'OK Google:' How Virtual Assistants Change Our Connection To The Past

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"Repressed Memories" by u/metallicake
"Repressed Memories" by u/metallicake

TL;DL (Too Long; Didn’t Listen):

Virtual assistants like Alexa and Siri know a lot about us – maybe TOO much about us. But when we’re gone, they also leave our loved ones with something to hold on to. In this episode, we explore how technology is helping preserve memories and, in doing so, changing our relationship to the past.

Reddit Links: 

-The post explaining why we cringe while remembering something embarrassing 

-The AskReddit thread about downloading Google data

Thanks to Redditor u/metallicake for this week's episode art, "Repressed Memories." You can find more of her work @vyankka  and @hiddenblade

Trigger warning: This episode mentions suicide.  If you need help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255.) It is anonymous and open 24/7.

Full Transcript:

This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text. 

Ben Brock Johnson: Amory, you know how in Game Of Thrones they used to say, “The North Remembers?”

Amory Sivertson: Ben, we’ve been over this. I didn’t watch Game of Thrones! But I can imagine what that means, so sure.

Ben: OK. I think reddit remembers too. I heard this phrase recently and it stuck with me because it is true that inside jokes and famous posts last a really long time on Reddit. People will refer to old posts on new post threads. People talk about crazy stories that were posted years ago.

Amory: Yeah, a lot of memories. But there are also posts and threads about memory. Like one we found in the “Explain Like I’m Five” community, with the headline: “Why does our body cringe when we remember something embarrassing?” In response, a redditor was getting pretty nerdy about memory in the comments.

Tiffany Stafford: The more a neural pathway is traveled the stronger it gets. That's how habits are formed. I'm Tiffany and I live in Texas. I've worked in the behavioral health field for well over a decade.

Amory: Tiffany used to work in an in-patient crisis facility where she helped people through the lowest moments in their lives, which is why she become really interested in understanding more about how memories are built and then re-accessed by the brain.

Ben: It’s connected with something called the stress response.

Tiffany: It's just your body responding to stress through hormones. And we have to remember for one thing that stress isn't necessarily negative. We actually have a really, really mild stress response just in the act of learning something new. 

Ben: You’re saying you’re stressing me out right now, is that what you’re telling me? 

Tiffany: I’m stressing you out.

Ben: Throughout your life, as different things happen to you, you get different levels of stressed out. And again, stress here basically means emotional response. Happy, sad, nervous, embarrassed, whatever. These things are connected to a really deep part of your brain.

Tiffany: So the amygdala is the lizard brain and it controls all of our most primal stuff, you know right down to our heartbeat. And that is where the fight, flight, or freeze response comes from, where if we're suddenly really afraid we're gonna do one of those three things.

Amory: When we have a stress response, the amygdala connects to the nervous system, which signals our adrenal glands to release hormones. Basically, it’s bath-time, hormone bath-time.

Tiffany: We're talking about adrenaline itself and cortisol, also known as hydrocortisone. When those things are coursing through our system at the same time that an event is happening, it helps lock in that memory. And if you're remembering something that's emotionally charged, then those hormones, they kick back in. And if the thing was embarrassing, suddenly you're embarrassed again. And so you're just having the same natural response to that stimulus even though it's just a memory now, that you had the first time when it actually happened.

Ben: Tiffany has been thinking about memory a lot lately. When her mom passed away six months ago, she moved into her mom’s apartment.

Tiffany: And so I'm sitting here surrounded by my mother's belongings and I have had to make an effort to really reclaim the space as my own, visually, so that I don't overload on that grief. This needs to be my apartment so it needs to literally look different. I've taken all the art down and I'm gonna put it back up in different places. I burn sage sometimes, you know, to cleanse the air and so I'm doing those kind of things.

Amory: Tiffany misses her mom. But she wants to be in control of the infusions of hormones when she remembers something and things come flooding back. So she thinks a lot about what to let go of.

Ben: And what to keep. Like a voicemail her mom left for her sister after she got engaged.

Tiffany: In her tone through the whole thing just, it sounds like the sweetness that she was.

Tiffany’s Mom's Voicemail: I am so so happy for you and so excited I can’t believe I missed your call. Please call me this evening. Please call me. I long to talk to you about this. 

Ben: Today’s episode: Speak Memory. I’m Ben Brock Johnson

Amory: I’m Amory Sivertson. And you’re listening to Endless Thread.

Ben: The show featuring stories found in the vast ecosystem of online communities called reddit.

Amory: We’re coming to you from WBUR, Boston’s NPR station. Tiffany was actually one of two redditors we talked to who were accessing memories by playing old voice recordings.

Ben: The other person is Asheton.

Andrew Recording: OK Google, Asheton is my wife

Ben: That would be Andrew. Asheton’s husband. Talking to his phone.

Andrew Recording: I love you. You can send it

Asheton: My name's Asheton. My username on Reddit is doctorgurlfrin. I'm from Ellijay, Georgia so I live in the mountains and I work as a veterinary technician.

Ben: That’s her day job. But Asheton met Andrew after her former night gig, roller derby! That kind of scary sport where women roller skate around a rink in helmets and padding and throw elbows.

Amory: Did you have one of those badass monikers? 

Asheton: My derby name was AshesSmashes and my derby number was 420.  

Ben: Can you describe the bar that you used to go to with your roller derby team after practices? 

Asheton: It's called Tipsy McSway’s. It's in Brunswick, Georgia. It's just a really groovy place. I mean, there's people from all walks of life that hang out there.

Ben: A few years back, Asheton was living as a single mom. But one of the people hanging out at Tipsy McSway’s was Andrew.

Andrew Recording: I’m here, babe.

Asheton: Okay so the first time that I met Andrew, you know, it was just regular derby practice. Nothing special about that night. We went out and got some beer and got something to eat. And I just noticed this guy. He kept on coming up to me and like trying to talk to me. And at the time I was like not having any of that. Some of the girls on my derby team were like, “Dude, this guy’s stalking you!” And I kept trying to avoid him. And he ended up following me outside and eventually bought me a beer and we just started talking. And we must have sat and talked for maybe three or four hours that night until the bar closed and I remember texting my best friend. I said, “Hey, is this guy's name familiar to you? Because I feel like we know him.” And she's like, “No dude, I've never heard that name before.” Yeah, we just felt like we had a connection from the start.

Amory: What was the thing that kind of turned the tide of the conversation between, “Why is this guy following me outside and not giving up,” and you being a little curious about him?

Asheton: I think it was just the comfort that I felt. Like as comfortable as I would at home by myself. You know, just with somebody else who, we like the same bands. You know we had the same vision prescription too, which is kind of weird, but we had the same exact prescription. I mean it was just hanging out after Derby practice and then it turned into hanging out every night. And you know he started tagging along with me to run errands and stuff like that. And he helped in my daughter's birthday party, the daughter that I had before I met him. And you know he just seemed to step right in and fill in this place of like a sidekick that I didn't realize I needed. But once he was there I didn't know what I was going to do without him.

Amory: Asheton and Andrew got married in 2014.

Andrew Recording: OK Google, send a message. Asheton, I was just literally texting you that. You are awesome.

Ben: How would you describe him to somebody who doesn't know him, has never talked to him or never seen him?

Asheton: Right off the bat I'd say I know they were going to love him. He's hilarious, super outgoing, life of the party, just like a super friendly guy. He would have been like the ultimate salesperson, could talk you into anything.

Andrew Recording: So I just broke down and I bought a Ryobi weed eater from Home Depot. It has the thing where you can have multiple attachments to it, so now we don’t have to buy extra equipment in the future

Asheton: He loved computers. He loved electronics. He loved all sorts of those things, worked for a few electronic companies did some sign work for a while and then kind of just became a family man.

Amory: What did he look like?

Asheton: He was tall and skinny. He had a big bushy beard that he used to be scared to shave because I loved it so much. The most beautiful blue eyes I've ever seen in my life. And when he was happy they were just perfect sky blue. And then when he was upset or angry they'd be a little bit darker. But you could tell how he was feeling by his eye color.

Ben: Several weeks ago, there was a really popular thread in the “ask reddit” community. People were talking about downloading their Google data, and what they were finding.

Asheton: I just was reading through the comments primarily and I saw people saying things like, “Oh there were snippets of our conversations we thought were private at work.” And yeah I was like that's creepy, of course, right off the bat. But then it just dawned on me I was like, “Oh my gosh, what if Google had picked up conversations between me and Andrew that I didn't know had been recorded or text messages that he sent me that would be in his voice through voice-to-text or stuff like that. And then, a question: “Can somebody please help me figure out how to download this?” And sure enough, like minutes later, somebody did.

Amory: Asheton found a treasure trove.

Montage of Andrew Recordings:

I’m in the mood for beach music. OK Google, play Michael Franti. Play Barbie Girl. Play Matisyahu radio. Play Frank Sinatra. Play The White Stripes radio. Play Highwaymen. Open Spotify, play Cyndi Lauper “Time After Time.”

OK Google, does Netflix Luke Cage take place after Jessica Jones? Who does the voice of Homer Simpson? How many milliliters are in 16 ounces? Is Bill Odenkirk related to Bob Odenkirk? What time is the Redskins game? When does Burger King start serving breakfast?

Ben: That last one was from 1:54 a.m. There was also a huge amount of audio that was more of a reminder of Andrew and Asheton’s relationship, like messages he sent to her on voice-to-text.

Andrew Recording: Of course baby, I’m sorry you’re not feeling good. Do you want me to get you anything? 

Amory: Asheton says she and Andrew really were a great match. They had a partnership.

Montage of Andrew Recordings:

OK Google, how to cook thick cut pork chops in the oven. How to make coffee on the stovetop. How do I check on my federal tax return status? Send a message to Asheton: Hey baby, ask your mom if she has some post hole diggers. Send it. Can I return a product at Walmart at this time at night?

Ben: They were also a great team, as parents.

Asheton: Yeah I have an older daughter. She's eight now, but when we got together she was about four. She loved him right from the start. You know he's just a funny guy. Get down and play with her, wasn't scared to get dirty. Always had energy you know, so he could keep up with her and she just loved him right off the bat because he was just you know, so awesome. And then we had a daughter together, Dakota. She just turned 5 years old. And she has his characteristics. Things kind of just like roll off her back like they would with him.

Amory: Asheton and Andrew and their two daughters were a happy family. But Andrew’s past before he met Asheton had not been so happy.

Andrew Recording: OK Google, Bible verses for people in addiction.

Ben: We’ll be back, in a minute.

[Sponsor Break]

Ben: When Asheton met Andrew he was a graphic designer. But he’d had a different career before that.

Asheton: He served as infantry in the military. He really didn't talk about it all that much because he did have some bad experiences. 

Andrew Recording: OK Google, is there an app to protect me from government surveillance?

Amory: Asheton says that Andrew had issues with PTSD and flashbacks. He had nightmares and other emotional episodes.

Asheton: Probably the most significant issue that did result from that, it was we went out and had a few drinks one night, I believe it was around one of those military holidays but I can't remember which one. And after he had a few drinks in him there was a song that he recognized. I don't remember what song it was because I was outside at the time. But he went a little bit ballistic. You know, he was upset about the way veterans were treated, something along those lines. And he got really angry and agitated again. But he eventually calmed down and just went to sleep. But that was probably the most out of character angry I'd ever seen him before was that night. 

Ben: The next day Andrew went to an in-patient facility to get, as Asheton calls it, his mind right. He came out super motivated and optimistic. But over the next few years he would suffer more episodes. Each time Asheton and Andrew would opt into care. Each time he would come out feeling renewed. Andrew didn’t really talk about his military service. He kept that stuff separate from the rest of his family. Generally he had liked being in the military. And most of the time, he seemed OK with it. But he’d also done tours in Afghanistan. And when you’re in the infantry in Afghanistan, you’re likely to see action. Still, Andrew was an engaged husband and father, who was making efforts to deal with his challenges.

Andrew Recording: OK Google, download daily bible app

Amory: But one day in April 2018 Asheton got the call you never want to get.

Asheton: I was actually in Kennesaw at the time. We were thinking about moving up there and I had just gotten a job so I got off work and been home for about 15 minutes and basically I received a phone call from the police. At first, it was complete denial. You know, this is not something that happened. I don't believe you. The whole time in the car, you know, I was just screaming, “This can't be true. This is not happening.” When I got there and I saw how many people were kind of waiting to talk to me, I realized that something is definitely going on. That's when they told me how he did it and when he told me that, I knew it was true.

Ben: Andrew had died by suicide. Before, there had been warning signs that he was on a downward spiral. This time, there weren’t any. Asheton was in shock.

Amory: Since they had only been together a few years, Asheton says that along with the huge and horrible crisis that was his death, along with the brutal impact on their family, she realized that she just didn’t have the kind of things that help you remember a person in your life who’s passed away.

Asheton: I don't have very many videos or voicemails or anything like that. I didn't think that something like this would ever happen. 

Ben: Which is why Asheton posted a heartfelt message on the reddit thread asking other redditors to help her figure out how to download the Google data off of Andrew’s phone, which we’ve been listening to. And even if some of it is small, Asheton says, in the things she did have of Andrew, videos, photos, none of them have him saying her name. Like the Google data does.

Andrew Recording: Call Asheton.

Send a message to Asheton

OK Google, text Asheton.

Ben: There is something odd about listening to Andrew’s voice after he’s gone. Nobody ever really thinks about the minutiae they leave behind. The things they say to their devices, into their machines. You don’t think people will listen back to that.

Amory: And we should admit that we don’t have Andrew’s permission to play this stuff. We have Asheton’s permission. For her, it’s a window she can look through to preserve a part of him, and that means a lot.

Asheton: I listened to a few things but I'd gotten really emotional and it was hours before I checked Reddit again and when I happened to check it, I just saw the amount of notifications and I was like, “Oh my God, what happened!? What did I post that got so much attention!?” And that's when I saw you know the messages and comments. “I can't believe this. You're making me cry.” Things like that. And I was like, oh my God, I never expected people to care so much and I did not have that much support when Andrew died. So just knowing that there are people out there that care. I mean, it feels good.

Amory: Hearing Andrew’s voice feels good too. Especially when the reality of her life without him sinks back in.

Asheton: There are just days that it is overpowering. And I don't want to get out of bed or do anything and I kind of torture myself a little bit, I guess, by listening to those. But you know, it gives me a little bit of joy for a little bit and I try to focus on the brighter side of things.

Amory: These snippets of audio bring those hormones and joyful memories flooding back to Asheton.

Ben: Smart speakers are becoming more ubiquitous, and speech-to-text technology continues improving, so Asheton's story may just be a sign of things to come. In fact, a lot of people have pointed out that Asheton's story is very similar to a well known episode of the Netflix sci-fi show Black Mirror, where a widow uses a tech company’s service to pull all of her former partner’s data in and recreate his personality in a conversational AI.

(brief clip from Black Mirror episode "Be Right Back)

She says she might watch that episode, but she hasn’t yet.

Amory: So has this changed how you think about technology and our relationship to it and privacy issues?

Asheton: This instance for me, it seems like it's probably an isolated incident. You know, I appreciate that. I'm glad for it. I am still wary of technology. I think technology is crazy and I'm not that great with it to be honest.

Amory: Asheton also maybe doesn’t have time to mull over the deep philosophical implications of technology and privacy. She’s a single mother of two, who is still trying to cope with Andrew being gone.

Asheton: I think the most unexpected change is just the little moments alone at night. You know, after the kids are in bed and you're just used to talking to somebody. That stillness is something to get used to. You know, our daughter started pre-K last year and he should have been there for that.

Ben: Andrew might not be around anymore, but Drew as the girls call him, is still very much a presence in the house.

Asheton: On her birthday, just at the house, you know, it was after school and everything, they were going to bed. They had just gotten in the tub. While they were in the tub, I was like I'm going to put these little party hats on her stuffed animals. I think they'd be really cute while she's in the tub. So when she came out of the tub, you know, my older daughter's taking a shower and so I’m toweling her off and getting dressed and she looked around she said, “Oh my God. Who put those here?” And I was like, “Who do you think put them there?” expecting her to say me. And she looked at me dead serious she said, “Drew put them there.” And I kind of paused for a second. I was like, “Yeah. Drew did put them there. I mean, he is an angel he can do stuff like that right? You know he's invisible.” And she's like right. But it backfired and she found like 10 other stuffed animals that didn't have little party hats on, and told her sister that Drew is going to come back and put party hats on all those stuffed animals. Lined them up on the wall. And long story short I was up till 1:00 a.m. making party hats to put on these little stuffed animals just so she would think that like her dad came on her birthday just to put little party hats on her animals for her. It was special to her so I gladly did it.

Andrew Recording: OK Google, how do you spell epiphany?

Amory: Why were you so eager to find recordings of his voice?

Asheton: It's different, hearing somebody's voice, I mean, to me it's, I haven't heard his voice in so long. I don't want to say that I've forgotten it, because I haven't. You know the second I heard it, it's exactly like I remember. But I can look at all these photos all day and they only give me so much. It just, I don't know, it’s just a special part of my heart, you know.

Ben: Do you have a particular message that is your favorite or something that you discovered that was a surprise or you know, feels particularly valuable now?

Asheton: There is a message that he sent me talking about his daughter a couple of days before he passed away, but it was talking about how much she loved pizza and how excited she was about the pizza that they had ordered that night. 

Ben: What kind of pizza was it?

Asheton: Pepperoni pizza from Domino's. They're really basic kids. 

Ben: I’m pretty basic too I had pepperoni pizza for lunch. 

Amory: Yeah he did. 

Asheton: Yeah. It's got to have the pepperoni according to Dakota, though, because it's not spicy enough without it.

Ben: I feel the same way! I feel the same exact way.

Amory: Asheton says that she hasn’t played Andrew’s audio for her daughters yet. But she is planning on getting them a special gift in the future, a custom stuffed animal that says “I love you” in Andrew’s voice when you squeeze it.

Andrew Recordings: OK Google, call Asheton.

How are you doing today?

OK Google, text Asheton, I’m outside baby, send it.

Headshot of Josh Crane

Josh Crane Producer, Podcasts & New Programs
Josh is a producer for podcasts and new programs at WBUR.



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