Lauren McCarthy & Kyle McDonald: Social Hackers

Lauren McCarthy and Kyle McDonald are media-artists that teach at NYU’s ITP. Their course, Appropriating Interaction Technologies, 'explores the structures and systems of social interactions, identity, and self-representation as mediated by technology. Students develop projects that altered or disrupt social space in an attempt to reveal existing patterns or truths about our experiences and technologies. These may direct to possibilities for richer interactions'.

Lauren McCarthy and Kyle McDonald conducted a ‘Social Hacking’ master class on this years Cinekid New Media Festival. Reframer Beatrijs Voorneman attended and Gijs Ockeloen talked to them.

One of my colleagues will be attending your ‘Social Hacking’ master class: how will we get her back?

LmC: Social Hacking is about two things. First thinking about the way we interact every day, about our assumptions that we have, about the rituals we use…and secondly, also about the way we think about the technologies we use, and trying to think how they have been designed, how did the designer think about the user, how do they expect me, the user, to behave. We are looking at these sides of these things and introducing little glitches, things that break through the rules a little bit. In doing so we try to check whether new possibilities emerge.

KmD: And ideally, the people that have attended our master class have changed their expectations on how they are supposed to interface with technology and with each other so that they feel free to misuse them and make their own rules, rather than feeling limited by the tools they are using.


Do you feel that developers of technology are occupying themselves enough with how technology will be used and how it will affect people's social, cultural or even moral lives?

KmD: It is a mix. There is a huge gradient from people that are super considerate in designing technology with the use-case in mind. Think of security focused applications, these developers are thinking ‘what does this mean socially, what do people expect out of it, how does it present itself, how do people communicate with each other and what different types of communication are possible’…on the other side of the spectrum we find the silicon valley ‘blue sky’ type of thinking where people do something because it is possible and they know they can get funding for it. These are not necessarily considering the social impact.

LmC: A lot of times you see that biases are build into systems that are not even intentional: When the IPhone appeared people discovered that when you search for Strip Bars or hookers, all these results would come up. But if you search for Planned Parenthood, that would not come up on the map. That is because the designers were primarily males and they have not considered that somebody might be looking for things like ‘planned parenthood’. 

KmD: …or consider the fact that for a long time the only character set that was provided in computing was the Latin alphabet: diacritics, the glyphs added to a character to create German or Danish, were initially not considered. It took a while for people to create other versions of the Latin alphabet and to hack into Japanese or Cyrillic characters. Then we started writing in Unicode to represent even more writing systems.

It seems to be  a recurring story: We have aspects of human culture and communication, and we create a computational representation. It is limited, because it is always limited because culture is so multi-facetted and never ending. We will improve and add little things to try and capture it better but there is always going to be some case that has not been taken care of, some blind spots. What we are trying to do is to reveal those blind spots. Make them visible and then take advantage of them.


Do you feel that developers of technology are in control of what sort of technology will emerge or are they mere agents being put to work by an autonomous process? 

LmC: Part of the developers work is responding to people using it, their wants and desires, and also to those from silicon valley and the stuff that markets see as hot. But I also think it is an organism of its own. Not in the sense that it is ‘one person’s master plan’. The thing that comes out of it, is this organism that we try to guide. But always will have unintended side effects.

One of the prominent devices in your work is the ‘Glitch’. It is one of these words only used by new media technologists. Have I ever encountered a ‘Glitch’?

KmD: You have if you have been watching a digitally broadcasted soccer game: sometimes the player freezes and then fragments into pixels. That is a Glitch and this Glitch reveals to you, for a very brief moment, how the technology deals with transmitting images, a combination of still frames, and motion frames.


Do you deliberately insert these Glitches, or are these manifestations of the system itself?

KmD: Sometimes a Glitch happens naturally, and when that happens that reveals something about the biases inside the system the way it is designed. Deliberately creating Glitches for us becomes a way of understanding where the borders of systems are.


What is the social relevance of a Glitch?

LmC: We consider Glitch the technological version of a the famous ‘Breaching Experiments’, experiments to research peoples reactions to intrusions into social norms.


Is not every major technical innovation a breaching experiment?

KmD: There is a sphere of human activity, and there is many different edges to that sphere. Sometimes we have a new thing introduced to human culture, whether it is the art of writing or an iPhone or anything and that change the edge of that sphere. Because it is new, we don’t really know how that is integrated into the rest of things, all we know is that it is a little uncomfortable, and we don’t know what to do…so, yes, we agree that technology has Breaching characteristics. The art of book printing upset the church for it transferred power into peoples hands…


But yesterdays’ breaching experiments, the alphabet, the compass and book printing initially invoked war and destruction while there are centuries between them. Now we create Internet, Google, mobile computation, self-driving cars all in one or two decades and it looks like things are speeding up…

KmD: Maybe the metaphor of the sphere is wrong, maybe human culture is a tree. Humanity starts as a trunk, for a while nothing happens, then various cultural aspects start branching of as the tree grows, at the end of each branch so many things can branch of again…so this speeding up is to be expected: more variety creates even more variety…

LmC: It used to be that once in your life time there would a technological change that disrupted social activity, and now this happens every year, or every few months…how do we, as users of that technology deal with that? Is it something we will just plainly have to accept? And how do we figure out how to behave in making a phone call in a public area…Is it good or bad? I think we should reflect on those things. Not just start rating everyone because your app tells you to do so. And sometimes technologies are rejected: Google Glass created such an outcry that the project was frozen. I think it is possible to appropriate the use of technology.


In whose hands is this appropriation? It seems to be in the hands of technologists, shouldn’t it be in the hands of people dealing with human interaction?

KmD: We feel it should be in everyone’s hands. To appropriate these technologies does not just mean I can design my own server network, or my own hardware. It also means looking at twitter and changing the way you are using it, or maybe not use it the way it was intended to use it.

LmC: The Arab spring did not require a huge technological intervention, it’s nature was more social.

KmD: In San Francisco there is the phenomenon of Food Trucks. Now there is a law that says you cannot park in one place for a long time, that is a problem because people who think the food is good want to be able to find the truck and come back. Twitter solved that by updating Food Truck positions real time. Technological appropriation that does not require any development.


Are you techno-optimists?

KmD: I would say corporations are not neutral but technology is. We are surrounded by digital photographs all around us but there is also a surveillance camera over here looking at us. Same technology but different purpose. People use new technology  to empower themselves but also to disempower others. So I think people should be educated into a mode in which they ask themselves with every new technology ‘how can I use it to empower myself?’ Not necessarily in the way that is most common to use it but more interesting, more creative or exciting.


Is that ‘mode’  available to the underprivileged?

KmD: We believe humans are hackers, it seems embedded in their DNA.

LmC: Of course there is a divide: for instance our master class is not accessible to everyone. But our audience is directly involved in thinking about technology and marketing technology and we hope that by getting to them they may include some of these elements in their future conversations. I am not either an optimist or a negativist but I am not cynical, that would be too easy. Thinking about the idea of a Social Glitch, the ‘divide’, or the blindness to people who are not like yourself, is enforced if one goes by life without ever questioning what is happening, who your dealing with, who you are interacting with, what your situation is. Breaching and Glitches on the other hand may diminish blindness. That is, if Social Hacking leads to an attitude of questioning and reflecting on the social systems.


Maybe there are not enough Glitches?

KmD: That is why we try to make more! But people also need some level of regularity to be able to operate. Our expectations need to be met to a certain extent. But we are sure that breaching and glitches lead to more opens and open-mindedness. For instance, Miranda July, an American artist film maker created an app ‘somebody’ that will let you relay a message to someone else. So let's say your friend is at the park and you want to tell him something but you are  not there yet, you app on the somebody app ‘can somebody tell my friend that bla bla’. This is a designed social glitch.


Do you consider yourselves moralists?

LmC: I am a moralist. I think we all should consider the way our technology is going to impact people. 

KmD: Everyone is a moralist. If you claim you are not you are naïve and have not realized what it means.



Check out this video on their pplkpr: an App that tracks, analyzes, and auto-manages your relationships. Using a smartwatch, pplkpr monitors your physical and emotional response to the people around you, and optimizes your social life accordingly.



© Reframing Studio