What Happens When a Computer Runs Your Life
This software engineer let an algorithm pick where he lives, what he does—even what tattoo to get. Is he onto something?
Max Hawkins will be getting his first tattoo in a few days, and the panic’s setting in. Not because it’s a permanent choice — although it certainly is. And not because of the pain — he thinks that’ll be manageable enough. Hawkins is panicking because until the moment he walks into the parlor, he won’t have any idea what tattoo he’s getting, or where on his body he’s getting it.
The random tattoo generator he’s built searches Google Images’ line drawings, taking a sample of the Internet’s offerings by choosing keywords in proportion to how frequency they’re used. By pressing a button, he is offered up a random image for a random part of his body. He’s been testing the generator, and it works. But a preview of the possibilities is not especially encouraging.
One, for the left thigh, depicts a floor plan with room descriptions rendered in the font Papyrus. Another, of a person bound, gagged, and hogtied to a jail cell that the computer has assigned to his lower back.
“Yeah, I’m not sure what it would mean to put that on my body,” Hawkins says of the second one. He’s decided he will reject swastikas and other images that feel hateful. He’s not sure where he stands on anime porn.
Short of those exceptions, Hawkins will say yes to whatever the computer chooses, just as he has regarding almost all aspects of his life since leaving his job as a creative software engineer at Google three years ago. In a world where technologies promise humans ever more control over their choices and preferences, Hawkins has decided to surrender his will to the whims of computer algorithms. He’s created programs that randomly choose where he eats, what he wears, where he lives, what music he listens to, and how he spends his time. In so doing, he says he’s discovered a different kind of freedom.
One of Hawkins’ projects, a program that scraped Facebook’s events API and sent him to random events, was last year profiled on NPR’s Invisibilia podcast. I spoke with him in the days before and after his tattoo experiment to discuss what role randomness plays in his life, and what his project says about where humanity is headed. I also found out what tattoo he ended up with. Read on.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
I gather that after the ‘Invisibilia’ segment aired, you received an overwhelming response from aspiring bubble hoppers.
Max Hawkins: I got hundreds of e-mails from people who felt sort of stuck in their routine who really responded to the story. I felt like I needed to create something to help these people, so I started a Facebook group where I would manually select random events for members.
It sent a 70-something-year-old lady to a heavy metal concert. She had a great time. This one guy got sent to a church that was built by his uncle, who had died. It was the first time he’d been back to the church since his uncle’s funeral, and he’s told me that going back to the church was the first time that he’d really dealt with his uncle’s death.
The Facebook group doubled, then quadrupled in size. And I wasn’t able to continue with this manual way of selecting events. So I started to build an app to automate the process. But I had really bad timing. The day I launched the app, Facebook implemented new changes about how it let developers use its data because of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. It was live for 24 hours.
That must’ve been terribly frustrating.
It was frankly a bit of relief. I’m sad that I didn’t get to share it with people. But it was a much bigger project than I expected it to be. It’s a huge difference building these tools for myself and making something that’s accessible to a lot of people.
It was precarious from the start because it’s a hack of this bigger system. Facebook’s built up this amazing event infrastructure, and this is like taking it and hacking and putting a creative spin on it. I always knew it was going to get shut down eventually. I didn’t expect it to be the day I launched.
What are you randomizing these days?
I have a machine that reads books and pulls out things that people are doing in the books and then spits them back to me. So, for instance, if someone in the book goes to a park and smells the flowers, the computer will recognize that action, that verb-object pair, put it into a database and then I have a process for randomly selecting these actions and it presents them to me and then, if it’s possible to accomplish it, I go and do it.
Has it asked you to do anything that would be difficult to accomplish but you tried anyway?
A couple of months ago, the computer sent me an action asking me to kill a deer. I found this a little bit shocking because I’m not the sort of person who would think to kill an animal. And it upset me a little bit. My instinct was just to throw it away and say, “No, I can’t do this.” But it’s very important with all these generators to have a very good reason if you go against the suggestion. Because oftentimes, it’s these places where you have friction that you have the most opportunities for learning about yourself or discovering something interesting.
So I started thinking about this, this action of “kill a deer,” and it bothered me, but I’m also someone who eats meat. So there’s a contradiction there and I got interested in exploring that. And so I got really into hunting cultures on the Internet and joined all these hunter Facebook groups. I ended up going on a hunting trip with a friend of a friend of mine. We didn’t end up seeing any deer, which is a real shame. But I’d like to do it again and get to this moment where I have to pull the trigger and see if I do it.
I’m curious about how you deal with the feeling of resistance when the computer asks you to do something you don’t want to do.
It’s really helpful to have this sort of computational authority that gives you a bit of a push. Because there is such an authority with computers. If Google tells you something, you generally believe it. It seems like it’s the truth. Similarly, if my computer says something, I have an excuse to explore because it’s not coming from me, it’s coming from this outside system.
I’ve also learned how, when you reach that point of resistance, it can be an area of tremendous growth, because oftentimes you get to that point and then you can move past it and then you realize there’s some aspect of the thing that you were resistant to that you can integrate into your own identity.
You’re giving up control to a computer. Why are you more comfortable with that than, say, the church or the state?
I think it’s the uniform randomness. Obviously, depending on what data set you’re sampling from, you can have biases. But the nice property of uniform randomness is that it doesn’t have any preference one way or another. So I feel more comfortable with that.
Do you have any political predictions informed by your experience with randomness?
It’d be interesting to imagine what would happen if all power was distributed randomly. A randomized socialism where the computer decides that you’re rich for a couple of months and you get to see what it’s like to wield power and after that you’re poor for a while. There’s a certain fairness to that.
Since your app’s demise, Facebook’s been putting renewed focus on its events features. Do you think its recommendation algorithm is getting better?
It’s extremely filtered — the sorts of events that you get pushed to are usually paid events that are similar to things that you might like. It’s awful. There’s no possibility to, you know, meet someone who’s outside of your bubble to discover something new unless it’s slightly related to what you’re already doing. I understand from an engagement point of view why that would make sense, but I wish that these platforms would encourage people to be better versions of themselves rather than just reinforcing the things that they already know—to enable discovery rather than optimizing for what’s for you.
I think why the randomness project continues to compel me so much is that there’s a real force from technology and from the culture more generally to standardize.
This idea that the computer can find out what makes you tick and then give you only the information that applies to that is very dangerous.
This relates to the tendency toward sameness produced by globalism. You can go anywhere in the world and sit in a hipster coffee shop and feel like you’re in San Francisco. I think that we need strategies to push against that very actively because otherwise it makes things really boring.
Several days after we first spoke, Hawkins headed to get his tattoo at C.J. Tattoo parlor in New York City’s East Village neighborhood. The location was, it should go without saying, selected randomly. The parlor is owned by Chinese immigrants who are at first puzzled by Hawkins and his project. They ask him what tattoo he would like and he says that it’s out of his hands, but that he’ll know momentarily. He runs the generator and meets his fate.
He is assigned a drawing of two stick figures — an adult and a child — for his chest.
“There’s something different when you’re giving up control of your body,” he says later. “It makes me feel the weight of a random choice more profoundly. I worried a lot about how people would perceive me if I chose the wrong image, or if people’s impression of me would change. I feel more calm about it now that it’s actually happened.”
Hawkins later learns that the image, scraped from a Polish website, is based on a passage by a Jewish-Polish writer and physician who wrote under the pen name Janusz Korczak. Korczak taught at an orphanage during the Holocaust and refused to abandon the children in his care. He followed them to the Treblinka Extermination Camp despite several offers of sanctuary from people who loved his children’s books.
Hawkins tells me that if, for some reason, the artist was unable to do this tattoo, his next one in the queue was a Thomas the Tank Engine destined for his left thigh.
“It could have been so much worse,” he says. “It’s good fortune.”