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Code Societies 2018, Days 2 & 6, with Lauren McCarthy

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Session 1

Two classes of this summer’s Code Societies are being directed by New York and LA based artist and programmer, Lauren McCarthy. Her work examines networked technologies that afford new levels of surveillance in the home and the effects of these on social relationships and personal reflection. Notably, she is also the creator of p5.js.

Capturing Home

Prior to this first session, Lauren had already assigned a “capture” exercise, prompting participants to capture a portrait of themselves in their home using a computational device with the liberty to interpret the words “portrait”, “home”, and “computational device” broadly. To kick off this session, we presented these to our fellow students and it is immediately apparent that everyone has interpreted this assignment differently, and with varying degrees of intimacy.

Capture a portrait of yourself in your home using a computational device

Lauren urged us to consider the home as a concept rather than a place. Most of us feel like we understand what home means to us, but this seldom translates to modern tech. The home has always been filled with tools and technology, so why do we feel so disembodied by technology? How can we bring the familiarity of the home to technology?

These questions spurred our next exercise:

How do you know you are home? Could we write code for creating home?

Here are the answers from some of us for what defines “our home”:

  • boundaries
  • tightly fitted bedsheet
  • good todo list
  • taking care of a place
  • repetition
  • ability to be alone
  • familiarity
  • able to recharger
  • openness
  • feeding my cat
  • a pile of books
  • messiness
  • windows and/or light
  • where my dog is
  • my kitchen
  • empty space for undistracted thought
  • kitchen for undistracted thought
  • somewhere i can take a shower that’s hot for at least ten mins
  • cabinets
  • a place I can stay as long as I want

Lauren walks us through some projects that probe capturing the home. These include Watertight, Removal Studies by Michael Kontopoulos, House and Universe by Mary Mattingly, and Lights in the City by Alfredo Jaar.

left: Removal Studies by Michael Kontopoulos, right:

Captured by Home

What does it mean to capture a private space? What happens when networked technologies are brought into this? What roles do surveillance, data collection, and telepresence play?

Tech companies are selling us ‘smart devices’, yet the home has always been filled with technology. Developed primarily in the Silicon Valley bubble, these ‘smart devices’ distribute AI that embodies the values of the engineers that created them and consequently, formulates our actions and identity. For example, the first version of Siri did not know about Planned Parenthood due to its apparent lack of importance to the developers’ lives. This may not have necessarily been a conscious decision, but was more likely derived from societal and economic position. In a family home this also raises the question of which values might this be imparting to our children? Business owners are not deaf to their target market of families and in fact capitalize by pandering to and reinforcing traditional family structures. As an example, Alexa ads push the values of the woman as the keeper of the home- reminiscent of the feminization of AI technologies in “service” roles.

Next we consider the tension between ownership and shared custody of technology. Unlike a bookshelf, which you own, a smart device that you buy is constantly being updated. You end up with ‘shared custody’ of the device with a corporation, since the role of a smart device is subject to the laws of the locale and the whims of the company making it.

Guest Artist: Max Hawkins

Next we hear from guest artist Max Hawkins, an artist and computer scientist with an active devotion to randomised living. Feeling claustrophobic in a repetitive routine while living in San Francisco, Max began writing scripts that could dictate his life with computational randomness. One solution he created was an app that would fetch data from Google Maps and order him an Uber to a random location without revealing to him any of this information. This then mutated into an app that would randomly select him Facebook events within a reasonable area. He ended up being directed to events such as a law school graduation, a nursing seminar for sleep, and a trap-neuter-release event for cats. Eventually this experiment got shut down by Facebook. However, this project had alerted him to another restrictive element of his life - his location. He eventually developed a program that would automatically book fights to new locations based on his profit from the month’s freelance work.

Max’s facebook group for randomising dietary restrictions

Max’s natural initial expectations were that a randomly lived life would help him expand the set of things he was aware of- and at first they did. However, as the computer continued to generate his life, he realized that it had instead become a mirror of the world around him. Applying a uniform random process on a world that is not random ends up teaching you about the world around you. For example, the algorithm naturally selected more yoga events in San Francisco- because there are more. This is where he began to acknowledge the random process as a tool for identifying biases around him. By applying the random process to one’s actions, which is inherently a non-random space of possibilities (due to our moral values, cultural backgrounds, etc.), we can carve out what those values actually are by investigating which random events make us feel uncomfortable or out of place.

Lauren returned to expose us to the ingeniously simple If This Then That. This online service allows you to create and customize your own triggers, keeping your life and devices connected to your own preference. Some examples include: send me a message 10 minutes before sunset, record your daily FitBit activity in a Google Spreadsheet, when I answer a call pause Roomba. IFTTT affords a substantial amount of room for customization, allowing you to create your own triggers with your own applets, sensing and automating your environments on your own terms.

If Face Then That: Lauren’s applet for interfacing with If This Then That

We finished this session by discussing our assignment for the next class:

What is a ritual (pattern, behaviour, event, protocol) you would like to implement at SFPC?

  • design a device to facilitate or support this ritual
  • what will be the function?
  • can its visual form suggest its purpose?
  • what materials, technologies, non-technologies, or information will you need to create this device?