by Sarah Henry
“Hi babies,” Janelle said as she stared at the camera propped in front of her. “Do you like spon-con? Do you like when your fake friends on the internet try to sell you shit?”
Janelle was recording a video.
Her apartment was on the top floor of a small three story building tucked between a grey-bricked condo building and a public housing complex. A Sunday evening rain fell in a constant, reassuring pattern. A few moments ago Janelle had leaned over her bed and tucked a flat sheet in tightly to the corner where the mattress hit the wall. A radiator in the opposite corner clanked with warmth. Her hands moved methodically, smoothing the flat sheet. She had hung three more flat sheets, in the exact same color, along clothesline spanning the two and a half walls flanking her full size bed. This created the effect of a powder blue photo studio. The seams where the sheets met were made gummy-mouthed by hidden alligator clips, a curious detail Janelle could not fix.
Janelle turned from the bed toward a small stool that held, altar-like, a small flexible tripod, a camera, and a ring of lights. Through the camera she framed the middle of the bed, her makeshift studio, the edges of the screen not quite capturing the top of her hanging flat sheets. She twisted another flexible camera mount around a tall lamp and attached a second, smaller camera so that it angled down over her hanging sheets, framing the bed on a diagonal.
She tapped record on both cameras and sat down on the bed, crossing her legs. Her thin shins tapered outward to two knobby knees, floating a few inches above the sheets. The blue box around her created a soft contrast.
Janelle pulled out a vape pen shaped like a Capri cigarette from the front pocket of her green babydoll polo shirt and rolled it back and forth in her fingers.
“I’m not popular enough to get sponsored.” She inhaled from her vape pen then exhaled. “Maybe I am. Either way, I’m very sorry but this video is about an app. I promise I will atone for the sin of talking about an app by working for fifty more years and dying alone.” She inhaled and exhaled again.
“Anyway, I’ve been on this thing called Arhythmia for the last two weeks,” she told her unblinking audience. “It knows everything about me. Tells me how I feel at all times. Yes, the name is villainous. Yes, surveillance is the profound hopelessness of our era.”
She rolled her shapely vape pen back and forth between her thumb and index finger.
“But I am a completely different person because of it.”
Janelle angled her chin downward to lengthen the appearance of her face and leaned forward holding her phone up to the first camera’s frame. The second camera blithely recorded this blatant posing. Her thumb wrapped around the front of the screen with one pointed peach nail bending in the screen’s fabric edge. The screen imitated an oil slick and thin wobbly rings of red and orange slid out to the edges from left of center.
“It measures something called biometrics. There’s a small sensor I wear here,” she said as she deftly flipped her phone over to show a transparent, circular sticker on the underside of her wrist. “It’s very hard to see unless you know to look for it. Of course I’ve been on the look out, like a little idiot detective.” Janelle adjusted her posture so she was sitting up straighter. “So the sensor picks up on my perceptions, my consciousness. It shows me things like how I’m half terrified and half wanting to run into my ex at the Broadway stop because I know when he rides the train to work. Or when I am entirely unmotivated at work because I know whatever I’m doing won’t matter next week. Or when I cringe at how everyone I follow on Twitter has made the same joke in the same way in a few hours and it all is so dumb and pandering. Arhythmia shows all of this in shapes and colors and texture and there is something very compelling about literally seeing how I actually feel. It’s like…like a reverse aura; it’s not what I’m putting out but how I’m taking everything in.”
As she spoke the screen of her phone began to pulse, causing the red rings to proliferate and wobble outwards while the orange rings faded. Janelle turned to her phone to evaluate the event and smiled. As her mouth turned upward the red rings changed direction to float upward, turning pink and dissolving as they hit the top edge of the screen.
“You do have to be sort of intuitive about the whole thing. It’s not like it’s literally saying, you’re “mad” or “in love” or whatever. But I think it’s obvious that red means anger and red also means sex because they come from the same place.”
She stopped speaking and examined her phone in a moment of self doubt. “Maybe it’s narcissistic. But there are so many things in my life that I can’t understand or articulate. When I’m painting and I know that something should be blue. Or when I’m walking to work and a chill runs down my spine—like a pang of fear that someone’s going to attack me—that comes out of nowhere. I wish I could pay attention to everything, but I can’t and so I’m constantly overwhelmed. I’m caught unaware all the time.”
Janelle never planned her monologues and sometimes felt they ended up blurring out into meaningless poetics. She never worked on improving her rhetorical concentration because her audience never commented on this particularly incompetency. She assumed they liked to hear her voice and were willing to overlook the meandering.
“Anyway, I am not a sucker and you are not a sucker, and so you and I are going to test this shit out.” She drew out the last four words in a low voice and stared drolly into the camera.
Janelle placed her phone screen-side up on her blue bed, and pushed herself off the bed to stand. She tapped record again on both cameras to pause the video and walked out of her room and down a narrow hallway to the kitchen. She had two roommates, a reality tv producer and a part-time puppet maker who were both, like her, straddling a decision to maintain security in a stable job while hanging on to the entitlement of a more expressive existence. Both of them were out for the evening, but she was searching for the art supplies they kept stashed in various junk drawers near the fridge. In the second drawer she opened she found an x-acto knife and a small plastic container of extra blades. She fit the handle with a new blade and returned to her room, stepping quietly though no one was home.
The cameras, the light, and the bed were all unmoved. Janelle grabbed a book from one of her shelves, hit both record buttons, and sat back down on the bed, knees falling back wide into a crossed position. She propped her phone up against the book for the first camera to see.
“Remember this from high school, babies?” she said as she held up the x-acto knife and smiled at the camera. “Or maybe middle school if you knew anything about the world. Now watch my phone. We are going to test out if this thing understands a very specific experience.” She began to cut a thin line down her forearm, drawing blood. She smiled but there was no pageantry in her movement. She ended the mutilation elegantly next to the sensor on her wrist.
As she cut into her skin the haptics in the fabric of her phone screen shuddered, roiling in color from an anxious yellow to a muddy green. The pixels appeared to boil beneath the surface. Janelle’s gaze flitted from her phone to her arm, indulging in the visual contrast.
“You know, I don’t understand why everyone has to come to terms with their own particular brand. I don’t want to have to describe exactly who I am,” she said quietly. “Maybe it’s better to just be in the world instead of having to make sense of it.” She stared into the eye of the camera in front of her. “Like how a dog lives. Things are good, bad, attractive, repulsive. Each experience is simple, but the picture is meaningful.” She laid back onto her bed, the floor of her makeshift powder blue studio, and looked up to her second camera. She lifted up her arms, with grace and with willowed fingers, and continued making small, deep cuts in a line along her forearm.
She went on talking and cutting for a few minutes, turning her audience patter to the pointlessness she experienced at her various temp jobs, until the cuts she made began to hurt. She then excused herself, letting the cameras record the small, empty soundstage, and returned with a blue towel wrapped around her arm. She picked up her phone and studied the screen.
“Tell me that isn’t the truth,” she said to herself as her almond eyes searched the screen, which was pulsing erratically with rivers of navy and brown and small clusters of light orange pixels punctuating like sunbeams. “No filter, babies,” she said as she held her phone closer to the camera and laid bare her heart as a series of triumphantly colored squares began to dizzy themselves across the screen. The squares hummed and settled, nervous then self-satisfied.
She said goodbye with a flirt of a wave from her undamaged arm and hit record again on both cameras, ending the session. After connecting both cameras to her laptop she tapped through a few options to add background music, combined the footage from multiple angles, and added a filter so that even with multiple sources of lighting her skin glowed with a golden sheen. From her phone she exported a clip from Arhythmia that matched the timecode of filming and added it to the video. She selected an option so that the clip of visualized emotions would fill the bottom quarter of an uneven split screen. This stylistic choice created an off-kilter mosaic effect in the shots where she had held her phone up to the camera. Janelle thought the effect worked well enough.
She uploaded the video to her public account and jogged to the bathroom.
Downtown, the morning was evaporating in small bursts of glitches and delays. Greg jogged back to his desk to check his monitor. His sneakers were coming untied. The city council met in 53 minutes and he was still running analysis. Each Monday local residents trickled into the auditorium to discuss the city’s agenda and his presentation summarizing the city’s emotions over the past six days. Where had the worry been located? The joy? The apathy, the under-considered angst, or indignation en masse? He was careful to paint a nuanced picture of each zip code’s passions and sensitivities, so that the council could write a more informed, humane set of policies.
Two years ago he had unironically pitched himself to the New York City Council as a wunderkind engineer fresh from a tour of duty in San Francisco’s Department of Innovation. Greg had needed the change. He had squandered most of his twenties on work that would largely go unnoticed by the public, while his classmates from college posted updates about their trendy emotive-tech start ups with names like Geomote, Arhythmia, and Valentine—company names that fit the milieu of Silicon Valley so neatly half the class might as well be billionaires already. He channeled his envy into reading psychology textbooks and building experimental projects that attempted to fit government bureaucracy into buckets of squishy individualistic consumerism.
Eventually he was hired to build a mobile app for New York City where any resident of any neighborhood could report how they felt at any time—whether they were inspired in downtown Brooklyn, angry in Forest Hills, or joyful in Harlem. The more progressive wing of the council pressed him to capture nuance too. They wanted to know if a resident felt too impoverished to live in their own neighborhood next to the impending high rise. They wanted data on whether residents felt underwhelmed with their choice of grocery stores, or if they felt safe or surveilled on a block with CCTV. By the second interview Greg had prototyped a flimsy website that showed the council how they could examine the social effects of their zoning laws, such as emotional backlash to a particular policing method or lingering doubts about the sovereignty of bikers in bike lanes. He was hired after two more perfunctory interviews despite the fact he wore the same nice button-down shirt to each one.
Greg recognized a good name for an app, but could never come up with his own. He originally called his program “NYC Emotions Index.” No one at the city had suggested anything better and so the name stuck as NYCEI–pronounced nigh-see with most of the civil service putting an uncomfortable emphasis on the first syllable to avoid saying anything like ‘nazi.’
Now, after two years on the job, he was weary, but motivated. Not yet 32, he felt he still had a chance to make a name for himself. There had been setbacks though. At the start of the work Greg had suspected, but not fully realized, the extent to which emotions can tell more than one story and, more insidiously, retell different stories in retrospect. After listening in at enough Council meetings Greg realized that residents had a tendency to interpret his summary reports so their words and actions more closely matched the popular understanding of good politics. Of course they had meant well when arguing against a new restaurant, the residents would argue. Of course they had simply overreacted when calling in a suspicious character. He learned from these meetings how people could ignore their own actual, historical words and instead retort with what I meant to say at the time was.
The AC was on too high for how late it was. Greg was still at work. He was having trouble deciding if a person’s outrage over a death from biking persisted for days, months, or years. He couldn’t keep polling people for their thoughts on new bike lanes, so he would have to guess at how many days their emotions for proxy events, like death, were valid.
Greg wrote in a few final numbers, picked up his keys, and turned his monitor off. His mood shifted quickly and he was now desperate for company. He pulled out his phone and typed, “Late night at the office, you still out?” He copied the message to five different friends, moving among three different apps to do so.
He went back to iMessage where his original text was registering a read receipt. Three dots appeared and he just knew Katie, the recipient, would indulge him. She texted, I can’t watch any more of this god damn cleaning show. Yes. Please. 169 Bar?
See you there in ten?
Greg eventually got three other responses, all some form of excuse, and he didn’t respond to any of them. Within fifteen minutes he was walking into a bar on the east end of Canal Street. The bar wasn’t a place for people like him, and every unconcerned face that looked his way knew it. Katie sat in an unoccupied corner, her dark curls tossed upward into a bun, sipping on a mixed drink. Her face was perilously close to a palm frond that had dipped over the table from a window sill. She waved at him and, with her foot, pushed out a chair opposite her at a table preset with a whiskey sour.
“What’s the crisis tonight, Greg?” she asked with twinkling green eyes.
“Katie. Hello, Katie. I am in the middle of a wonderfully stupid problem at work and I need someone else to weigh in.” He paused and scratched his beard. “For how many days do you think you tend to care about an event that made you angry?”
Katie blinked at him and said, “Nope, gonna need you to ask that again. Like a human.”
“Okay. Do you ever think about a delay on the subway for more than a day or two? Or if a biker goes through your crosswalk after the light turns? Or, say, you got a notice about an eviction? Shit like that? How long do you stay mad?” He eyed her like a salesman, then nodded to his drink and picked it up.
“Shit like that. Like what? That sounds like everything in life.” Katie laughed at him with a wide, turned up smile and leaned back, crinkling her nose while considering his question. She had met Greg in college, a loner in Katie’s collection of philosophy snobs and aspiring musicians. She had strong feelings about Greg’s cohort of engineering peers. To her they were all assholes, all dying to make the next Facebook or Uber. Three years after graduation Greg admitted to her that he felt very lost. His whole career was based on the advice of one lone civics professor who had steered Greg away from the fountains of wealth in Silicon Valley with compelling lectures on the moral necessity to work towards democracy wherever possible. While Greg had pursued a career in government, his classmates had largely joined a growing revolution in psychological data. Katie had told him once he was the only good computer engineer she knew and that was the nicest way she could put it.
“Right! Sorry. I’ve never been evicted, but I think it would be infuriating. If you’re talking about traffic problems…mostly I forget something that’s inconvenient after literally anything else happens—like, I get home from work or whatever. There are some things that stay with me though. I remember slapping a minivan on the front window once,” she said. “I was biking down Clinton Street, just off the bridge. Have you ever biked the Williamsburg Bridge? The descent is…it’s one of my favorite things about New York. There are people everywhere, buildings everywhere, honking, yelling, and you take it all in and you’re going incredibly fast but nothing bad happens because there are no cars, there’s no traffic. So, I’ve just biked off the bridge and my helmet is still on my handlebars because I always take it off on the bridge since nothing bad happens. And I’m biking down the bike lane on Clinton Street when a black minivan swerves in front of me to grab a parking spot, which I’m pretty sure is illegal because the minivan is, I think, a taxi. I swerve to the left to avoid crashing and nearly get hit by a box truck—one of the short ones with double wheels. I’m so scared and so fucking livid that I smack the minivan on the driver’s window and yell, ‘Fuck you!’ then bike off as fast as I can. And I swear to god, I swear to you, Greg, someone on the sidewalk yelled, ‘You go girl!’ which is as humiliating to hear as it is for me to say right now.”
“Christ, you almost got hit by a car? I’m sorry, Katie.”
Greg frowned and briefly considered the distant possibility that his friend might have become a city statistic. He had always felt Katie’s exuberance was familiar and comforting but he was only now coming to appreciate the way she ended monologues that made some obtuse political point: by settling smug and animal-like into her chair. She sometimes reminded him of his old coworkers in San Francisco. Their politics had leaned left or far left and, despite California’s Democratic supermajority, there had been an air in the department they were all underdogs fighting the good fight together. He and his coworkers had suspected the wealthy libertarians south in the Valley were secretly conservative and secretly building conservative technology they would need to counter.
“So. How did that end up affecting you? What does the whole experience mean to you now?” he asked.
“I don’t think it means anything,” she said bluntly. “It’s a memory. Not a discrete object. It’s not a Tweet.”
“But do you want to do anything with that memory? Did it change you in any way?”
“Greg, are you reading mind-control blogs again?”
Among the Silicon Valley social circles Greg was envious of the writing of Edward Bernays had made a resurgence, prompting a flush of VC funding to anyone willing to work out the problem of capturing emotion with enough accuracy to reliably predict consumer behavior, voting patterns, or even tendencies toward violence.
“Katie, it’s not mind-control. I’m trying to figure out–”
“Whatever, I heart you. But no, I don’t want to do anything with that memory. Whatever that means. I like it when people yell at asshole drivers and I support safe biking initiatives, but I don’t think there’s anything else there. The question is very…abstract.” She stared at him, fixing her face into a dare.
“I mean, specifically, do you vote on anti-cab policies or support biking rights through voting or organizing or advocacy?”
Katie pursed her lips in a smile and shook her head no. She had lost her conversational spark and Greg turned to his drink for a way out.
“Look, I’m sorry,” he said. “The mayor has this idiot plan to reduce bike deaths, and I don’t think it will work, but I have a hard time not thinking about my job and I’m sorry you were almost hit by a car.”
Katie accepted the apology by leaning forward and asking, “How’s the wide world of online dating treating you?”
Every weekday around 6pm Greg’s back stiffened and he imagined his coworkers glancing around the office, assessing the body language of others, their eyes landing on him, while he, stalwart, typed furiously, continuing the work that would prove foundational to how governments would be run in years to come. He was never the first to leave, often the last, and he privately took pride in his adherence to a protestant work ethic though he publicly moralized that no one should prop up an unfair labor market to maintain the illusion of dedication.
The office AC was steadily generating its night time chill. It was Friday, but Greg hadn’t made any plans and so he stayed at his desk late into the evening, catching up on The New Yorker online and shuffling through impersonal emails. He checked to see if a sale on headphones was worthwhile. It wasn’t.
He picked up his phone and scrolled through his Twitter feed. He felt compelled to retweet outrage from a colleague in San Diego on how privacy was an afterthought for digital immigration status. He pressed ‘like’ on the tweets of several celebrities in his field, most of them women in their late twenties or early thirties who had made a professional name for themselves through their prodigious social media habits. Greg felt lonely.
He lightly massaged the fabric of his screen downward, refreshing the feed for a second time, when he felt a bump against his index finger. A notification for a text from one of his college friends bounced around at the bottom of Greg’s screen, so he nudged it upward into full view.
might as well kill myself
Attached to the message was a link to an article about their mutually hated classmate’s company, Arhythmia, the app that collected biometric readings from users. Greg quickly scanned the article and groaned when he read that Arhythmia had broken through an important benchmark: amassing enough users to start selling a valuable data set of geotagged emotional reactions. Apparently three of the big box store chains had already purchased this data, pinpointing moments of calm satisfaction in customers in order to adjust and rearrange the products they displayed and the order of the aisles.
Most people were better at articulating themselves through visuals than through language, the article explained. The article did not question whether the interpretation of colors and shapes, on either the part of the user or a data analyst, had any claim to objective truth. The company had received 30 million in funding, the article explained.
Greg acted on the dispiriting information by opening up another tab to research technical specs on disposable sensors. If he could pull off the same idea in a city as big as New York his career would be set. He probably couldn’t mandate that all residents of NYC wear a physical device but maybe he could launch some sort of pilot with biometric data collection. As he was typing into a new search bar his desperation waned and he paused. Maybe the whole thing was bullshit. Maybe the tech wasn’t that good. Maybe real people didn’t actually use the app. He stood up and double-checked that no one else was in the office, unplugged his headphones, and started a new search for review videos. He toggled the filter to show the most watched results and at the top of the page was a thumbnail image of a pretty woman’s face. Greg immediately clicked the video and opened it full screen on his second monitor.
The video was made by a user named N_elle_smoked_you. Greg noticed her eyes soften as she described the app. His heart sank as she praised Arhythmia. He saw her point out the sensor. He saw her stand up and then the video flickered and she sat back down.
“What the fuck is she doing? ” he mumbled, transfixed, as he watched her move the x-acto knife. N_elle looked at him and smirked. Her face lit up at capturing her indiscretion on a mobile phone. Greg saw the visualizations she generated, much more vivid and strange than screenshots shown in the article, and he thought of thermal imaging in spy movies.
Greg heard N_elle say something about living like a dog but it blurred out into background noise. A great idea was forming within himself. He had access to every CCTV camera on public property. He could fit them with thermal lenses to capture body temperature and use that as a proxy for emotional state. Even without the lenses he could use video to analyze facial expressions. He could jump right past the need for individual sensors and instead capture the emotions coming off every individual in the public sphere. How did people really feel when a cop car rolled by? Did anyone actually give a shit about bike lanes? This could be the project that would make him famous.
He pictured Katie’s provocative face sailing down the Williamsburg Bridge and the curve of her cheeks inflating from her smug smile. How her expression turned porcine and haggard when she smacked the van. She was probably overreacting and being a bitch to that driver. He imagined how the driver threw up his hands, his eyebrows contorting into an upset surprise. Greg realized how irrefutable a facial expression can be. You can’t litigate a grimace, he thought. You can’t say it meant something everyone knows it didn’t. The full weight of what he wanted to pull from the residents of New York began to seep in. He wanted to wrench people from their polite politics and have proof they were all actually assholes.
Greg quickly downloaded a copy of N_elle’s video to his personal hard drive in case it got banned. He subscribed to her channel using his personal account and then cleared his history. He didn’t think about whether he should reject his self-serving instincts, or that perhaps he shouldn’t take a machete to a path already intent on reducing the variegated growth of human aliveness into measurable traits. He wanted to win the game he and his industry had invented.
Janelle shuffled into the front row of a roped off switchback line for a salad counter. She was only eight minutes into her lunch break yet melancholy gnawed at her. She pulled out her phone to swipe through the history of her day. A blue light radiated up to her face; her morning had been bright. The lines on the screen pulsed out in thin curves and she remembered how weightless her steps into the office had felt. She scrolled forward from those earlier hours to the current moment, then pushed through the fabric of the screen to confirm how she felt: reddish-brown, thick, viscous. The sludgy animation pulsed slowly on the screen. She thumbed backwards in the timeline to the morning and, as she saw the blue light radiating again, she felt happy to know she had felt alive for those few hours.
Arhythmia could articulate feelings she’d had her whole life but never knew how to describe—never even knew they were worth paying attention to. Like her hands getting sweaty before walking into a party. Like recognizing months later a text message had mattered. Or seeing her own face change shape in the first few years of her twenties. The app allowed her to live life twice: in the moment and while scrolling. She smiled to herself then ordered a salad she really couldn’t afford. It had exactly one protein, five vegetables, and 389 calories. She was calm, satisfied.
Sarah Henry writes speculative and literary fiction and currently lives in Brooklyn. She is an alum of One Story’s Writing Circle and is a member of Columbia University’s Digital Storytelling Lab.
Photo: Robert Shunev/Unsplash