by Y Combinator8/29/2017
Lauren McCarthy is an artist and assistant professor at UCLA.
Her latest project LAUREN, is a human intelligent smart home. Lauren will visit your home, deploy a series of smart devices, and watch over you remotely 24/7. Learn more here – https://get-lauren.com/
Craig Cannon [00:00] – Hey this is Craig Cannon and you’re listening to Y Combinator’s podcast. Today’s episode is with Lauren McCarthy. She’s a digital artist and assistant professor at UCLA. I interviewed Lauren to talk to her about her new project which is called Lauren. It’s basically her as the operating system behind all your smart home devices. The way it works is you can sign up at get-lauren.com. For a select group of the people that sign up, Lauren will go to your home, setup the devices then monitor it 24/7. When you’re awake, she’s awake. When you’re sleeping, she’s sleeping. All you have to do is say “Hey Lauren” and she’ll do whatever an Amazon Alexa might do and possibility more as she tries to anticipate your needs. If you want to sign up you can checkout get-lauren.com and if you want to read the transcript or watch the video that’s at blog.ycombinator.com. Alright here we go. Today we have Lauren McCarthy. She is an artist based in LA. Could you give us a quick background?
Lauren McCarthy [00:55] – Sure, I’m an artist based in LA. I’m a assistant professor here at UCLA Design Media Arts, but my art is basically thinking about what are the systems we use to be a person and interact with other people and will technology save all of our problems or cause many more?
Craig Cannon [01:17] – Do you have an answer?
Lauren McCarthy [01:20] – Yes.
Craig Cannon [01:22] – At the footer of your website, on your about page, you wrote, “I make art about what confuses me.” Is that still true or is your website old?
Lauren McCarthy [01:31] – Oh, yeah, no, it’s definitely true. The main thing that confuses me is just people. All of them. So I make art about people and about the sort of expectations we have of each other or the rituals and the patterns, and the strange things we do when we’re together or alone.
Craig Cannon [01:56] – To give people some context, can you just reference one of your projects that is about people?
Lauren McCarthy [02:01] – Sure. To give an example, I did a project called, Social Turkers, a few years ago, and I was trying to see if I could fix my nonexistent dating life so I made this system where I went on a series of blind dates with people that I met on the internet and then I sort of discreetly streamed the video of the date to the web. And then I paid people through the service called, Amazon Mechanical Turk, small amounts of money to watch the date and try and give me instructions for what to say or do, to see if that they might be better at coaching or directing me through this date.
Craig Cannon [02:44] – And was that successful for you?
Lauren McCarthy [02:49] – Yeah, to some extent. Maybe less successful than I had hoped but also less successful than I had feared. The thing that it did really was make… I guess one thing I’m always trying to do, without getting too philosophical here, is understand what are these limits we put on ourselves and so for me to get these instructions… Oh yeah, so they would come as like text messages and I would have to do them or say them immediately. And so, just having to do these things, and not being totally in control felt really uncomfortable at first, but then also started to become really natural. But the thing it made me realize, was I could say or do things that I felt like, oh that’s not me or that’s totally weird of me to do, and then the date would not act like it was such a strange thing to say or do. The sky didn’t fall, and so I realized what a narrow box I normally hold in my idea of myself. What that project was really successful in doing was just getting me to kind of loosen up my identity I guess, in some may.
Craig Cannon [04:00] – They had no idea that this was going on while you were doing it?
Lauren McCarthy [04:03] – They didn’t… I started out with these where I would tell them at the beginning of the date, except it wasn’t supposed to be like this secret thing. But the problem was that the whole date would be just talking about the project, and about the issues around it, and surveillance, and art, and which was great but it was didn’t feel like a first date then it was just them quizzing me about my art practice. I switched to telling them at the end or after the fact, just to try and get them more, get this feeling that like this is this thing we all do and we don’t talk about it when we’re doing it.
Craig Cannon [04:37] – Was it just really eye opening for you to give out control and let other people basically do the date for you in a way that made you more comfortable with other people over time or was it just that individual experience that was just different?
Lauren McCarthy [04:54] – I think it did have some lasting effect where I sort of felt a looseness that came from that project. Almost by giving up control I started to feel more freedom, in some way, but the other weird effect was that, immediately after the project I had gotten really used to the system that for the first few dates I felt really unsure about how to make a decision. You know, like, “Can I kiss you or do you want to come home… Or do you want to have a second date?” I just don’t know how to determine those things anymore.
Craig Cannon [05:31] – Have you wanted to jump on the other side and control other people?
Lauren McCarthy [05:37] – Yeah, I don’t know, less so. I have less of a… Maybe my controlling of other people is just by setting up these situations and asking if they’ll participate.
Craig Cannon [05:49] – I was wondering if you’re just attracting more people like you to run the date for you?
Lauren McCarthy [05:57] – That’s the problem. I get all these socially inept people as my Turkers, huh? Maybe, I don’t know, it is interesting though with a lot of these projects where there’s different roles. I talked to someone and they immediately are like, “Oh I want to be on this side of it.” Or “I want to be on that other side of it.” Or “I want to do neither of those things.” And for every person it’s really clear in their head but different.
Craig Cannon [06:21] – That’s so crazy. Was there a moment before all of this the art projects got started, the programming for started, that you recognized that you’re having difficulty interacting with people?
Lauren McCarthy [06:32] – Oh yeah, definitely.
Craig Cannon [06:34] – Did you study art in college?
Lauren McCarthy [06:38] – Yeah, I studied computer science and art. Maybe this is the source of all my problems, but I went to MIT where I feel like, the one thing I didn’t learn was any social skills. And so I never felt that inadequate in college, it was like immediately afterwards where I was like, “Oh wow all these people know how to interact with each other.” When was I supposed to get that one? So I was like, “Well what can I do?” I can kind of hack things, I guess. I can build software, maybe that would help.
Craig Cannon [08:55] – And is that working? Like what about this particular… I mean it’s entire framework, right?
Lauren McCarthy [09:02] – Mm-hmm, yeah, yeah.
Craig Cannon [09:03] – For the building stuff? What about it is attracting those people?
Lauren McCarthy [09:07] – I think part of it is the design. If we have that core value of we want to support diversity and different points of view from the get-go, part of that goes into design decisions about the tool itself. Like trying to make the language itself understandable, the functions in the library. Putting a really emphasis on documentation, so it’s not this barrier where you have to figure it out. It’s like someone wants you to learn. And also doing things behind the scenes, so taking some trade-offs in the code under the hood. To make it easier for people that are not expert developers to still be contributors to that code base. Adding a lot more commenting in there and just doing things in slightly less secure ways.
Craig Cannon [10:00] – That’s really cool, I never thought about that, like just opening up exactly like you comment to make it better for people to jump in, and be opensource contributors. I always thought about it as much more like end consumer facing, like I guess processing. Has this netted different kinds of projects?
Lauren McCarthy [10:18] – Yeah, I think so. The user base is so much broader and we really try to highlight that. That’s the other piece of it is actively doing events or curating homepage sketches or galleries, or doing outreach and working with specific groups. I mean like, “Well what does it mean in your context? What are the useful examples?” Maybe we need to translate this all to Spanish, and then what are the relevant examples or concepts there. Do we need to change the metaphors we’re using to teach instead of assuming that you use the same object that we’re talking about. The projects are just, they reflect a wider range of people and different ideas.
Craig Cannon [11:03] – And are they chiefly art projects or what?
Lauren McCarthy [11:07] – Mainly but I think it’s being used in a lot of other contexts too. Like visualization stuff. I see it in news and like blog posts kind of things, showing data, or making some point. Yeah, it’s I think wider than just art, for sure.
Craig Cannon [11:26] – Okay, so one thing that I did want to talk to you about was the Facebook Mood Manipulator. Are you still actively working on that? Is that existing in the world still?
Lauren McCarthy [11:35] – It exists. I don’t think it works so well. Facebook kind of changes there underlying infrastructure, very regularly.
Craig Cannon [11:45] – Okay, so then just explain how it worked in the past.
Lauren McCarthy [11:47] – I made it in response to this news in like 2014 or something like that, where it was like, “Oh Facebook did the study about mood manipulation where they were showing people either positive, or more negative content and then showing that this would cause the person themselves to make more positive or negative posts, with the conclusion that they can actually influence your mood based on what they show you in your feed.” And the outcry was all about the procedure and like, “You didn’t get the proper permission. I can’t believe Facebook is experimenting on us.” Which is like a whole different conversation but I was more interested in this question of like, “Wait but they can like control our moods.” Like I don’t have time to be mad about them experimenting me and what about this issue? So the Facebook mood manipulator was this, Facebook add-on you could get that basically would give you this interface that you could, it had a few metrics like positive, negative, but also like optimistic, pessimistic, I think, or open, or private, something like that. I forget exactly now the–
Craig Cannon [13:01] – And then how would it actually interact with the users?
Lauren McCarthy [13:03] – And so you get to select how much of these things you want to feel in a given day, like when you wake up. And then it filters your posts accordingly. So it was using the method called, linguistic inquiry word count, or LIWC, L-I-W-C. That was actually the same method that the Facebook mood manipulation study used, and it’s pretty straightforward. It’s basically just looking at the words in a posts and trying to tag them with different qualifiers. You know, this is a positive word, or this a pronoun, and then all of these different end results, like openness or hopefulness are based on what percentage of the words are in this category or that category. You just add it up like an equation.
Craig Cannon [13:55] – Have you thought about doing a version two? Like post 2016 election?
Lauren McCarthy [13:59] – Yeah.
Craig Cannon [14:00] – To see the other side of Facebook?
Lauren McCarthy [14:01] – Yeah, I actually think I’ve seen some things like that. Like to see outside the echochamber. I wonder what would be the appropriate… I don’t know, ’cause I think now people are so used to that idea, like “Of course they’re manipulating my mood. Of course they’re filtering out certain things, or targeting me.”
Craig Cannon [14:20] – It also seems difficult given how much app, and mobile browser traffic they have right now. I guess I mean I don’t know how much it’s changed since 2014 but I imagine it’s gone up, which is super difficult. Have you done many other extensions?
Lauren McCarthy [14:38] – A few, so one that comes to mind is this extension for Google Hangouts that I made with Kyle McDonald. It was called us+, which was kind of a play on Google+, and the idea is that you would install it in your Hangout and it would do speech-to-text and measure the words that you’re saying and analyze them and then it would also analyze your facial expression and it would try to kind of optimize your conversation and then give feedback individually. So I might be… It might notice that I’m being much more negative or pessimistic than my conversation partner and so it’d show me an image like, “Stop being such a downer” or something like that. My favorite feature was if you are talking a lot more than the other person it would just auto mute you. You’d be auto muted for talking too much, until there was more of a balance.
Craig Cannon [15:29] – To me it’s so surprising that you’re the one building these tools when you seem to have a very high EQ for other people. Maybe you don’t feel that way though.
Lauren McCarthy [15:40] – I’m not sure what the answer is. I feel like I am very sensitive to other people but then I just like my output I always feel like lost. I’m supposed to say something reassuring or like make the situation comfortable right now. I’m like, “But what, what do I say?”
Craig Cannon [16:00] – I think more people have that feeling than you think.
Lauren McCarthy [16:02] – Yeah maybe.
Craig Cannon [16:03] – ‘Cause there was that also that box project you guys made, right? What was that one called? It would tell someone what to do on their date, like at a certain point in time.
Lauren McCarthy [16:14] – Oh, oh, the Conversacube.
Craig Cannon [16:15] – Yeah, yeah.
Lauren McCarthy [16:16] – Like these ones.
Craig Cannon [16:17] – Oh!
Lauren McCarthy [16:17] – Yeah, is that what you’re talking about?
Craig Cannon [16:18] – I didn’t, yeah–
Lauren McCarthy [16:19] – [Both] – It was green.
Craig Cannon [16:19] – [Both] – It was green.
Lauren McCarthy [16:20] – This is a special version we made for our wedding, so they’re silvered and match the color theme. Yeah this was a project I did a while ago. It was called Conversacube and it’s just like a centerpiece for conversation and it would kind of sit in the middle of your table and detect who was talking, and then try to give you just single one or two word cues of what to do or actually what to say or talk about.
Craig Cannon [16:48] – Was it parsing the conversation or was it just throwing random stuff out?
Lauren McCarthy [16:52] – Yeah, it was listening to the conversation and I can’t go into the specifics of that one. I mean a lot of these projects are sort of a working with peoples kind of desire to buy into things. Not in a superficial way. It’s like you give someone a product and you tell them it does something and they really start to… They kind of want to believe it. So with the us+ project I was talking to this reporter and we were doing the interview over us+, and she was towards the end kind of like, “Well you know this is great but is this really working? These feel sort of random, like how smart is this thing.” And I was about to explain how like, “Yeah you know speech-to-text is not that great and the analysis we’re using is actually supposed to be for longer bits of text but then whatever.” But then at that moment I said, “Stop being so doubtful” or something and she was like, “Oh my God, okay, I’m going to go write the article right now, thank you.” It’s where you remember these moments where it works for us and we forget more often the times where it just doesn’t work.
Craig Cannon [17:57] – Are the physical objects more effective or less effective like the plugins or the websites or…?
Lauren McCarthy [18:05] – I think they’re more effective in the sense that it’s amazing what a physical object can do to just give people an excuse, and so that was part of the thinking of the Conversacube. You know people are just really starting to get smartphones or I prefer for it to be more widespread and I was like, “What about this thing that we’re all carrying these objects around, that’s interesting, what does that mean?” I think having an object people are instantly ready to just sort of act differently, or put aside some of their normal patterns and see what this thing does in the space. The apps and extensions are nice though because it means I don’t have to get objects to people. It’s like anyone can download and it reaches so much wider and what I really like about it is this question of like, okay so you saw the little video trailer, and maybe you feel upset or excited or confused. But then you could just click download and do you. And if you do then how do you use this app? And why? You really have the choice, it’s not just something you see and like muse about, it’s like a real choice from you.
Craig Cannon [19:12] – I was wondering how often you get pulled toward the commercial interest with these projects? Because I think like we were talking before we started recording about people asking to make a startup or misunderstanding the project as a startup. Do you ever feel like, I mean the Cube is a perfect example, like the desire to do a giant Kickstarter for something like that?
Lauren McCarthy [19:36] – Yeah, sometimes I also have this like happiness hat that would detect if you’re smiling and then like stab you in the back of the head until, you started to just smiling again to train your brain, and now when people are really writing me asking to buy them. I guess for me it’s just like I know how much I’ve seen friends do Kickstarters. I know how much time goes into just figuring out manufacturing and production and everything, and that’s not where I want to spend my time particularly. I think the software gets to that point of mass distribution.
Craig Cannon [20:14] – One thing that I am curios about is how people do consume and even buy digital art, or digital media in general? I know that you make websites and apps and stuff, and not everything is physical, so it’s kind of hard to sell, but where do you see that going, as far as like people consuming and purchasing it?
Lauren McCarthy [20:37] – Yeah, it’s interesting because I don’t think anyone has found the ideal model yet. I know a few artists that have found something that works for them. Like they have a specific contract they use for selling a website or transferring ownership of something but there’s not like one universal way of dealing with it. In the way that there is with like selling a painting or something like, or selling a sculpture. And there’s also the trickiness of just, if I sell you a digital file is there anything wrong with just making a copy and giving it to someone else? Like is there some difference between the copy of a file or the original? Or if I sell you an app and the app no longer works with your current version of your phone, is that still an interesting–
Craig Cannon [21:27] – Right, are you like now the project manager forever?
Lauren McCarthy [21:29] – Right, right, right. People have different ways around this. Sometimes there’s contracts, for how long you maintain something. For me I don’t… The only context in which I’ve kind of sold an app before, well usually it’s free, ’cause I just have interesting people trying it. That’s not where I’m trying to make money. But one time I made this app that a lot people, it got to the front page of Reddit, and so all these people started downloading it, and then I hadn’t really built the server for that. Usually ’cause I was expecting like maybe 1,000 people at most. And so I needed people to just like stop downloading so fast so I just like added a price and then like a few hours later I felt like, “Oh I feel bad.” Like I just wanted this to be free, but in that time I made like a few thousand dollars and I was like, “Oh, okay.”
Craig Cannon [22:18] – Well this works, yeah. Did you refund everyone or did you keep it?
Lauren McCarthy [22:22] – No I just, you know, they bought it.
Craig Cannon [22:24] – Yeah I think that’s fair.
Lauren McCarthy [22:25] – Being that one window when it wasn’t free.
Craig Cannon [22:26] – Like the bad luck window.
Lauren McCarthy [22:28] – Yeah, I guess.
Craig Cannon [22:29] – That’s really great. That’s like the exact inversion of almost every other company.
Lauren McCarthy [22:32] – Yeah, right.
Craig Cannon [22:34] – It’s interesting because I was wondering about why there aren’t more digital artist? I know there are like, there are obviously a lot of them, but more prolific, more really well known. And I was wondering if that issue around selling and buying stuff is actually a part of it? If you’re a painter, if you’re the rare combination of someone whose a painter who also some business savvy and can sell stuff, you can survive. Whereas like someone like you, you teach as UCLA, which is awesome, but that’s not solely your art, right? And yeah, I’m just curious what innovative models artists are trying to push on right now to try and create that stuff or if you think that maybe everyone becomes artists and this is just like the side thing for lots of people?
Lauren McCarthy [23:21] – Yeah, I think part of the difficulty comes out of just the market around buying and selling art is very conservative ’cause you’re agreeing that this particular object has this value, and it’s all kind of consensus based. So it’s very risk adverse in the first place. So anything digital is like first of all just new, and not necessarily like we’ve established this as art and it’s okay. And then also like how do you own it, and how do you keep it, and there’s all those questions. But I’ve seen different models, there’s things like Electric Objects, where you can, which is a platform people to distribute images and they’ve tried like a number of different subscription or selling models. I was talking with someone at a company recently, where they are trying to use the blockchain, as a way to sign, kind of verify, the originality of a digital file. You might make a copy, but you wouldn’t have the bit-marked one, or something like that. But I haven’t seen any model that really has worked or has caught on in a any way. I don’t know what the answer is. I think that there is one. I think it used to be there’s these like digital artists and you’re saying, like they’re still not really represented in the art world at large but also every artist is starting to use technology now. I teach in a program that uses technology, but seeing the grad students in fine art, it’s like they’re all making gifs and using the computers and using like 3D software, so I think they’re going to have to figure out something ’cause this is not going back into the box.
Craig Cannon [25:09] – Totally, or you have to get really good at painting.
Lauren McCarthy [25:11] – Yeah.
Craig Cannon [25:13] – What are you really excited about right now? Like what are you working on?
Lauren McCarthy [25:19] – I don’t know if excited is the right word but I’ve been really obsessed with just all this home automation stuff, and thinking about Alexa and products like that, Google Home and it’s so interesting for me compared to something like Google Glass, where people were kind of there was this huge rejection of it when it came out. Whereas with Alexa I see like my parents have one, actually they got like two more for Christmas, just ’cause they liked it so much. My grandma’s got one or even my friend has one, and it’s like nobody is having such a knee jerk reaction to it. And I think they are selling it really differently. They kind of like don’t make it too smart at first. They roll it out as like, “Oh it’s just like a smart speaker.” And they don’t talk about like all the really technical things that could be done, or they are doing already, and I think that is like coming really soon. It’s like first we have to get people used to the talking speaker and then it could be like, the talking speaker that controls everything, and like knows every detail about you and streams it all to the web, whatever. For me it’s just like so provocative that it’s in the home, and to think of the home is the place where you are first, you first learn how to be a person, and talk to people, you learn what your culture and your values are, and what maybe your history is, and a lot that shaped by like your interactions with your environment. And so then you’ve got this device or this home system that is answering your questions, or talking to you in a certain way, or shaping your interactions, like how does that change? This is a pretty small group of developers that are designing these things, so it’s very sort of limited set of experiences or views. How do you account for the huge range of people that might be using this? That’s what I’ve been thinking about. And then the project that I’m working on is, I’m trying to become, like “Amazon Alexa” so but I’m making a service that’s called Lauren, and so the idea is that I will come into your home and set up all these devices and cameras and then I’ll watch you and control your home for you. And try to be like better than Alexa. You know, try to anticipate your needs, try to care more, try to imagine what would this relationship with your home, smart home be like if it was really taken to it’s full potential.
Craig Cannon [27:51] – Wow, so now you’re exactly on the opposite end of the dating app, right?
Lauren McCarthy [27:56] – Yeah, yeah. I guess so then you were asking earlier about whether I ever control people so I guess, if I’m ever on the controlling end, so I guess in this case.
Craig Cannon [28:06] – You’re exactly that. I know I feel like all of your projects have basically trained people to deal with computers as like empathetic things because they think at least that there’s someone behind it, operating it, and now you’re like, we’ve reached an AI and now you’re leapfrogging it again, to like become the human behind it.
Lauren McCarthy [28:26] – Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well so another piece of this is thinking about these services, like TaskRabbit, or Uber, or Mechanical Turk, where you’ve got some human on some side of it and depending on the services there are different amounts of humanness to this person that’s working for you. Like Amazon Mechanical Turk, they’re just like an ID number or basically, and I’ve seen these really interesting ads, I don’t know if interesting but ads for like TaskRabbit, where it’s like “Lifestyle photography, like woman in her home drinking cup of tea.” And it’s like life post-chores… TaskRabbit. And I’m like, “Oh wait but the chores are still happening.” It’s like there’s a person that you don’t see that’s doing them and then this one, wait.
Craig Cannon [29:16] – Yeah.
Lauren McCarthy [29:17] – It’s not like we eliminated them with technology. That’s another angle on this project. What is the human behind the scenes? And I don’t know, are they enjoying this? Are you completely at the service of this other person that tries to imagine you’re not there, or is it actually like this relationship in this case where I might have some connection with them? Or is there any place for a human to still be better than artificial intelligence or is Alexa going to be able to do this really soon and I’m actually not as good?
Craig Cannon [29:53] – Well I think that that’s the bet, right? The low level tasks or the repetitive tasks get automated out and that hopefully creative high level knowledge work tasks are remaining. But I have no idea.
Lauren McCarthy [30:06] – Yeah, I mean I think the things that… That’s how we like to think that the things that get automated are the easy things and the things that don’t are the ones that require more education, or training, or higher level of skills, but actually I think it divides more like, the more human, sort of emotional labor is the stuff that just can’t get automated. It doesn’t have to be high end. It could just be like a person that greets you at the door. It’s harder to replace that with a robot than driving a car which is a more complicated skill.
Craig Cannon [30:39] – When you have all the cameras setup around someones house and you’re observing them, that do you ever feel that you’re just going to develop this incredible amount of empathy, and become really attached to them? And then have difficulty, when they turn off the Lauren device?
Lauren McCarthy [30:53] – Yeah, then I’m just out. Yeah, I do kind of wonder. I think actually what I’m trying to do with all these projects is just, I’ve realized, bootstrap myself into a place where I get to have this connection with someone. And part of that is ’cause I just feel so bad at doing that. I’m with my friend at the coffee shop, and he just strikes up a conversation with the woman behind the counter, and I’m like, “I don’t know how to do that.” But I’m going to build this huge elaborate system and then maybe through that while I’m watching them brush their teeth and helping them, then we’ll have some human moments together. Yeah, maybe a little bit of that. The plan is that if you sign up for the service, there’s sort of a consultation, then we talk for a moment before hand. Just so it’s not like a totally random person. They don’t necessarily know me well, but they have some sense of who this person is. And we kind of talk about what would your… What do you want Lauren to do for you? And then try to enact some of that through when it actually happens.
Craig Cannon [31:59] – Okay, and so the deal is that you’re physical body is not going to enter the house? Like you’re never going to do like a chore for them, none of that, but you can engage like an API, with other services?
Lauren McCarthy [32:10] – Yeah, so I’m building the system where I’ll be able to turn on and off any electronic device. I can see whose at their door, unlock it or not, depending. Like turn on their shower or not, or turn it off. And they can also talk to me like, “Lauren what’s the weather today?” And I respond.
Craig Cannon [32:27] – Dude!
Lauren McCarthy [32:27] – But I have this–
Craig Cannon [32:28] – How many hours are you going to clock with them?
Lauren McCarthy [32:32] – I think it will be, ideally, it would be like a year, or something but I think it will be like three days, or something because what happens with a lot of these performances is that people kind of sign up and they don’t know what to expect, and then usually it’s very interesting and kind of intense, but I don’t want it to be too much. You want to go to a movie and have some different experience but you don’t want it be so much that you can barely deal with it. So I limit it to some shorter number of days, where they get a taste of this feeling.
Craig Cannon [33:02] – Okay, and then you’re like on the clock for a few hours or something?
Lauren McCarthy [33:06] – Well for the whole time during that three days or so. But I can sleep when they’re sleeping. And I’ll build a system that tells me, like wakes me up.
Craig Cannon [33:12] – When their light goes on or something?
Lauren McCarthy [33:13] – Yeah.
Craig Cannon [33:15] – So what about that, ’cause wasn’t it the Electric Objects, where you were on peoples Facebook pages?
Lauren McCarthy [33:20] – Yeah.
Craig Cannon [33:21] – So, yeah, well explain that one.
Lauren McCarthy [33:23] – So the idea there is a little bit convoluted, but so Electric Objects made this… They had this idea like anyone should be able to support art and so they made this Kickstarter that was like five dollars and basically your five dollars goes to commission four artists to make a piece of art, and the only requirement for the artists was that they had incorporate the people that had supported them in some way. And so you could ask them for a question, or give me your photograph, or whatever. I asked them for all their social media handles that they wanted to give and then for all, there were like 1,000 backers total, I spent five minutes looking through all their social media and so I set up this more like cue them up and open all their tabs and I would start scrolling. You could see that watch online. You could go and see exactly what I was looking at, and then also in the corner like a little box that was like a camera on me, of me reacting to their stuff as I scrolled.
Craig Cannon [34:28] – Yeah, it’s like screen share thing.
Lauren McCarthy [34:30] – Yeah, so it lasted for a week. I did like eight hours a day or something and then we got through all 1,000 people.
Craig Cannon [34:37] – And did you give them any feedback, or was it just you as observer?
Lauren McCarthy [34:43] – I liked things sometimes. I didn’t want it to get… I only had five minutes so I didn’t like comment or anything like that, but yeah it was mostly just me observing. But it was also realtime and I was going alphabetically so you could kind… There were actually a couple of people that happen to watch while I was browsing them and that was kind of cool.
Craig Cannon [35:05] – I just wonder if in a similar vain you start creeping people out, knowing that they’re being watched by you?
Lauren McCarthy [35:11] – Yeah, I think that will be a weird part of it. And then the question is, well does this feel more invasive than Google Dropcam or less? Or if you know that it’s a human, but your camera is not going anywhere. I’m the only one that will see it, versus it going into some archive somewhere potentially.
Craig Cannon [35:39] – Are you going to log advertising terms and try and sell them stuff?
Lauren McCarthy [35:43] – That’s a good idea. I hadn’t thought about that. You know what you need right now?
Craig Cannon [35:47] – You have to go full circle, yeah, exactly.
Lauren McCarthy [35:49] – You want me to order you some of that?
Craig Cannon [35:52] – Okay, so I actually heard about you three, or four, or five years ago, when I was running this thing called, Comedy Hack Day which was basically just building apps that were funny and then demoing them on stage. It was just a hack-a-thon funny projects and I came across all your stuff all the time because people will just send it to me, and what I always wondered before I met you was how in on the joke you were?
Lauren McCarthy [36:16] – You’re like, “Does this girl know this is funny.” People are laughing.
Craig Cannon [36:21] – Yeah, if you’re just this person whose like giving a talk about her project and you keep getting applause breaks and you don’t realize that you’re like, “I’m just trying to like learn how to interact with people.” And then everyone laughs. And then you keep presenting. And so meeting you now I have the sense that you’re very in on the joke, but how much of your intention is to make this thing that’s actually functional, that helps you interact with people, and how much of it is just to be like point at something? Be like, “This is interesting, maybe it’s funny as well.”
Lauren McCarthy [36:51] – Well, first I just love that you didn’t… You’re like, “Does this girl have any idea why everyone’s laughing at her?” Yeah, so it’s definitely, I get this question a lot or sometimes it’s asked like, “Are you optimistic or critical about the future?” And I’m like, “Yes, both.” And then they say, “Which?” And I’m like, “Well whichever would, the opposite of whatever you think.” But no more seriously, I feel like it’s impossible to say this any one thing is bad or good, or the right track or the wrong direction. Yet we are asked to respond to things so quickly. It’s like you scroll through and you’re supposed to be like, “well I like that,” or “I’m going to write an angry Tweet about that thing.” And so I really want to just make a space for people can just consider things for a moment and sort of imagine what it is we’re getting ourselves into. And so I find humor like a way to do that, ’cause you know you laugh and then you kind of, there’s always some truth to every joke. Some people it’s less like, “Let me lecture you about this thing we should all think about.” And more like, “Here’s something ridiculous, now what if I tell you that’s the future.”
Craig Cannon [38:16] – Yeah, I mean it’s like I used to work at The Onion and the term was Flintstone vitamin, so it’s kind of a sweet thing, but it has some amount of nutrients.
Lauren McCarthy [38:25] – Oh I like that.
Craig Cannon [38:26] – Yeah, and it’s basically your projects too, right? And I wonder like on the flip side why so much of this, near future, science fiction, black mirror type TV content is almost across the board negative and fearful whereas like your stuff, which more often than not catches some attention online when you release it and it’s funny. And there don’t seem to be as many really negative, like the world is ending artists, yet the media is the exact opposite of that. Do you have any idea why those shows are successful?
Lauren McCarthy [39:02] – I think they tap into a fear that people have, and then yet they present it in a way that is sort of relatable and not just doom gloom headline. But I think for me it’s important, I guess that’s part of it. Like yes we feel scared, we feel uncertain when things are changing quickly we don’t know what’s going to happen. Some things seem definitely going in a terrifying direction, but we can’t just unwind or rewind, and then we can’t just stop it from coming. So how do we move forward? And so for me it’s essential to find the parts that are worth keeping that we are excited about and try to do more of that. I guess with all these projects it’s always this layering of both of those things. It’s like yes there’s the fear, there’s the that is totally messed up, like what’s going on, but then there’s also the part where you’re like, “Oh that’s kind of nice. I would just follow this person around all day” while they’re phone was broadcasting their location. We had a really sweet time. That was weird and great.
Craig Cannon [40:08] – It’s cool. Have you ever used WeChat, where you can just shake the phone and connect with someone?
Lauren McCarthy [40:12] – Yeah.
Craig Cannon [40:13] – It’s like very pointless but kind of sweet.
Lauren McCarthy [40:15] – Yeah.
Craig Cannon [40:16] – Have you dug into your projects and try to retain people in your apps for longer periods of time to create a lasting effect or a more lasting effect?
Lauren McCarthy [40:28] – That’s such a good question. I guess not. I guess, I mean there a lot of friendships that have sort of come out these projects and then I’ll continue, you know, then they become friends.
Craig Cannon [40:43] – You know, watch a web cam in their bedroom.
Lauren McCarthy [40:44] – Right, less of that. I mean I actually met my husband through one of these projects. Which when I was doing the Social Turkers things, he was actually, happen to be one of the people watching, and giving advice on like the last date. And then wrote to me afterwards and was like, “Wow, this project was so interesting. I would love to meet up.” And then we… Yeah, so…
Craig Cannon [41:08] – Crazy!
Lauren McCarthy [41:09] – Yeah.
Craig Cannon [41:10] – So it did work out.
Lauren McCarthy [41:11] – Yeah, yeah, right. So people always ask me if my projects successful and I’m like, “well I mean yeah, kind of got a husband out of it, I guess.”
Craig Cannon [41:17] – Yeah, that would be a success.
Lauren McCarthy [41:18] – But not really a weird thing.
Craig Cannon [41:20] – You met someone who was helping you interact with people and what’s his attitude toward people, like obviously, or maybe not obviously, he likes to be on the computer side of your projects or does he like to be told what to do, interacting with others?
Lauren McCarthy [41:34] – He needs no instruction. He’s just totally comfortable, yeah. He’s comfortable with computers. He’s comfortable with people. Yeah, I just keep him around for like…
Craig Cannon [41:47] – You’re just jealous?
Lauren McCarthy [41:48] – Yeah.
Craig Cannon [41:49] – Just trying to learn.
Lauren McCarthy [41:50] – And so he’s a digital artist as well, right?
Craig Cannon [41:53] – Mm-Hmm, yeah. What kind of stuff does he work on?
Lauren McCarthy [41:57] – Well so we work on a lot projects together. We did this us+ project that I mentioned. He’s maybe a little bit, dives deeper in some of the theory and technical things that are possible. And so right now he’s working on a lot of machine learning experiments and doing some really cool stuff with that. Before that he was really focused on computer vision so he did this one project where he had this pile of mirror balls, disco balls, and then he had a number of projectors that were aimed at them and a number of cameras and the camera would detect where every single surface of every single ball was and then project the proper pattern, so that when it bounced off of the balls it would create these patterns on the walls that would like really cool morphing arrangements that were all super calculated based on all these angles and reflections, yeah.
Craig Cannon [42:56] – That’s pretty technical.
Lauren McCarthy [42:57] – Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Craig Cannon [42:58] – That’s very cool though. So if someone likes your work? And what’s his name just so people know?
Lauren McCarthy [43:05] – Oh, Kyle McDonald.
Craig Cannon [43:06] – So if someone likes your work or Kyle’s work and they want to start doing this kind of thing where do they get started? Do they go to art school? Do they learn processing? What do they do?
Lauren McCarthy [43:17] – Yeah, I mean I think tools like processing, or …, open frame works, Arduino for electronics, these are really great places to just start messing around. School is great but I don’t think it’s necessary at all. I think what’s really actually exciting about these tools is that there are these communities of people online and artists have always been good at making community but I think especially digital artists, that is where they go to find each other. I would say just start experimenting, hang out online, try to figure out like what. I guess the biggest thing is like what is your unique way of looking at this stuff or working with it? It’s easy to make something sparkly, but what do you have to say, or what do you see in it that’s different than what others do?
Craig Cannon [44:08] – Do you find that by contemplating or do you find it by just doing stuff?
Lauren McCarthy [44:14] – I think it’s different for everyone. I just start with my anxieties and work from there.
Craig Cannon [44:20] – Oh yeah, I guess that’s pretty obvious.
Lauren McCarthy [44:22] – I think doing stuff is usually a good place to go if you haven’t, if it’s not coming in your thoughts.
Craig Cannon [44:29] – Cool, and I guess wrapping up, what are for people in are school, what is your advice to them? How could someone make the most out of it?
Lauren McCarthy [44:42] – I think so a couple things. And the thing you’ll probably hear from your teachers is like, “This is your moment to take risks and to fail and you should do that.” That’s pretty easy. But the people are the thing that is really special about grad school. The network that you make with the teachers or the people in the community, and the alumni, but especially your peers in the program. These are the people that you’ll continue to run into and connect with through your life. Not to be so focused on your work that you don’t connect with the people around you and then the thing I wish I had known was to ask questions. I always felt like I was supposed to know what to do and I never had any clue and so I just tried to get through it without getting in trouble or something. But now I have all these students that are just asking me questions all day long and I’m like, “Well I wish I had done that, like I could have gotten so much value out of this.” I didn’t know you could ask anything.
Craig Cannon [45:45] – It’s incredibly helpful. I remember when I was just starting do some Python stuff, having that mentor that I could ask really dumb questions to made all the difference when it came to just… I would learn things that I wasn’t even intending to learn and they were just like, “Oh you just do that.” And then it works. And then you’re just like, “Oh God I wish, oh man.” And then my last question for you is just influences? So artists I guess most obvious, but then like any kind of books or a film, or anything like that?
Lauren McCarthy [46:16] – I would say artists, ones that are sort of further in their careers, and I’m looking at like Sophie Calle, Jill Magid, both of them kind of dealing with surveillance and watching in really personal ways. A lot of performance artists, like Tehching Hsieh, who tied himself with a rope to his collaborated for a year and they didn’t separate. I just think of this as like, you know we’re doing this all this interaction design but a rope can change your life. I don’t think they spoke to each other after that project ended.
Craig Cannon [46:49] – Wow.
Lauren McCarthy [46:52] – Then I guess in terms of movies, well actually I read a lot books and I read a lot fiction, my favorite is like Joyce Carol Oates. Because I heard that fiction changes your personality. And so I want to translate to that.
Craig Cannon [47:14] – However I can change my personality to better interact with people but what do I need?
Lauren McCarthy [47:17] – I’m just trying everything. I know that Joyce Carol Oates is the one that you want because usually her characters are really twisted. And I also love this movie called, Synecdoche, New York, where it’s this artist kind of building this world that he sort of loses himself in, but the last scene is him listening to this, spoiler alert, this audio tape, where he’s got these headphones, and it’s instructing him what to do. And it’s like, “Go up the stairs” into this set of a house his world he’s built. And it’s like, “Go up the stairs, lie down in bed, close your eyes, now like die.” Something like that. That was the end of his life. Yeah, so that’s my dream for end of life care.
Craig Cannon [48:02] – Wow, I think we’re definitely going to get there, and we were probably there right now. You should write an audio book. Cool, all right, so if someone wants to learn more about you follow you online, where do you publish stuff and like people find you?
Lauren McCarthy [48:14] – Yeah, so a website lauren-mccarthy.com.
Craig Cannon [48:18] – Yup, that’s right.
Lauren McCarthy [48:20] – And yeah, you can go there or you can… That’s where I publish most things, like most of my pieces are first kind of released online as videos or interventions. You might not even know it’s my work, but you might see something pop up that is outraging people in your social media feed or something like that.
Craig Cannon [48:41] – And there you go that’s you. Will you be doing anything this summer that people can check out?
Lauren McCarthy [48:46] – Yeah, so I’m doing this home project and I’m actually going to be open soon for sign ups. So you can look out for that and potentially I can come watch you in your home and control everything.
Craig Cannon [49:01] – And that would be on your website, your Twitter account?
Lauren McCarthy [49:04] – Yeah, both of those. Yeah, and then I guess the other thing to check out is p5js.org, which is this platform, that I lead the development of. If you’re interested in making some code art yourself.
Craig Cannon [49:15] – I see, okay, thank you.
Lauren McCarthy [49:18] – Yeah, thanks, this was fun.
Craig Cannon [49:18] – You’re great. Okay thanks for listening. So as always please remember to rate and subscribe to the show. If you want to read the transcript or watch the video that’s at blog.ycombinator.com.
Y Combinator created a new model for funding early stage startups. Twice a year we invest a small amount of money ($150k) in a large number of startups (recently 200). The startups move to Silicon