Arts & Entertainment

Can data help us pick better friends? One artist thinks so

/Jenn Liv for NPR

There has been a lot of scary news about big data — about corporations or government invading your privacy. But imagine if we could use our data to make our lives better.

That is at the center of artist Laurie Frick's work — she wants to help create a future in which self-delusion is impossible. In fact, she thinks this shift is inevitable once people wake up to the transformational power of big data.

Frick is using her work to show people what the future looks like. But unlike most artists, she is also sharing it with people who can bring her ideas into the real world.

"Data is going to turn into something more compelling than what we're seeing now. ... It's irresistible," Frick says. "The data that's tracked about us can be used in ways that's superpowerful."

Her obsession with data started years ago, when she began tracking her sleep. She used watercolor drawings to help her see patterns in the data.

Since then, Frick has used data about mood, exercise and personality — and turned it into vibrant, carefully crafted art, using dyes, leather, wood and laminate. The results look a bit like a spreadsheet composed by the abstract painter Mondrian.

Data may seem abstract, but Frick aims to make it personal. "It's this moment in time where the data that's gathered about us is astronomical — it's crazy amounts," she says. So she is working on a way to make it easy for us to consume.

She has starting with data about relationships. Frick is bubbly and outgoing, but she says she is not very good at assessing the character of friends. After years of working with data, she has begun to wonder whether numbers would be better than her intuition.

"I'm the last one to figure it out ... when people are bad for me," she says.

Frick thinks an algorithm would do a better job.

She has been experimenting with a trove of questions and answers that she downloaded from the dating site OkCupid. She says the questions are designed to assess your character, measuring things like honesty and empathy. This one is supposed to measure loyalty: If your partner shared their darkest secret with you and eventually you break up, would you tell other people the secret?

Frick says OkCupid doesn't really do that much with these data. But she does.

Frick's studio is filled with richly dyed felt that she assembles into what are essentially portraits. They get beneath the skin and expose how we really behave and think.

Frick takes each characteristic and ranks it on a scale of 1 to 10 and gives it a color — darker colors are higher scores, yellows are lower scores.

This could all sound like pie in the sky. But there is more to understand about Frick. She is not a typical artist — she has both an MBA and an MFA.

Frick isn't interested in building a startup. She uses her artistic skills to imagine far beyond the limits of the present. But her knowledge of business has opened a door to the tech world.

In Silicon Valley, executives are terrified that they will miss the next big thing. So they bring in artists like Frick to present out-of-the-box ideas.

Frick does it as a performance. Her theater is tech conferences, corporate boardrooms and offices. She has been an artist-in-residence at Samsung and has been paid to perform at Google, Microsoft and IBM. She makes it seem as though her ideas are already real — and executives, investors and programmers willingly play along.

One day, Frick did one of her performances in a corporate conference room in Austin, Texas. She presented her ideas to Sara Brand and Kerry Rupp, who invest in health-related startups.

Dressed for the part, Frick stood in front of them in a red-and-white seersucker power dress, her blond hair stylishly cut. She had a laptop and a PowerPoint presentation ready.

"I just want to show you this prototype," Frick said, introducing a faux startup idea called Friend Nutrition.

"Have you ever noticed that some friends are a vitamin and others are a little toxic?" she asked. "Who you hang out with will be like diet and exercise. We can manipulate body chemistry with friends."

Frick imagines a future in which your smart watch will know how your body is responding to someone. Then it will combine with Facebook data about their personality. And that will let you know whether that person makes you lethargic, raises your blood pressure or depresses you.

Rupp gets drawn in to the performance. "If you start training people that, 'Look at what's happening to your inflammation levels or whatever. This is the best thing for you and you can let go of the guilt,' " she says.

There are studies that show that your health is affected by your friends. For example, people who hang around with someone who is obese are more likely to become obese themselves.

"It actually resonates with us because we're looking at what things can have literally an impact on people," Rupp says.

Rupp and Brand leave with a new idea of how to think about health and personal data — one that might inform what they fund — and Frick feels affirmed in her mission. "They looked at me like I was real," she says.

Frick is an optimist, but there are a lot of potential downsides to her vision.

Imagine if data show certain people are toxic to everyone — they'll end up being ostracized. The algorithm could put sociopaths together, because they relate to one another so well. Perhaps every time you meet someone from a different background, class or race, you get stressed out. This could make our society more fragmented than it already is.

Frick says she is not naive about what could happen with all these data. She also knows there are legal and financial obstacles to getting and owning your data. Facebook, Google and Apple aren't going to hand the information over without a fight.

But Frick wants to inspire people to push for change. She wants to make people want their data so that they will go out and fight for ownership.

As an artist, Frick says, it's her role to go beyond the limitations of science and law. "As an artist, you conjure up the space when you step off the cliff and you are in open air," she says.

Her latest work is about creating a sort of visual dashboard — to make looking at our data more engaging. "I really thought about what it would take to have something that you live with that reflects what's going on with you, so that you can see it as opposed to looking at pixels on glass and words," she says.

In the future, Frick imagines that real-time data will flow in and the profiles will be made of something that can change colors and positions in response. "They aren't going to be glued down," she says. "They'll move."

And it will change day to day; if you meet someone who makes you less angry, the red would transform to purple and eventually perhaps a calm blue. It's an evolving self-portrait. And Frick believes it will be so powerful that we won't be able to resist. We'll want to own it and use it.

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