“I really want to know you, but sometimes it’s difficult, so I am doing what I can to hack my way in. Will you join me in an uneasy moment that might let us be easier?”  -Lauren McCarthy

Lauren McCarthy is an artist and programmer whose work takes seriously our human desire to connect—to be ‘liked’, followed, seen and heard—that is the powerful engine behind social media. At a time when we spend more time with our devices than anyone else, McCarthy uses these same tools to facilitate connection and intimacy between actual people.

Follower, for instance, is an app and ongoing performance she created that allows you to be followed, quite literally, by a real person for a day. “We have this intense desire to be seen, to feel connected,” she says. “But is that desire really fulfilled by watching your follower count tick upward? Could a real life follower provide something more meaningful or satisfying?”

Lauren McCarthy
Lauren McCarthy

An MIT-trained computer scientist, McCarthy is at the vanguard of creative coding, and is also the lead developer of p5.js, an open-source JavaScript library that makes “coding more accessible for artists, designers, educators and beginners.”

She is also an Assistant Professor at UCLA Design Media Arts and has exhibited at Ars Electronica, Conflux Festival, SIGGRAPH, LACMA, and the Japan Media Arts Festival, and worked on installations for the London Eye, US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

We talked with Lauren via email about unspoken rules, how the culture of coding is changing, censorship, and much more.


Much of your work directly engages technology in playful and subversive ways. You seem to be making a critique at the same time as harnessing its magic and potentialities. Where does the impetus to work with technology in this way come from?

In my work, I try to tackle my own social anxiety. I am always wondering about the unspoken rules we follow when we interact with each other. How do we know what they are? What if you don’t feel like you fit in with these? I don’t think of my work as dealing with technology, but rather, dealing with being a person in today’s world.

How did you get into programming? Were there any barriers for you?

I initially majored in computer science in college but I couldn’t think of any career in CS that appealed to me. I finally wandered over to the art department and took a class, and fell in love. It wasn’t until I realized I could put art and programming together that I really took an interest in the latter.

When I was a student, I wasn’t really aware enough to notice any barriers. But I started to feel it more later when I wanted to get involved with open source software. I realized that space was one where you often had to push your way in, and they weren’t always the most welcoming places for women or minorities, or even people that are just learning. I saw very few open source software projects that were led by women, and I think part of me made p5.js to prove to myself that it was possible.

I know now that it’s not only possible, but it’s also possible to hold diversity and inclusivity as core values and let design and technical decisions flow from that, and this can really change the tone of a project and a community. While developer forums can sometimes be places with little patience and a lot of oneupmanship, we worked hard to make the p5.js issue forums different. It feels to me now like a place where people can feel comfortable asking questions, sharing ideas, and learning together—regardless of skill or background.

 

Claire Kearney-Volpe leads an accessibility workshop where participants experience coding without seeing
Claire Kearney-Volpe leads an accessibility workshop where participants experience coding without seeing

Even though we all use computers, most of us don’t know how to program. Right now there’s big debate in the US, and in many countries about making programming a mandatory subject in schools. Should everyone know this stuff? What are we missing when we’re code ‘illiterate’?

I don’t think everyone needs to know how to code. What I think is important is that people understand that the technologies and systems they use are hackable. That is, we don’t have to see them as black boxes that tell us how to interact with them and how to behave. They can be platforms for challenging assumptions, asking questions, and negotiating our own way of being in the world. This might be writing software, but it might also mean misusing an existing app, starting a social movement via social media, or being very thoughtful about which technologies you choose to use and opting out of the ones that don’t feel right to you.

In a talk you gave at LISA in 2013, you asked the question: “How do we tell the difference between technologies that are bringing us together vs those that are pushing us apart? Where is the line?” It’s a great question! What’s your response to this?

The line can be hard to find. As an artist I aim to create work that allows people to dwell in the ambiguous gray zones, embrace the inherent tensions of the systems we live within, and decide for themselves.

You tweeted something an apple rep said to you a while back: can you give this some context?

It was for a project called Follower, which was a service in the style of Uber, but rather than hiring someone to show up and drive you, you could hire someone (me) to show up and follow you. Physically, in real life, for one day, from dawn to dusk.

Follower from Lauren McCarthy on Vimeo.

The app store initially tried to censor this art/app, and it took weeks to get it approved, even though I violated no clear rules in the app store guidelines (an extensive document with hundreds of ways your app can be rejected). At this point you’ve mentioned, they were telling me they wouldn’t allow an app that was ambiguously desirable, and I needed to instead tell users why they should want to use Follower. I tried to explain that the point was for people to consider and figure out if they wanted to or not, that this was part of the piece.


You can learn more about Lauren McCarthy from her website here. If you’re interested in learning about p5.js, read more on the website, or learn from Lauren herself.