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Berkman Community Newcomers: Lauren McCarthy

Berkman Community Newcomers: Lauren McCarthy

This post marks the third in a series featuring interviews with some of the fascinating individuals who joined our community for the 2014-2015 year. Conducted by our 2014 summer interns (affectionately known as "Berkterns"), these snapshots aim to showcase the diverse backgrounds, interests, and accomplishments of our dynamic 2014-2015 community.

Interested in joining the Berkman Center community? We're currently accepting fellowship applications for the 2015-2016 academic year. Read more on our fellowships page.

Q&A with Lauren McCarthy

Berkman affiliate and faculty at NYU ITP
interviewed in summer 2014 by Berkterns Laura Mitchell and Mayukh Sen

What drew you to Berkman, and what specifically do you hope to work on or participate in as a Berkman affiliate?

I had been following the work at Berkman for a while. I was particularly drawn to the interdisciplinary nature of the community and research. As a Berkman affiliate I hope to continue to explore questions of surveillance, identity, and networked relationships. Specifically, I would like to focus on developments in the computational tracking, analysis, and interpretation of human activity, emotion, and communication - and the questions these raise around privacy, data ethics, and how we see ourselves in the world in relation to others.

Your projects engage with many of the big issues surrounding "internet and society" from a highly personal angle. How does this vantage point shape your approach to art, teaching, and research?

Each project I do really begins with something personal I am trying to understand. I take the aspect of my life that is most confusing to me at the moment and try to experiment with it using technology. I'm not trying to make any broad statements about the decisions others should make, but rather, hoping that some might see my experiments and be moved to question and reflect more deeply on the way we're living and the world we're building.

What’s one tech trend that particularly excites (or scares) you?

The tools we use to automate our lives and relationships simultaneously excite and terrify me. Every tool, every API, every technology is embedded with assumptions and biases, yet we don't often question them. And where is the line between what is acceptable to automate or not? If you use a script to oversee and regulate your relationships, and it makes you and the people around you happier, is that okay? The most novel thing about Google Glass for me is not the wearable camera aspect, but the fact that you don't know when the person you're interacting with is looking at a screen and what information they may be getting. They quite literally have another context (or many) superimposed on the one you are currently sharing with them. This opens up a space for all kinds of automation and networked living. I am curious to see which direction we head with it, and whether we can find a way to make this a positive experience.

Facebook drew criticism for allowing a study that was secretly filtering the content users saw and measuring how it affected their moods. Your latest project, the Facebook Mood Manipulator, is an extension that allows users to set their own parameters for filtering content. What implications do these experiments have on how we use our technologies?

I am fascinated by this programmatic interpretation and control of human emotion. Most interesting to me are the studies finding instances where computers can understand humans better than we can ourselves. The question of what should be done with these findings is up for debate, but my goal as an artist is to provide a perspective perhaps not represented in the corporations and institutions building new technologies. There was a lot of backlash to the Facebook study, and we have seen similar outright rejection of other innovations - Google Glass, for example. But these things aren't black and white; they are gray areas, and the ambiguity is the interesting and important part. For real progress to be made, it's necessary to consider both the positive and negative effects of new ideas, be able to tease them apart, and synthesize next iterations that move toward the future we actually want.

Much has been said about social media's virtues – and shortcomings – in terms of being able to curate what we want and don't want to see. How is what you're getting at with the Facebook Mood Manipulator different from this curatorial aspect?

My framing of the extension as a way to ‘take back control’ was sort of tongue in cheek. Are you reclaiming control by willingly giving it over to an algorithm, even one you set the targets for? Facebook is unlikely to give us this kind of explicit control, but it allows us to think more broadly about the systems we are building—what if we could have an interface for our emotions? What if it went beyond just Facebook, but filtered all the content of our lives? Would we want it? How would we use it? Is it wrong to turn down the volume on your friends’ depressing feelings on the days when you just really need a good mood? Is it wrong to want to be happy and to use technology to augment your ability to do this? And maybe our emotions aren’t as simple as unhappy <–-> happy. How do you begin thinking about what you really want to feel?

Are there other artists, academics, or thinkers working in this same intersection between art practice and technology who particularly inspire you?

My frequent collaborator, Kyle McDonald, is a large inspiration to me, his People Staring at Computers piece really made me rethink what an artist could be. The work of art collective F.A.T. Lab has an energy and humor that has opened me to new tactics of engaging with social/tech issues. Jill Magid's Evidence Locker was an early inspiration that has stuck with me; I admire the way she engages with and subverts existing systems in a way that is critical, thoughtful, and personal. There are many more, but I will leave it there.

Along those same lines, do you ever find the "art and technology" binary frustrating, or do you feel that it's a useful distinction that informs your work?

People bring their own interpretations to every designation or title, and my goal as an artist has always been to challenge the boundaries of these boxes, and to realize that everything is much more malleable than it may initially appear.