but to track the effect I was having: I could see the instances of frustration climbing; I could pull it down and put it in a chart; I could point at inflection points, corresponding to things I’d done, things I’d said — or not done, not said — and see how that had resulted in pain — surprise — exasperation — anger — depression…

 

But buried within that minefield, I could still reliably find little pockets of affectionate behaviour — sparkling, despite it all.

 

And I wondered: where, in all of this, the things that happened, objectively, as judged by the house — where, in all of this, was the subjective? What was Pamela’s impression of all this? What was the dominant colour? Were the surprise and the sadness the primary impressions? Or the frustration, the anger? Which would be the prime motivator for the break that was coming?

 

And where were those little pockets of affection, in their subjective record?

 

The house could only take me so far.

 

In the objective record, they were there — they were little treasures. All the things that I did to us, that was a dark forest — but little pockets of happy moments, wherein we still looked at each other with affection or desire, when we laughed together — those moments were still there: bright and shining, in the objective record of our relationship that the house produced. But they were few — did they survive into their subjective recollection?

 

When they look back on us — can they recall those moments?

 

*

 

Pam spent more time at Reihana’s, because I made our time together in our house unpleasant. They lied about that, but they couldn’t hide it from the house. We lived in a strange, suspended state.

 

I watched the “untruths” folder grow.

 

Just before Cyclone Whina hit, the Rolleston case broke. Rolleston had cracked his house, used it to document an affair, then tried to blackmail his partner… The day after the Rolleston case broke, I looked out the bay window and saw Pamela and Reihana coming down the driveway, walking towards the house, heads bowed in the rain. With very little preamble, they asked me point blank if I’d ever done a “Rolleston thing” — they must’ve had suspicions prior, to come to this conclusion so quickly.

 

Shortly after this, Whina hit. Between Whina and Rolleston, that pretty much sunk Fletchers/IBM.

 

We were over by then, too.

 

We made out alright on the house. We didn’t make our money back, but the loss was minimal: there was a short window, wherein prices were somewhat stable on account of rumours that Amazon were going to swoop in and try to purchase all the Fletchers/IBM contracts. But then the permafrost went up, and the sea level rises forecasted from that catastrophe were more than enough to convince Amazon, and any other big tech vultures eyeing Fletchers/IBM’s death throes, that real estate on island nations was an exquisitely bad investment.

 

But by then, we’d already closed a deal.

 

*

 

I have disowned the fantasy, of the blank lover, beside me in the front seat…

 

But… that yearning: it was for something better, situated in the future… It made me feel internally inflated, like there was a balloon, slowly expanding inside my torso — and the pressure felt good. Even if it was ultimately self-centred, it still felt like I was working — striving, building towards something bigger and outside of myself — outside of myself in a way that stripped back ego, and what that left you with was a vague sense of love — outwardly directed sympathy and longing… My heart and thoughts clicked up to a higher bpm, riding with someone beside me in a self-contained world, complete and sufficient, cutting through space — and this expansive and sensitive feeling would gradually come to project outside of myself, to seep beyond our little unit, to quietly encompass everyone — everyone behind the little shards of light in the houses we smoothly rolled past, squares framing living rooms, kitchens, family dining rooms, bedrooms — this feeling grew to encompass all the other night drivers I encountered in the humid Auckland night: few and far between, in dark cars, with only an arm, or a nose, or half a cheek visible in the lurid red of the traffic lights — the smooth line of a jaw curving off into darkness, illuminated by the dull, soothing orange of the streetlights, now by the glaring green of the go — then taking off, these fragments of other human beings cooly plunging back into shadow while I felt so warm — for the “selfish” love that I felt grew to encompass them too, unknown as they were and would remain — and the feeling slowly recurved to illuminate myself again, but now as an object seen at some remove, in a forgiving, accepting light — and this feeling would progress further still, becoming an essentially object-less thing: taking in buildings, however ugly, no matter — stop signs — scraggly roadside trees — wishing them all well, all those kerbsides and powerpoles, wishing them well with the fervency and communion of prayer — bus stops, gutters… This balloon feeling expanded and expanded to the point where it became almost pure sensation: heartbeat, indicator, accelerator — empathy, pump the brakes — take that corner slowly…

but to my eyes, what was really “meta” about it?

It was more personal than your fingerprint.

 

Driving through Auckland untethered, looking for a spot to spend the night, I felt anxious yet free — other kids weren’t doing it like this — I was cutting my own path through the night, it was scary — but exciting — lonely, but that made me proud — where was I going? Would it all go bad? It must... but I was getting away with it so far.

 

And the blank, smiling person beside me: they approved and were on my side. And that made the balloon feeling grow.

 

I sometimes feel like that was a better version of me than the person I see in the mirror today, with her accretions and accumulations of vices, anxieties… Though I had these things back then too, they weren’t as crystallised — these psychological encrustations just didn’t cut so, moving from day to day… Back then, I could still slip everything — all the anxieties and vices, lodged in me like mineral deposits stuck in my face — I could still escape and achieve that “balloon” feeling, expanding in my torso, tingling the skin — although this pleasure was not unmixed with pain: the pain of longing for something vague and uncertain of ever materialising.

 

*

 

I caught a ride out West to look at our old house. Who was in it now? I did this, hoping to feel something profound.

 

But it was just there — same as ever.

 

There were three reasons I’d come out West. One, to look at the house again. Two, there was a creek I knew and liked that I wanted to throw the harddrives into.

 

But the main reason I’d come out West was that I’d heard about a car. Another Altima, internal combustion — not the same year, but close. There was one out Henderson, cheap.

 

I was looking to purchase.

Written by Blaze Forbes | Mentored by Victor Rodger

© 2019 by Tupuranga

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