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The face of the future

November 24, 2020

A couple of days ago I read a fascinating article in the New York Times about facial imaging technology.

It showed a series of faces (of which the one above is an example) that under almost all circumstances you would accept as belonging to real people. Except that they’re not. Not only that, but the graphics in the article allow you to alter the images: by age, gender, race and other distinguishing factors. The results are not just incredible. They’re credible.

Which sets me off on more than one train of thought.

Image enhancement, or doctoring, if you like, has been around from the early days of photography. Techniques ranging from manual airbrushing to Photoshop allow us, if we’re so minded, to erase our wrinkles, warts, double chins and receding hairlines. But sooner or later, especially if we’re well known, the truth will out. Some photo will slip out showing our cellulite, pot bellies or the wrong side of our faces.

But does that really matter for the legions of onlookers who speculate about whether we’ve had work, and take delight in seeing us “as we really are”? Probably yes. There’s a malicious pleasure in seeing facades slip. And there might also be a sense of relief that we, the anonymous masses, are not alone in suffering the ravages of time.

The other day, the actress Jane Seymour, who looks a young seventy, claimed that she could very easily play Eleanor of Aquitaine, the wife of English King Henry II, at the age of seventeen. No doubt she could, especially if the movie makers used the same technology that was employed in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, in which Al Pacino, Robert de Niro and Joe Pesci were made to look thirty years younger, at least until they started walking.

But there are probably just as many people who are quite happy to see their heroes looking as they would like them to be, rather than as they are. They expect them to make an effort to roll back the years. They want old people to look like Joe Biden, perfect teeth, taut of face and barely a wrinkle to be seen, rather than Robert Redford, whose once Hollywood-perfect face now has as many crevasses as Mars has canals. They prefer to gaze upon Cliff Richard rather than an elderly WH Auden, upon Catherine Deneuve rather than the ancient Brigitte Bardot.

But are we approaching a stage when it’s no longer important that there’s a real face behind the images we see? George Orwell first introduced the face of Big Brother, the man who is never seen but whose image is everywhere, in 1984. Science fiction writers, movie makers and games developers have been playing with avatars for donkey’s years.

As we spend more time closeted at home, glued to the social media, do we care whether the faces in the Twitter profiles of people we follow are those of real people or Russian bots? And does it matter that Q, the inspirational but unseen figure behind QAnon, has no face? When we read the novels of Elena Ferrante, are we bothered whether the anonymous author is man, a woman or the product of artificial intelligence? As we become used to seeing people in face masks, does it matter that we can’t see their distinguishing features?

Yes and no. We set great store by faces. We make judgements based on facial expressions. Often they’re mistaken, as Malcolm Gladwell points out in his latest book Talking to Strangers. But what judgements can we make if all we see are false faces, in which expressions can be manipulated by moving a slider? And if we’re increasingly being influenced by people with no faces, are we acquiring a method of judgement upon which the sightless have always relied?

Perhaps this explains why we (or me, anyway) find Sarah Cooper’s lip-synchs of Donald Trump, which completely alter the meaning of what he’s saying, so funny. Because suddenly his contorted features no longer matter, and it’s all about how she interprets the voice with her own facial expressions.

Since we’re now so addicted to video, it’s also becoming much easier for us to be deceived by deep fake videos. We’re not quite there yet. Remember the one that allegedly showed an intoxicated Nancy Pelosi? I’ve yet to see a character in a video game that has fooled me into believing that they’re real people. But it can’t be long before those mutable faces in the New York Times spring to life, and people start believing that they’re looking at real people, busy trying to persuade and perhaps radicalise us.

If we get to the stage where we can no longer always be certain that static images or videos are of real people, where will this lead us? If we’re searching for the truth, will we have to go back to the age of radio, or its modern variant, podcasting? Or will we start relying mainly on the written word to make our judgements on truth or falsehood?

If those of us who have forgotten to read or listen to words of more than one syllable, or never learned how in the first place, become a majority, then we’re in trouble, because these technologies will increasingly be used to manipulate us. And not just to sell us stuff. If they’re deliberately designed to map on to our learned reality, they can shape our political views, persuade us to buy into falsehood and convince us to ignore all evidence suggesting different realities.

Which, more or less, is where we are today.

In the future, perhaps, there might be no need for the likes of Donald Trump. All we will need is altered images, avatars that we will know aren’t real. But we won’t care. We will have our favourite avatars, we will become fans, followers and cult members, and it won’t matter whether the object of our adoration is real or not. All that will matter is whether their truth is our truth.

There are plenty of precedents. We love conspiracy theories involving unseen shadowy forces. In Paulo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope, a new pope seeks to revive interest in the Catholic Church by being inaccessible. And the idea of a 12th Iman hiding in a cave, ready to re-emerge and purge the evils of the world, is a belief binding together millions of Shi’a Muslims. Closer to the west, the imminent arrival of the Antichrist who will usher in the end of days has, in the United States, turned from being a quirky sub-cult to a mainstream movement with a political agenda.

Mystery, the unknowable, is a powerful force because it liberates our imagination. It takes us to places beyond our mundane realities. Why otherwise are we addicted to murder mysteries in print and film?

So if we’re offered the opportunity to believe in a fake person instead an overweight blow-hard with piggy eyes, or his lawyer who has shoe polish dripping down his face in a press conference, why would we not take it?

Which leads one to wonder whether the Antichrist, the Messiah, the Mahdi and the Twelfth Iman, if and when they appear, will not be flesh and blood. They will hide behind digital compositions, because they will know that this will be the most effective way to reach the faithful. Their avatars will assume the forms and speak in languages that people will understand in Jakarta and Georgia.

If I’m straying into mystical realms, it’s because people yearn for mystique. And if they can’t find it in what they see as the real world, they’ll seek it elsewhere. And are we not all becoming a little more mystical because this year we’ve been forced to stare more closely at the possibility of death?

But what do I know? Only that you don’t have to be an intellectual, a philosopher or a mystic to explore a road and see where it’s leading. All you need is a little help from Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Even without these essential assistants, there’s a lot of satisfaction to be had in exploring topics that have no easy answers, only endless possibilities, both good and bad.

But the bad ones are more fun, aren’t they?

  1. Oh dear Steve, what a prospect!

    • Getting my 30-year old avatar ready, so that I can spread the faith!

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