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10 Questions to an artist/engineer : Gregor Hochmuth

– A little about you, what is your background ?

Gregor Hochmuth Artist & Engineer
Gregor Hochmuth, Artist & Engineer

I’m a fairly recent New Yorker, having moved here only about a year and a half ago. I had been living in San Francisco for many years until then and working at a number of tech companies out here: First at Google as a product manager, then joined Instagram when the company was still very small. Once we were acquired by Facebook, I stayed for another year and a half before deciding it was time to move on and also leave the Bay Area. Together with my move to New York came the desire to leave behind the world of startups & large companies. I now work on self-initiated, independent projects at the intersection of art & engineering.

– You define yourself as an artist and engineer. isn’t that an oxymoron ?

If you think of it in terms of employability, then yes: the two couldn’t be greater opposites of each other. But to me, the two roles are actually just two puzzle pieces in the same bigger picture:

I used to believe that art is art when it serves no utility when an object or experience is useless as a tool and yet we seek its presence in our lives. And you could argue that engineering is about creating utility, building tools to address real needs. Nowadays, I want to think that I’m less naive about the world: Of course, art is a tool, of course. it has utility. We use it to find meaning, to confront us with questions, to help us grow. These are needs that the artist observes, captures, reframes. As an artist and engineer, I don’t have to choose which needs I want to work on. I can make a tool, I can make art, or most interesting of all: something in between.

Network Effect created by Jonathan Harris and Gregor Hochmurth
Network Effect explores the psychological effect of Internet use on humanity. created by Jonathan Harris and Gregor Hochmurth
– You were a product manager at Google and Instagram. What have both experience taught you?

I often think that the companies I’ve worked for, and Google, in particular, taught me more than my university did. I learned many important skills and lessons, but instead of listing them here (many have been shared by countless people before me), let me focus on two cautionary points I’ve only learned since leaving these companies:

– I’ve now gained a deep appreciation for timelessness, the ability to create something that can still exist, still mean something in 10 years and more from now. We think that 10 years is an eternity in technology time … in part because nothing from 10 years ago has survived this eternity. Of course, new hardware is always getting better, but increasingly less so in the last few years — and yet, we still often reinvent the wheel every 3 to 5 years and throw out every design, every programming language, every insight, and start from scratch. I would love to see more technology products that are designed for the long-term and age gracefully, rather than being scheduled for obsolescence by the time they get released.

– We over-quantify our world, especially with regards to people and experiences. One day I was sitting in a meeting, looking at a slide deck on the projector screen, and out of the blue, I was struck by something odd: The slide on the wall was showing a bar chart of one point something with billion users  — and I thought: we somehow squeezed more than a billion people into a tiny blue bar on this wall. That’s a lot of people in a small area. When we look at people at a scale like that, we’re no longer designing for humans because we’re unable to see them as humans. The great wonder of the internet is its ability to connect billions of people and reach billions of people — but we shouldn’t let that ability make us forget that we’re still interacting with a real person on the other end each & every time. And if that proves difficult, maybe it’s better to reach 10 people than 10 billion.

Don’t Play With Your News : 6 years of radio news cut into a million pieces. Part of Breaking the News, a series that explores our relationship with news & broadcast.
Don’t Play With Your News : 6 years of radio news cut into a million pieces. Part of Breaking the News, a series that explores our relationship with news & broadcast.
– What is the relationship between big data and visual content ?

A third of the human brain, if not more, is dedicated to processing visual information — it’s our most effective way of making sense of the world. The better we can understand, analyze and quantify visual information, the better we’ll understand our own world and make that understanding more accessible. Short of inventing computational intelligence itself, we’re extending our most advanced human sense (sight) and giving ourselves superpowers.

– Is Truth hiding in large datasets? 

A dataset is nothing but a snapshot that says, “This is what the world looked like at this point in time.” That also sounds a lot like the description of a photograph to me. Does Truth hide in a photograph? It can. Perhaps never fully, you might say, but something close to it. Truth can be construed, altered, enhanced or hidden by any number of intentional and unintentional ways. And most importantly, regardless of intent, the final judgment is always made in the viewer’s eye and mind and mood. The very same is true with datasets: The way we capture, process and communicate them can alter any Truth that was there to begin with. “Composition is choosing what to leave out” is a definition from photography that I’ve always liked – and it couldn’t be more true for data as well.

– What data trends have you encountered that were a surprise ?

I love working with large datasets about human behavior because they reveal so many ways in which we’re all similar. I’ve come across countless examples of this over the years, so I’ll just give you the first one that comes to mind:

What’s the most productive weekday in offices around the world? Tuesdays. That’s the day with the most desktop search traffic, regardless of where you look in the world. Your own experience might intuitively confirm this (Mondays are slower, you spend more time catching up & running to status meetings), but to know that this appears to be true for the majority of office workers around the world was humbling for me.

Our lives are filled with examples like this – we rarely get to compare notes about our individual experience with others, but these patterns & similarities became beautifully apparent when looking at human behavior at large.

grex on Instagram
Gregor Hochmuth on Instagram
–  What do you  expect from LDV Vision Summit and why ?

We live in a visual culture and images are the most powerful language. I’m excited to attend a gathering of people who share this passion for the visual world and discuss their latest creative and technical ideas with each other.

– What would you like to see grex.nyc create that technology cannot yet deliver ?

Technology increasingly implies experiences that are private and personalized: I use apps on my private little screen, I watch Netflix at home, I put on noise-canceling headphones or my VR headset. I’m interested in experiences that imply shared physical presence and immediacy — where things happen in a shared time & place, where they become more memorable because of the other people who were there with you. You can always go home and watch Netflix afterward.

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As in previous years, Kaptur is a proud media sponsor of the LDV Vision Summit. On top of advance previews of speakers and panels, we offer our readers 25% discount pricing. Act fast, there are only 10 available.

Go to: www.ldv.co/visionsummit/2016/tickets , enter KAPTUR25

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Photo by foto_fux1

Author: Paul Melcher

Paul Melcher is the founder of Kaptur. He is an entrepreneur, advisor, consultant with a strong background in licensing, copyright, sales, marketing and technology with more than 20 years experience in developing world-renowned photo based companies with two successful exits. Named one of the “100 most influential people in photography” by American Photo magazine.

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