Can chance make us step outside the bubbles that we live in and explore different perspectives? What started as a question soon grew into “Randomized living”- a lifestyle dictated by various randomized computer programs and apps. Last weekend, computer scientist and artist Max Hawkins came to Vienna to share his experiences of randomized living at the TEDxVienna conference “On the Edge”, and we got the opportunity to have a chat with him after his talk.
You are in Vienna giving a TEDx talk. Was that a random decision of your apps?
M.H.: Good question. No I am actually taking a break right now from the apps because I want to focus on making these things available for more people.
Previously, Max lived in San Francisco and, like most of us, led a routine life. Every morning started at 7am and included artisan coffee and a bike ride to his work at Google. He was also constantly trying to shave off a few seconds here and there in order to become more efficient. Nevertheless, he felt trapped and stuck in his routine. M.H.: What really bothered me was the inevitability of it. ( … ) There was always a sense that I am going to go to San Francisco and do this thing. I think a lot of people have this feeling that their life is on some sort of track and it is sort of confining. For as comfortable as it was, I wasn’t very happy.
As an attempt to step out of his bubble, Max created an app that randomly picked his next destination within San Francisco. M.H.: Once I had those great early experiences, I just realized this is a really interesting thing to explore. And that is how I got started.
Over time, he created several apps that randomize different aspects of life: music, diet, restaurants, trips, events, social interactions… Surprisingly, by leaving the decision-making to the computer, he actually gained control of his life and felt more free. He thinks that there is a general need for people to feel in control of their life, but that nowadays some of this control is taken away from us. M.H.: People have always followed their preferences. But now when you sign up for Facebook, it asks “what do you like?”. That is the start of your news feed, and it starts showing you things that are like that – it is the filter bubble idea. The assumption that all these products make is that you want to see more of the things that you like and I think that is sort of pushing people into bubbles, into tracks that are inevitable. It has taken away some of our agency.
Max believes that our lives, to some extent, are controlled by algorithms and our environment. We might not realize it until we start to push against it. M.H.: But I think there is some leeway for you to change things, and you have to be aware of that structure in order to do it.
I ask if he, based on his insights and experiences, has any advice to give. M.H.: I want people to pay attention to their preference and where it leads them, because that is the fundamental way that most of us make our decisions. But it also has some problems in that it pushes us into these bubbles and allows us to be manipulated. It is the way that advertising works; it is generating a desire, which then changes your behavior. So, start looking at your preference, start questioning whether you have that preference because it really matters to you or if it is some outside factor.
Two years of randomized living.
For two years Max lived a nomadic, randomized life based on his apps’ random choices. I want to know if the apps made a lot of good or bad decisions for him. M.H.: I did not really think about it in terms of successful or unsuccessful, because the whole thing was interesting. What was unsuccessful was when I got caught into these loops and patterns. ( … ) When I was selecting locations, there were all these cities that kept coming up again and again like London, Dubai, Hongkong, Mumbai, and I realized that it is sort of retracing the British empire. ( … ) I am not really interested in categorizing the experiences as good or bad, because they are all part of the project. Even the things that were difficult I felt were important.
Were there a lot of difficult situations?
M.H.: A lot of it was pretty difficult, being in a foreign country, not knowing the language… ( … ) Additionally, there is the loneliness of being on the road. But even when not being sent to a far away place by his computer program, this randomized lifestyle made it hard to keep in touch and coordinate with people. His friends mostly had time on weekends but not on weekdays and Max was often unavailable or in random places. But occasionally his friends joined him on his random excursions.
Max also found that random suggestions sometimes can be morally problematic. M.H.: In that case I do have to go against the machine. I do not attend funerals, I do not attend support groups… But what I do is, every time I get a suggestion that feels like it is wrong, I try to interrogate what is it about that that is making me feel that way?
Getting such difficult and sometimes morally questionable tasks is a way to figure out your beliefs and boundaries, Max says. For example: M.H.: I got a slip of paper that said to kill a deer. I was really kind of freaked out by it. But then I started thinking about it; I am not a vegetarian, I eat meat all the time, why is it so different killing the deer versus eating it? There is really morally no difference. So now I am looking into going hunting and facing that head on.
Due to his numerous random experiences, he now has many friends in random places. Also his music taste has expanded to include certain sorts of country and western music that he previously never listened to. But this lifestyle is not for everyone. M.H.: You have to have a sort of patience, because often times you just end up at places that are really unsatisfying.
Besides having patience, you also have to be open to the new experiences and to serendipity. He found that people often think that serendipity is a thing that strikes you, but it is a process… and you can generate serendipitous events by opening yourself up to them. I ask Max to estimate how frequently an event turned out to be truly eye-opening. M.H.: I don’t know, one in five. The other ones are interesting, but it is one in five that were just “Wow, this has changed the way that I thought about something”.
Not everything can be randomized though. Max explains that in order to randomize something, you need to have a known quantity. You need to numerate all the different possibilities and only then can you select something at random. Therefore, anything involving creativity (such as art) is difficult to randomize, because there are indefinite possibilities.
Could you envision living like this forever?
M.H.: There are some really practical things that don’t work. If you are moving once every couple of month, then it is really difficult to have a relationship, to build anything that is larger scale, longer term. ( … ) But, I do think that I would like to continue, even if I am in one place, randomizing different aspects.
Do you think random can become predictable or routine?
M.H.: Totally. That is why you got to keep building more apps. I have sort of a fantasy of building an app that tells me to quit everything and just become a plumber…, like “this is the rest of your life”. It would have a certain sort of finality to it, because the computer said it. I think there is a point, where being novel ceases to be novel. I am still sort of working through that…
Do you miss your old life?
M.H.: Not really. There are some parts I miss, like San Francisco is a really beautiful city, I have a lot of friends there… but I don’t really miss it that much.
If you would get the opportunity to again work at Google, wake up at seven, go to the same coffee shop every morning, bike to work…?
M.H.: No way, so boring. No, I would never do that again. Something else.
Timar Ivo Batis