in Conversation with Gregor Hochmuth
When we talk about screens, usually what we’re talking about is the Internet: its websites, its apps, its seeming omnipresence. The authors of our online lives—the programmers behind the scenes—are often framed as overlords, all-knowing tech geniuses building novel experiences in an ever-evolving space that promises connection. Alternatively, they’re throwing corporate responsibility out the window, bringing the Internet further and further away from its utopian, aspirational roots. In the midst of scrolling, swipes, likes, comments, posts, and opening new windows, we’re taking a moment to pause and ask, what’s the view from here? Is it a black hole, or a tunnel with light at the end? Or is that very binary part of the problem?
If you ask Gregor Hochmuth, a 33-year-old artist/engineer who began his career in the belly of the Internet beast, Silicon Valley, there are no easy answers. When he joined Google as a Product Manager for Chrome in 2008, equipped with a degree in computer science from Stanford University, he was part of a small team and had the freedom to experiment within a “really special place,” he says. He felt similarly positive in 2012 when he joined Instagram as its eighth employee. “There was this excitement around what was possible,” recalls Hochmuth. “It was an earlier time on the Internet where things weren't as weirdly corporate and evil as they are today.” Facebook acquired Instagram only a few months into Hochmuth’s tenure, and after two years of watching the app expand and shift under new direction, in 2014 he left it and the Bay Area behind. It was an unambiguous end to his “detour into corporate Internet-land,” which left him disillusioned and New York-bound.
Since his arrival on the East Coast, Hochmuth has conceived of projects that incorporate his critical perspective on contemporary digital life into generous, elucidating experiments. It began in 2015 with Network Effect; alongside Jonathan Harris, Hochmuth built an anxiety-inducing, voyeuristic experience that’s viewed through an Internet browser. It combines ostensibly never-ending data sets that bombard you, with distorted visuals, numbers, and words appearing as you click through a string of verbs like “chew” and “run.” All the while a clock counts down and ultimately spits you out of the site—“so you can get back to your life” (in Hochmuth and Harris’s eyes: offline). More recently, Hochmuth’s view of cyberspace spurred him to make Confession, his 2016 collaboration with writer Gideon Jacobs; they set up a phone line that anyone can call anonymously to confess or hear a confession. This offering allows strangers to speak or be heard, free of the feedback impulse built into social media.
When Newest York caught up with Hochmuth last week to talk about his art and opinions on apps, he hinted that his next undertaking, Dreams—a fresh approach to a TV network created in partnership with his friend Tim Bender—will formally launch later this year.
I found a quote from when you first joined Instagram in which you said, "I am beyond excited to help many more people share their experiences with the same joy, beauty, and playfulness." Do you still feel that way about Instagram?
Now it's become way more complicated and I feel very ambivalent about it. There was no Android app when I joined. It was small compared to anything it is today. At the core of it, at that time and in many ways still today, it's about people sharing their lives in a visual way; hopefully Instagram can make that beautiful and meaningful and something that's worth remembering—that always felt like the core that I and the early team joined for. People who work there now I think still have that intention, but overall the reality of being a Facebook-owned company eventually sets in and you can't escape that.
I can't deny that the effect it has on the world today is much more complicated. Even back then there were elements or aspects of how Instagram intersected with people's lives that we didn't anticipate. There were already surprises for us. Something I had never encountered in the real world myself was self-harm. How do people deal with self-harm through Instagram? It was something I had never thought about, but even at the time when I was there and it was small, it was already in the big, messy, hairy, complicated area. Or bullying—I had never really experienced bullying, but it was very obvious on the platform that that was an issue we needed to address and support. Nowadays it's those things, but it’s also addiction. Do people feel lonelier from using these platforms? Those are recent examples of consequences that people maybe didn't think about early on, but we already saw signs of when I joined, which none of us had planned for.
The first art project that you did was Network Effect. That has a very firm stance on the Internet's negative effects on us.
And you come out of the corporate culture that's making these apps. Were those feelings building up as you were in the corporate side of tech, about how the Internet can make us lonelier or become addictive?
In many ways it's an evolution. By the time Jonathan Harris and I built it, we had personally experienced this build-up of frustration and anxiety in using those products and the Internet, and we knew we didn't feel that way about the Internet three years earlier. When we started it, we had this intention of making a beautiful piece about humanity, a piece that would be really comforting and warm and empathetic, and a way where you get to experience the whole of humanity through the lens of what we all do. How might we all be similar as opposed to different or disconnected, and can we use the Internet to show you other people so that you can relate to them through these activities that we all share, like kissing and eating and drinking?
So we worked on it, and a few months in we had gathered all of this material through these different sites, mainly YouTube; by the time we got to look back at it, we never felt empathetic about it. These were other people and this was humanity, but the way we actually experienced it felt everything but warm. It was very disconcerting, very off-putting, and we felt that it wasn't because of the people or what they were doing, but because of the way it's all stitched together. Looking at it reminded us of what it feels like to be on the Internet, to look like at strangers in this very disembodied, fast, quick, unemotional way. That's when we flipped the project and said, “Let's dial that emotion up and make it all about the experience of being online and having to interface with that.”
How do you use social media personally?
I uninstalled it all. I deactivated my Facebook account, which I had for many years, and I don't have Instagram on my phone anymore. I don't have Twitter on my phone anymore. I had to force myself to do it and say, “I'll miss out on these things, and I'm okay with having a life where I'm probably less connected or less plugged into what's happening.” It felt necessary. I will say that with Instagram it was more about addiction and having it not feel meaningful or real anymore. Facebook I think was different for me: it was related to a lack of responsibility that the platform shows with its users and its power and its effects, so that was less about being addicted to it and much more about not wanting to be on it.
Something I hadn't thought about until I read the copy for Network Effect was how attention is a natural resource. Your attention is being mined, which is an interesting way to think about how these apps or websites capture an audience. Do you think the solution to having your natural resource mined, often without realizing it, is making more thoughtful apps or being more responsible about how you use your time?
My belief is that two or three years ago, there were fewer answers or fewer prospects for what the future might look like, and [a question of] whether we might be totally tethered and helpless in the face of these machines that are able to prey on attention. I'm much more hopeful today than I was when I built Network Effect about people's own ability to respond. It's very anecdotal, but I sense this reaction among other people too, that they're more aware of the fact that they don't like the way they use their phone and there are ways in which they feel too tethered to some services. I do think there will be this response against services that people don't feel like they're getting value out of.
People have a really good internal compass that in the short-term might get over-ridden, because it's new and shiny and we are animals with certain behavioral patterns and can get through the pain for a little bit, but longer term there will be this correction that's very natural and very human. People will choose things that don't make them feel bad over time. Some of it I think will be generational. When TV came out, there was a response within some parents to say, "I'm going to think about how I introduce TV to my children and not have it be unfettered.” I think a similar response will happen in future generations with parents, or even among friends saying, "We'll have a weekend where we're not going to look at our phones"—having norms develop that calibrate what's socially acceptable. Two years ago with Network Effect I was more dismayed about how there might be no good answer here, that we might just drift into a world where we're much more stuck or addicted. I don't think it's as negative or as grim as it was back then.
The language on some of these apps, like "followers,” is so weird. If you consider what that means it's disconcerting.
It’s so weird. One word that I personally have a really difficult relationship with is "content." It’s like, what world do we live in? To me it's so demeaning to treat everything that happens in these platforms as just stuff that goes through them, when really what goes through them is humanity, that actually is the whole reason we're there. The photo you're sharing and want to show to your friend, that's not content, that's the thing, that's your life. So to label it “content,” it's so degrading. The terminology tells you a lot about where these platforms place value, and “content,” “followers,” “engagement,” those are very un-human terms. You would never describe a friendship or relationship in any of those terms.
And I suppose a larger concern is that terminology making its way into the real world, that it’s how you start thinking about your life.
Moving to Confession, it strikes me as providing a service. Do you now see yourself as wanting to offer services that benefit people rather than "here's a way to think about this” by going to something on a browser?
As trite as it sounds, it always comes back to how you can give someone something really meaningful that they can hold onto. I personally don't believe very much, at least for my own work, that I have enough to offer where I can present you with an answer or something that you can look at and accept as some new truth. Ideally I think what I can do best, or what I feel most comfortable doing, is setting up something where I hope people can get something from each other, and it brings strangers together or it brings friends together, rather than pretending that I have something to offer myself that I present to you as a packaged thing. Some artists can do that, they have that ability by writing a novel or making a film where you watch it and go, "Oh wow, I can take something from this.” But for me, especially with an active work or a digital work, its real power is in setting up systems that when you step into them, they become active and meaningful because you're inside of them rather than it being just a one-way experience.
What's the biggest misconception about what you do as an engineer?
The biggest misconception is that engineers are often held up as a special animal that's somehow much smarter than everyone else, that they know something or have skills that are in this other stratosphere of the job market or the universe, and that other professions, like artists, non-engineers, live down below that. The idea that engineers somehow have a better view of the world or a smarter set of answers to human problems or [to offer] humanity, that's what feels frustrating. This belief is thrown around because of the success that we've seen with engineering-based things recently, like the fact that Google is successful and Facebook is so massive. It’s somehow conflating intellect with the ability to problem-solve as an engineer… That value judgment I find really problematic.
This interview has been edited and condensed.