In a gallery in downtown Manhattan, people are huddling around four laptops, taking turns to control the apartments of 14 complete strangers. They watch via live video feeds, and respond whenever the residents ask "Someone" to help them. They switch the lights on and off, boil the kettle, put some music on – whatever they can do to oblige. The project, called Someone, is the latest in a series exploring our ever more complicated relationship with technology. It's by the American artist Lauren McCarthy and is a sort of outsourcing of Lauren, an earlier work in which she acted as a real-life Alexa, remotely watching over a home 24 hours a day, responding to its occupants' questions and needs like a flesh and blood version of Amazon's voice-operated virtual assistant.
Today, I came across "Get Lauren" an art-installation / performance by Lauren McCarthy, and that got me thinking. For her installation, Lauren has equipped a couple of real people with internet-of-things devices and has followed the participants for 24 hours for a number of days. Through the devices Lauren was able to interact with the people and their environment, setting the lights, playing music or providing information. Lauren was, in fact, a human equivalent to the Artificial Intelligence used by products like Alexa or Siri.
"I had this everyday feeling – stress about not properly articulating my emotions in my emails to people," artist and writer Joanne McNeil tells me over the phone from Boston. "I was feeling as though I had to over-do it with enthusiasm or I would sound too sarcastic or bleak or disinterested." It's a common anxiety of modern day life: in an age where we increasingly communicate via email, text messages, and social media posts instead of face-to-face, it can be hard to judge whether we are getting the tone right. Are we being too formal? Are we being too familiar?