Max Hawkins is a computational artist who uses randomization as a tool to reject corporate algorithms that shape our sense of identity and determine how we interact with one another. While working as a Software Engineer for Google, Hawkins became wary of the monotony and isolating effects of his routine and began creating randomization applications, including one that would choose a location for Uber to drop him off and another that would randomly select Facebook events for him to attend. Eventually, he left his job and created an app that chose the places around the world he would live, which he followed for two years.
His recent project, Dialup, created with Danielle Baskin, connects strangers through a phone call. Dialup has been covered by the media extensively including by NPR, The New York Times and the newspaper’s Modern Love column, The Guardian, and the New Yorker, among many other outlets around the world.
“5 Questions” is an ongoing series by the School of Art that asks alumni who are transforming art, culture, and technology about their current work and time at Carnegie Mellon.
Do you have any favorite stories from Dialup users? Or from when you have used Dialup yourself?
The interesting thing about Dialup is the large geographic variety of our user base, so there’s often unexpected connections. For example, we had reports of a horse rancher in the rural western US connecting with an ice fisher in Canada and a flight attendant in Las Vegas. There are a lot of characters on the network that you hear stories about through other people.
For me, it was really interesting during the early part of the pandemic to connect with people in different parts of the world and hear about how their experience is different from mine. Early on, when lockdowns started in Los Angeles but the virus wasn’t very widespread in the US, I connected with a student in Paris whose roommate had just contracted the virus. She was talking about how nervous she felt not knowing if she was infected. I also talked to a teacher in Hong Kong around that time. Hearing about the difference in how Hong Kong deployed public health measures compared to what we were doing in the US was fascinating.
Why a phone call rather than a text conversation, video call, chat room, or pen pal? What makes a phone call an apt communication method for connecting with strangers?
I think the voice is the best medium for communicating emotion, even better than video. Your voice can carry so much information about how you’re feeling, but you’re not distracted by the self-consciousness video can create where you might worry about your appearance or the things people may infer about you from your surroundings or the quality of your camera. When you’re meeting a stranger, there’s also more safety in a voice connection, because you don’t reveal too much about yourself and there’s not as much potential for abuse as in video.
A lot of your projects center around the idea of relinquishing control and allowing a computer to make a random choice for you. What draws you to the idea of randomness?
Society is always asking us to define ourselves by our preferences and to fit ourselves into a coherent box that others can easily understand. I’m really critical of things like recommendation algorithms in social media sites that put people into filter bubbles based on their interests so that companies and send them targeted ads. I think that really narrows your sense of who you are and doesn’t allow you to be exposed to different ways of being and of thinking about the world. I also think that there’s something very undemocratic about the way social media companies control who sees what. It’s so pervasive on the web that I don’t think many people understand that you’re missing out on a lot of things based on how social media companies are tailoring your feed. In my work, randomness is a tool to break these sorts of constricting systems.
My interest in randomness started while I was at CMU and was studying computer science and art. As a computational artist, one of the most useful tools you have in your artistic toolbox is randomization. It allows you to create outputs that are unexpected, even though the computer code is very rigid and deterministic. Computational art is less like constructing a building and more like gardening. You’re planting the seeds for different outcomes and then allowing a slightly random process to complete the work. It feels a little bit like divination. When you’re programming, it can feel like you’re too in control of what the output is because you have to be so precise, but when you use randomness, it feels like the work is coming from something outside of yourself, which I think is more powerful.
Are there any experiences you had as a student at CMU that stand out?
The inspiration for Dialup comes from a studio class I took with Lowry Burgess. I took his Intergeographies course, which looked at dreams, telepathy, and a lot of “out there” new age topics. The way he taught was super inspirational, because even though a lot of these ideas are so different from the rational way that a lot of people look at the world, he had a good way of viewing things without rejecting them. It was very generative for me, because I was able to think about the computer work I did, which was coming from a very rational, linear point of view, in this more spiritual, ethereal dimension. A project I did for his class was “Call in the Night,” which connected people between 2:00 and 5:00 AM to discuss their dreams. That was what got me interested in the telephone and led directly to Dialup.
Do you have any advice to share with students?
One thing that I really struggled with after I left CMU was the lack of critique. Outside of art school, it’s very difficult to get honest, constructive feedback. In critique, there’s a sense of safety and even though the feedback you’re getting can be kind of rough, it’s very difficult to find outside of school. I would recommend that people take critique as seriously as they can.