I Spoke the Secrets You Whispered to Your Digital Assistants (Ariadne Starling)

Verity La Nonfiction, Rogue State

(Edited by Kathryn Hummel)

It was either me or Benjamin Franklin who said that those who agree to the excessive permissions of the Facebook app in exchange for the opportunity to waste the afternoon procrasturbating and shitposting to flouncers at Terrible Art in Charity Shops deserve neither liberty nor safety. Pretty sure it was Franklin. I’m in the bafflingly impotent position of having the critical theory education to critique the pernicious historical hegemonies of global capital but my broke chronically ill arse needs minimum wage work-from-home work and food and I’m too old not to spring for a decent mid-range water-based lube, so I take the gig work I can get. (Guy Standing in The Precariat: In the 1960s, a typical worker had four employers by his retirement. Now, she has nine employers by age 30.) The best gig I had was taste-testing a new range of luxury ice-creams infused with Bailey’s Irish Cream. The worst gig I had was serving drinks at an impoverished state-run nursing home.

But the gig I learned the most from was voice recording. With the increasing prominence of digital assistants on the market and in the endless hot-takes of Anglophone tech reporting, there is a greater recognition of the possibilities and limits of these technologies. And as feminist critics have been arguing for decades, the tech industry has a diversity problem. Digital assistants can best understand the speech of white, male, middle-class, urban Northern US English speakers. Inscrutable algorithms are — like their programmers and the police and state forces who exploit them under surveillance capitalism (Zuboff) — notoriously racist, particularly those in facial-recognition software used to surveil, racially profile, and over-police Black communities in colonised Anglophone countries (Breland). Because the machine of capitalism works by endlessly exploiting new frontier markets (Patel and Moore), and surveillance capitalism works by endlessly monetising the data that users relinquish in exchange for handy free apps, tech corporations are anxious to expand the voice-recognition of their products to include regional and global English accents and dialects.

Digital assistants are the Daily Times, the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Dolly Doctor, the Ask Jeeves of our times. We ask of them information, entertainment, empowerment, and solace. We bring them our terror, our hopelessness, our boredom, our shame. Digital assistants are gendered feminine for their endless subservience (Avner). Slavoj Žižek, speaking about dystopic literature, famously said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. I, speaking about Microsoft’s Cortana, Apple’s Siri, and Google’s nameless femme (Edmonds), say that it is easier to imagine the end of humanity in the AI Singularity than it is to imagine the end of feminised subservience under patriarchy. We enthusiastically buy the machines that spy on us (Cowles), and the spectre of never-severed disconnection ever beckons. As Thomas Harris says in Silence of the Lambs about the serial killer Hannibal Lecter, there is something terrifying in the idea that someone can know everything about you without liking you or caring about you as a result. A tech writer tries to go cold-turkey on the big five tech companies and I feel the heartbreak when her daughter says plaintively, part-way through the month, ‘I miss Alexa’ (Hill).

The year 2020 is a weird beast to live in, simultaneously somehow too hooked on the future and too unreconciled with the ongoing violences of the past; perhaps it was ever thus. I see a Bitcoin ATM in real life for the first time in a food court where a twentieth-century ATM had been, but an Aboriginal man dies of thirst outside a busy Woolworths after being kicked out of the air-conditioning (Welcome). I see a group of shoppers in an outer-suburban mall flocking around a display car and my first impulse is to mock their eager materialism for the cheap thrill of an imagined superiority; schadenfraudulence. Then I get closer and I’m a hasty flocker too because it’s a Tesla and has an impossible, impeccably lined second boot where the engine should be, the clean lines of the uncluttered dash in electric blue, but it took 119 years for abortion to be legalised in New South Wales, on 26 September, 2019. I’m at a protest packing out Spring Street and I see my first police drone hovering eerily above the crowd in the shadow of two choppers that make themselves better known. But farmers are committing suicide at twice the national rate (ABC) and the protest is the School Strike 4 Climate, in which kids let regressive politicians the world over know that climate denial is so last-century. And this may be our last century.

For my voice-recording gig, I sat in my bedroom and recorded hundreds of prompts taken from search engine entries. I realise as I’m recording them that I’m getting a window into our private worlds. The things we ask of search engines are petty, profound, hasty, inspired, pedantic, anxious, playful, and weird — just like us. I found myself reflecting on the ethics of that digital intimacy and the need to approach that knowledge with compassion — but not without sharing the best punchlines. The following are real prompts that I recorded, the time I spoke the secrets you whispered to your digital assistants.

turn of the flash

I hadn’t expected to be immediately pitched into the debate waged since antiquity about obeying the spirit or the letter of the law. The few seconds I had to speak each prompt in order to read 800 of them in three hours or so and so make my ‘incentive’ meet the Australian minimum wage hardly gave me room for the nuances of interpretation. Typos were an early and compelling conundrum. Typed entries produce typos like can I hear doug watkins s new alblum and voice entries produce typos like play all the small things from blink to one hundred eighty two for me. Some of them slipped into the rich viscosity of syntactic ambiguity: I pronounced turn of the flash like some dreadful Marvel trequel before I realised what the author was asking for. And what of what is justin bleiber new alblum? Do I pronounce what I know the user clumsily typed or what I know they would want in response to such a request? And how do I make these judgments in the second I have to read the prompt before I need to start the recording, if I’m to get through the other 799 and get my pay? I clumsily tongued my way — not something I normally have to claim about myself — through the syllables and went for Justin Bly-buh alb-lym in the grand Australian tradition of giving an implausible task a red hot crack.

delete teresa from guest list

Teresa, you scrag, what have you done?

take a poop

In 2013, I shat into my own hand for the first time. It would not be the last. We in the West are increasingly anxious about our sub-optimal shitting and marketisation has, naturally, followed (Blasdel). Living with a chronic illness robs you of the privilege of remaining ignorant of the intimate details of your viscera. Living with food intolerances creates a remarkable competency in appraising the quality of your own shit. Did you know there is a scale for measuring the severity of constipation and diarrhoea from lumps to liquid? It’s called the Bristol Stool Scale and now you can’t unknow it. Nurses and carers, of course, have competencies in other people’s shit, and I found this oddly comforting when I found myself squatting over the toilet bowl, gloved hand extended backwards between my legs, hoping for the best, pondering what exactly that would mean, and wondering with more than a little rue how my life’d come to this. Considering writing these words for you, the reader, I am reminded that the personal essay has a complex history and complicity in the sensationalising of minoritised pain, supplying the demand to vomit, bleed, come and shit onto the page for your entertainment (Cooke; Jamison).

I manage to acquire threadworms days before attending my first private orgy at my lover’s house. Just my fucken luck.Luckily, my prospective lovers and I are worldly people well-versed in the intimacies of sexual health conversations in the shadow of contagion. I write a document that we wholesome sluts sometimes compile (Turner), like a cross between a cheat-sheet to fucking me optimally and a dating profile, and I find myself imparting my new knowledge about the transmission of threadworms. I note the cringe at the corner of my carefully chosen words, quasi-euphemisms betraying my reticence. I am trying to be up-front and no-nonsense about the whole affair but it’s a weird thing to articulate. I remember a Monty Python sketch in which a hapless traveller tries to endear himself using the alarming phrases of a terrible dictionary, cheerfully offering, I am no longer infected. I envy that guy when it is not yet something I can claim, and I pity my own envy. In an off-moment, the linguist clown in my mind decides to play the game of dysphemism, thinking of the worst term it could for my affliction. Boy, am I glad I didn’t lead those conversations with ANAL PARASITES; my orgy went just fine.

It’s the opening minutes of an extravagant sex/kink play party, a respectful orgy with skill shares run by Curious Creatures (whose events I heartily and/or cuntily recommend). It’s my fifth play party and I’m chockers with nerves about my upcoming scene. I see my friend sitting inside the front door, so I sit with her and share my nerves for solace. She tells me that she had a Herpes scare and feels ashamed. She asks me, why do I feel that? I tell her that our society tells us that STIs are shameful and we’re dirty if we get them. There’s no moral burden to catching a cold — although that may change now we’re all philosopher-practitioners in the moral dilemma of Coronavirus quarantines (Kluger) — but when it’s sexual, we’re made to feel impure. Even if we’re sophisticated sex-positive body-positive responsible sluts who challenge that shaming, we then get the extra burden of feeling irresponsible. My friend hugs me and feels relieved. I tell her that shame flourishes in silence, and we all think we’re the only one, even when — by definition, with transmittables — we know that we are not.

I remember when I had a joke about Herpes in my dating profile. Ranting about the paucity of male-authored lesbian films, I cited non-binary dyke poet Eileen Myles’s fucking brilliant tweetstorm about the fake lesploitation trash that are the sex scenes in Blue is the Warmest Colour. In one of the greatest burns in the history of lesbian criticism, Myles asserts that ‘calling this film lesbian is like calling herpes a tattoo’.

I go on a date at a Nando’s a few suburbs over. I crunch the nose of my car over one of those low concrete bars in the rain, watched by the woman in the car opposite me, who is my now-bemused date. She is a sweet, shy girl in a dinosaur dress. It goes well. Afterwards, in the carpark in the rain, I smile at her and ask if I can kiss her goodbye. She tells me she has oral Herpes. I tell her that I will read up on it and ask if I can kiss her on the cheek, instead. I do. I google oral Herpes and how it’s transmitted, and I find my way to the patient forums. I learn how much shame people with Herpes are made to feel, and how terrified they are in their mounting dread of the inevitable conversation in which they out themselves as infected to a prospective lover, compounding the fear of rejection that’s bad enough when you’re a sexual creature making yourself open. Once you know someone who’s hurt by something you’ve used thoughtlessly in a punchline, it’s not funny anymore. The reach of my compassion was expanded, and I quietly removed that line from my profile.

remind me to eat ice cream at three forty seven AM

I can’t decide what I like more: the pedantry or the abandon.

add tell me I’m pretty to to do list

The hottest people I’ve known — the objectively model-good-looking people I’ve known — have usually been kinda fucked up about it, for a few different reasons. They’ve been told that they’re hot or beautiful all their life, so it doesn’t mean much to them; if they’re women, they’ve had the additional burden of having a lifetime’s worth of unwanted sexual attention from men. Sometimes it’s because they worry that, if people knew who they really were underneath, they wouldn’t be interested in them. Other times, it’s because they come so close to actually meeting a beauty norm that they feel the need to acutely self-scrutinise. Everyone is held to an impossible beauty norm, and a norm is, by definition, impossible to meet; everyone fails. But not everyone is punished the same way. Change begins on the margins and works its way to the centre (Solnit). It’s the people most heavily punished for failing a norm who are the first to challenge it. It is fat folks, Black folks, disabled and chronically ill folks, poor and angry and sick and revolutionary folks who are forced to decide, I can either internalise fatphobic cishet white supremacist beauty norms and destroy myself failing to meet them, or I can say: Fuck your fascist beauty standards. The happiest and most body-positive people I know are the ones who were worst treated by a rigged beauty system, who re-purposed the tools of gender and beauty for their pleasure and pride.

In this memory, I’m in my second share house in Melbourne, which means I’m 18. I’m waiting at the empty intersection of Burke Rd and Cotham Rd in Kew, taking the long public transport trek home. It’s dark, and I’m waiting at the tram stop, alone. Two guys pull up in a car with their windows down. I hear the passenger chant out his window, low in pitch but loud enough, menacingly, biiig girl. He repeats, the tones going up half a note in the way of that iconic chant, the stadium jeer, the one you use on animals and objects of scorn, biiiig girl. I remember staring forwards and to the side, away from the car, betraying no emotion, protecting myself by being nothing, giving nothing, pinning my strategy to the atrophying of this man’s attention, hoping that his boredom will save me. The strategy that fatphobic culture has been selling me my whole life: Big girl, make yourself small to survive. He chants, the motor idles, he gets bored; they drive away.

It is an old memory, and incomplete: I remember staring at an unspecified point, feigning obliviousness; I remember my fear but not the rest of my senses. Yet when I call on this memory 16 years later, when he chants, my jaw clenches on the right, my heart starts to thump, my forehead tightens in the front edge of a stress headache, my eyes prickle, I swallow. Every fat person I know has a story like this, in closed circles we share our worst stories, and that’s the worst part of all. How fucking banal it is for young fat women to fear men’s attention — give them nothing, atrophy their interest, make yourselves small. When my mind pitches me into my worst memories, like Hannibal through the trapdoor into the pit of his Mind Palace, I imagine myself as I am in the present, like a guardian angel standing over my younger self, just outside of her vision. I’ve since learned that it’s something that psychologists teach, but it is something that I learned how to do on my own, haphazardly. I confronted my demons in the crucible that is clinical depression, loneliness, and poverty. Depression makes you relive the worst memories of your life, over and over — the first time I read what the Dementors do to you in Azkaban, I knew Rowling had been there too. If it doesn’t destroy you, you might be able to come out of it more reconciled with your burdens than when you went in. It’s a truly terrible method of self-scrutiny and I recommend it to no-one; I just had nothing better. In my memory, I’m standing behind my shoulder, eyes on the car, then eyes on me. It’s a technique for helping people with PTSD be less afraid of their memories. It’s a psychological construction, but I find it comforting to feel myself accompanied in those moments, projected backwards through time to be there when I needed it.

I’m in the change rooms at the university pool and it’s full of school kids: the benches, all the showers and every toilet stall filled with girls in their early teens, in the throes of their own traumatic inductions into femininity. Over the rabble, I hear a voice from the far cubicle: Can someone help me? Guys, can someone help me? Can someone help me? Addressed over the stall door to a teacher, Can someone help me? The teachers haven’t heard, having to hustle their shambolic flock into clothes and out of the building and into buses.

I’m not a fat girl anymore. I’m a fat, strong, confident woman. I walk around the gym in a happy, sweaty strut, feeling like a powerful animal-machine creature. I am the fattest person in my gym on any day, and I like showing that these spaces are for fat people, too. I use my size, and my strength, and my confidence, to protect people, to nourish them. And I’m an interventionist: if someone needs my help, I’m giving it.

I’m the only one attending to the tragedy of humiliation in that voice. She is getting dressed in a toilet cubicle because being naked and getting changed in front of other teenage girls is humiliating for fat girls. I speak to the stall door, Can I help you with something? She has opened the stall door a crack, cautious with her nakedness, peering outside to see who might help. I see the hesitation in her eyes, the workings of her logic as she calculates the balance of risk. An adult, a stranger, the gulf of the space she must cross, exposed, to give her back to my touch, urged on by the noise of the teachers escalating their calls to Hurry up girls! It’s time to go! I hope my eyes and my voice impart my compassion. She opens the door all the way, walks to me and turns around, asking me to do up her bra. She can’t do it herself, and has spent those minutes in her stall, hearing the students ignore her and the teachers fail to notice, knowing the last minutes are ticking by before she is caught still undressed and lagging, too fat for her only clothes, exposed in her shame. I take an end of her bra strap in each hand and pull them together; it fails to reach and I try again, harder, in the motion my muscles remember from practising it on the machine upstairs at the gym. I use the restrained strength in my arms to pull the ends together, slightly harder than I need, so that the last few centimetres can be hooked gently, with my more dexterous forefingers, the rest of my fingers holding that tension of the strained elastic. The bra is way too small, rolled inwards at the edges, shiny, synthetic. I know it is uncomfortable because I’ve been that girl in that bra. I feel the urge to advise her, This bra is too small and synthetics are sweaty: get a well-fitting bra in cotton blends. But I know what it cost her to accept my help, and I wish to see her humiliated no further. She hastes a thanks and dashes back to her cubicle to get dressed.

I wish I could save her from the humiliations to come, from a lifetime of shame and internalised self-hatred. I remember her and hope she finds strength wherever she can. In my memories now, I save myself, and for a moment I saved her too.

play baby lullaby zombie movie soundtracks

That kid is gonna make one hell of a horror writer.

set a reminder january fifteen remember to eat

Eating disorders are the mental illnesses with the highest mortality rate, specifically anorexia (Hamilton et al.). Diet culture has always morphed to fit the times and best sell self-hatred and food shaming. In 2020, we increasingly see the mainstreaming of Orthorexia: the eating disorder that is an obsession with eating ‘clean’. And girls are listening. Girls’ self-esteem peaks at age nine and plummets afterwards (Mindquest). Two-thirds of 13-year-old UK girls fear getting fat and UK girls are more than twice as likely as boys to be “extremely worried” about getting fat (Pearson). Nearly 50% of 3-to-6-year-old US girls worry about being fat (Hobbes), 72% of US 7-year-olds are dieting, and young US girls state that they would rather be dead than fat (News-Medical.net).

Being a fat activist and a scholar of Fat Studies feels a lot like having escaped a cult that most people in the rest of your culture are still trapped in. I’m grateful for my liberation, and I have a responsibility to let people know that there are nourishing and empowering discourses out there that can offer you good relationships with food, exercise, your fat body, and your mind. My daily life frequently feels like an impromptu community outreach program for fat activism, sick people theory, economic justice and intersectional sex-positive feminism. I feel like the ex-ex-gay commandos in But I’m a Cheerleader; I feel like I’m snipping the barbed-wire fence of the cult’s compound and sneaking in at night to preach liberation. You don’t have to live like this! There’s a better way!

A friend tells me that members of her team at work are on the same diet. I know them, and I greatly respect and admire them as women professionals. One of them is a powerful and generous and passionate teacher and take-no-bullshit manager. I imagine her life and the lives of these brilliant women tracing backwards through time, knowing that they’ve probably been on diets since they were young. My relatives are on diets but not ones that call themselves diets, anymore: the Diet-Industrial Complex dresses them up these days as fasts, cleanses, detoxing, clean eating. If it involves periodically not-eating in order to lose weight or prevent weight gain, it’s a fucking diet. And if it’s a fucking diet, you will fail, like the estimated 95–99.999% of all dieters of all time who fail (Bacon 145), and you will regain one-third to two-thirds of the weight you lose within one year and all the weight or more within five years (Bacon and Aphramor). One of the strongest predictors of weight gain — more than bullshit unscientific measures like calories or BMI — is having been on a diet (Bacon 44–50; Bacon and Aphramor).

My mind connects the brilliant middle-aged manager with the ambitious young women I know and I realise that these young women are probably going to be on and off diets for the rest of their lives. Like leaving actual cults, one of the worst parts of your liberation is knowing that your loved ones are still trapped in that place.

I go to a social meet-up at a pub after my monthly sex/kink party and I’m proselytising; they’ve got their phones out to write down intuitive eating and food positivity to look up when they’re alone. I’m comforted knowing that somewhere in the world, those phrases are being typed into search engines or spoken to digital assistants, perhaps recorded by someone continents away so the machines can learn to serve someone speaking those words. Someone has looked up to see my midnight raid and is hoping for a better way, hungry for nothing but change.

remind me to call granny

Grandparents can mean a lot of different things and family legacies are complicated. In a spectacular act of Stockholm Syndrome, my abusive mother named me after her abusive mother, who hated her name her entire life and insisted on being called Betty. My surname is that of my father’s family and the guy who never did shit to protect me. When my grandmother died, the morticians sewed her mouth up crooked, preserved fittingly in a sneer that haunted my nightmares. I inherited her sharpness and her intelligence, her books and her wit. My mother’s family is littered with smart, charming abusers, who use their perceptiveness and their intelligence to perpetuate the cycle of cruelty that destroyed their humanity. I have my mother’s and my grandmother’s taste in books. It was in my grandmother’s gossed-up gold-embossed book of Poe that I discovered my love of poetry, along with a cassette of Anne Sexton’s poems that I borrowed from the Balwyn library: her witchy connotations in a guttural drone, magnetic tape of that ever-loquacious crone, and one of the few poets whose voice truly deserves their poems. (Plath’s plummy vowels are hideously out-of-place: she needs to be narrated by Marianne Faithfull, or Courtney Love on a bad day.)

I’m proud of what I did with my name: it is the name I inscribed across my prizes and degrees, the name my lover speaks to me like a prayer when I’m telling them, in my cheek, that if they want exactly that, why they’ll just have to beg me. In the years after I am liberated from having to stifle my truth to ameliorate my family’s feelings, I realise that I can change the name if it no longer fits me. Like the potion you can drink in my fantasy videogame to reset your character’s qualities, and since my birth name’s blotto with baggage and is also so unremarkable as to be the English equivalent of being named Player One, I start thinking up replacements. I look to literature, to mythology, to my culture’s insolent fuck-ups and imperfect gods. And I find a name, two parts that sound great together, the connotations and etymology rippling backwards into the past, speaking of courage, enlightenment, beauty and hope. She kinda sounds like a heroine from a kick-arse fantasy novel I’d read.

But I am the very model of a modern queer Millennial (Felix), so in the wisdom of my sub-set of we so-often maligned people, I google my new-found, hopeful, barely hatched baby bird of a name, to see what the world is doing with it, to see if someone has it already. Someone has it already: she is an actual animated purple lesbian Hentai pony porn star. I’ve seen how much of her transfemme lover’s big pink pony cock she can take, and I can’t compete with that.

Like the heroines of the folk tales of yore, my search for my name continues.

why me
were truly the saddest two words of all.

what time will i arrive to pirates booty llc with the current traffic

My friend, whatever time you arrive to Pirates’ Booty will always have been too late.

*

Works Cited
Bacon, Linda. Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight. BenBella, 2010.
Jamison, Leslie. ‘A Conversation with Leslie Jamison.’ Interviewed by Madelaine Lucas. The Lifted Brow, no. 39, 2018, p. 33.
Patel, Raj and Jason W. Moore. A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet. Black Inc., 2018.
Solnit, Rebecca. ‘Preaching to the Choir.’ Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays). Granta, 2018, p. 75.
Standing, Guy. The Precariat. Bloomsbury Academic, 2011.


Ariadne Starling is the pen-name of an award-winning writer, editor, and critic from Melbourne working in literary essays, sex writing, and queer literature. She is completing a Literature PhD analysing the language of hardcore lesbian sex scenes in fiction. She has won 5 national and international academic scholarships worth $107,000, starting at the age of 11, and 16 awards for academic and creative writing from high school to PhD. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Overland Fair Australia essay prize. She has published in Cordite and Colloquy and has work forthcoming in Antithesis. Find more of Ariadne’s writing on her website and Twitter