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Lauren McCarthy takes on Silicon Valley optimism

Header illustration by Jordan Rosenberg

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When iOS 8 was injected into Apple smartphones worldwide in September, one of the biggest stories that emerged about it was the predictive typing “feature.” If you’re still bumpin’ dat Blackberry or are a Windows Phone disciple: Quicktype enables “the keyboard [to get smart] and typing gets easier. It suggests contextually appropriate words based on whom you’re typing to and in what app.”

In case you missed it, yes, Apple is implying that typing and communicating with your friends and loved ones is too hard and must be made easier—overlooking the fact that, culturally, the iPhone has made the act of calling your friends or loved ones without texting first an out-and-out befuddling intrusion.

“I see new technologies painted black or white, but it never feels that simple to me” 

Additionally, the sentences you can piece together via Quicktype are single-malt insane robo-hatchling pseudo-English. (“The fact that you are the only thing is that I have to do it for the next few years and years of the best thing about the new update is the only way you can get it together for a while,” is a recent example I confused a friend with.) Plenty of stories and Twitter feeds popped up in the last few weeks centered on this techno poetry, amounting to not much more than giggling, “LOL did you see this?” instead of pondering “OMG what does this mean?”

It’s the latter question that Brooklyn artist/programmer Lauren McCarthy has been exploring since 2005: How do technological advances impact our interactions with one another as humans?

“A lot of times I see new technologies painted black or white, but it never feels that simple to me,” says McCarthy. “I think many of these things could go either way and it will take a lot of good debate and thoughtful design if we want to swing toward a future we actually want.”

She decided to start tinkering after thinking abstractly about the gym: “this public/private space where people gather to refine their identities amid various dynamics of surveillance, control, and utopianism—and comparing this to the online social spaces that were developing in the mid-2000s,” as she described it. Some of her earlier experiments included 2009’s Showertweet, where, as the Twitter Artist in Residence for the Brooklyn Museum of Art, she waterproofed her phone and tweeted everyday from her shower.

In 2014, this hardly sounds like a social experiment at all, right? We’ll blare Spotify from our iPhones precariously perched atop our toilets and maybe grab it mid-shower if we think of an especially witty, acerbic, or inspiring tweet. But in 2009, McCarthy’s intent was to “explore the effect technology has on the boundary between private and public life. What happens if the most intimate experiences are shared online?”

Today we all know the answer but likely can’t get enough perspective on it to step outside and properly label it, much less decide do anything to course correct if necessary. It says something about us that in five short years, our online identities and our offline ones have become enmeshed to the point of being lockstep—a potentially unhealthy and obsessive existence. More importantly, we stopped asking ourselves that question.

“The vulnerability and self-awareness of everyday moments interests me a lot,” explains McCarthy. “Not necessarily the times when you’re at your most blank, but the times when things are pretty normal while everything you feel as a person conscious in the world is bubbling just below the surface.”

McCarthy’s way of doing that, historically, has been by highlighting or heightening awkward or uncomfortable moments in conversations or social interactions and making them the centerpiece rather than the silences we pretend not to notice. After all, we spend most of our time not being raconteurs extraordinaires but verbally stumbling our way through interactions, asking people to repeat themselves, or sheepishly admitting we weren’t really listening.

“I am hoping people feel the conflict with the things I put out there” 

This year she launched Crowdpilot, an app that “lets you crowdsource your conversations by bringing a group of your friends or strangers along to listen in and assist you in any situation. Say you have a blind date and are unsure what to say. Crowdpilot lets you stream your conversation and lets others (Facebook friends, “hired assistants who speak English,” whoever) suggest dialog options: Making your next OKCupid excursion a mish-mash of Mass Effect, Monkey Island, and You Don’t Know Jack.

Fox News declared people “are not going to be happy” about their conversations unknowingly being eavesdropped on, and dredged up a number of comparisons between McCarthy’s app and the NSA. In a certain sense, yes, this was Fox News being Fox News—sensationalistic and provocative—but when was the last time you heard mainstream-media skepticism around technology beyond “Which smartphone should you buy?”

This is McCarthy’s intent: “I am hoping people feel the conflict with the things I put out there, and negotiate with the experience to find their own answers or questions.”

It helps that the runway she takes people on is heavily paved with coyness—all the copy accompanying her creations deftly matches the tone of Silicon Valley techno-optmism, cranking the dial a notch or two up to the invasive/frightening implication side. Even when she’s dabbling firmly in sheer, terrifying absurdism, as with 2009’s Happiness Hat, a “wearable conditioning device that detects if you’re smiling and provides pain feedback if you’re not.”

As her website plainly describes: “An enclosed bend sensor attaches to the cheek and measures smile size, a servo motor moves a metal spike into the head inversely proportional to the degree of smile. Through repeated use of this conditioning device you can train your brain to smile all the time. The device runs on Arduino.”

Basically, NBD—if you aren’t happy, a metal spike will force you to fake it, thanks to microcontrollers!

Clearly she’s being facetious here, right?

“I might use a familiar tone or framework but then twist it a bit to see how it feels just a few steps away,” explains McCarthy. “With each piece I am trying to engage with the tension and let the audience do this too. I’m more interested in provoking questions than trying to impose one point of view.”

But, she admits, responses to her work tends to be “usually pretty mixed.”

Can technology actually make us better humans? 

Then again, if you’ve ever spent any amount of time not staring at your glowing rectangle while out and about, that shouldn’t surprise you: We’d rather be distracted and “connecting” than working on our self-awareness and connecting. McCarthy’s work tries to push us somewhere in the middle—able to use technology to heighten our self-awareness. A great example of this was last year’s us+, a supplement to Google Hangouts that “analyzes speech and facial expression to improve conversation.” Like Crowdpilot, it covertly monitors a conversation, but will give you onscreen prompts to be more positive, to listen more, or it will mute you if you’ve been talking too much.

By way of contrast, Google thinks a great supplement to Hangouts is letting you toss virtual hats or mustaches on yourself. It’s doofy, and in the spirit of fun, but again glosses over the question McCarthy zeroes in on. Yes, it’s okay to have fun online and fire off iOS 8 poetry to our friends—but obviously on a long enough timeline these types of interactions serve to further isolate us, not make our bonds tighter.

Take, for example, her Facebook Mood Manipulator from earlier this year, an obvious nod to the platform’s “secret” mood-manipulation experiment. Rather than let the social-media giant decide how you should feel, this browser extension lets you “manipulate your emotions.” Want to only see positive things in your feed? No problem. But, it obviously comes at a hidden cost: “If you can use an algorithm to make you feel better on a rough day, is there any reason [ever] not to? What if this comes at the price of filtering out your friends when they’re calling out for help?”

But that, in turn raises another set of questions: Can technology actually make us better humans? If so, are we actually becoming better humans, or something else altogether?

“That is one of the main questions I’m always thinking about,” McCarthy says. “I don’t really believe a particular technology is ever going to make us ‘better’ or ‘more human’ on its own though, we have to do that part. But maybe there is a possibility of using or arranging the tools in some unexpected way to trigger moments of awareness, to temporarily knock us out of our comfort zone into a space where we may find deeper understanding and connection.”

Emoticon Love Pattern via Flickr
1968 Vintage Home/Bathroom Remodeling… via Flickr 
Why I Decided to Become a Cyborg via Flickr