mirror, mirror on the wall

it used to be that a face was just a face. eyes looked. expressions communicated. ears heard. mouths spoke and tasted and kissed. cheeks flushed after running or when embarrassment took over.

before the advent of the printing press we were able to see only those faces immediately before us. things changed as photographs became publishable and, later, projectable. suddenly we were exposed to a vast number of faces while at the same time having our own faces seen by greater numbers. the promulgation of faces on page and screen were then able to be used to influence mood, tone, and behavior. which brings us to today.

today i hear more and more about our faces as tools. computer scientists at nyu’s movement lab have spent the last three years developing technology that scans facial behaviors of fans in sports stadiums, google glass puts computers on our faces, and neuromarketers study faces in order to sell more product. this makes me sad. and a bit dumbfounded. it seems that we’re elevating the phrase, “taking it at face value” to a whole new level.

based on new camera software that scans facial expressions to identify and predict fan and consumer behaviors, we are all about to be watched alot more than we have been.  the computer scientist behind the nyu software has a contract with one pro-sports organization to roll out this summer. his cameras will scan not only for where fans are looking when, but also for how well what they are looking at is being received. by aggregating this data he’ll be able to communicate to the stadium stake holders which jumbotron ads are watched, which are well (or poorly) received, which players get the crowd emoting, which half time acts cause everyone to lose focus, and more. similar software has existed for a decade (or more) in the neuromarketing world where advertisers study facial responses in order to determine which advertising images hold attention (eye contact) and which diminish it. google glass, expected out within the year, has fans everywhere guessing that the device may include head movement and eye blinking as options to control some of its functions.

if we don’t stop and think critically, these advances just seem cool. how amazing is it that we can predict when a fan will buy a beer at a soccer game simply based upon where she is looking on field and on screen? how handy is it that she can have that beer within ready grasp at the precise moment she wants it? is it not unbelievable that we could take photos, video, and watch news and facebook highlights all while simply looking into our glasses? how convenient is it for the products we like to be projected, seemingly effortlessly, onto our screens as we read and surf and update? how fortuitous that devices (and the apps that run them) know us so well and cater to us so effectively that we are barely required to think.

while cool, these so called “advances” also give me reason for pause. while others are pausing to consider (and be concerned about) the effect all this facial recognition and camera software might have on privacy, i am more deeply concerned with the way in which it might impact our sense of self in the world. if i have “taught” sellers to market to my tastes and preferences and they have responded by making those preferences more easily available, i will be less likely to take a risk with what i try, my tastes will remain unchallenged, and i will become more complacent and uninspired. similarly, when my way of being in the world is unconsciously and seemlessly reinforced, what motivation do i have to believe that i am not the center of the entire world (as opposed to just my own)? why will i notice, affirm, or respect the preferences of my neighbor when i have my own proclivities catered to without my ever being truly, consciously aware of this? will i believe that what is on my screen is what is on everyone else’s (because “i am the world”)? taken further, if i can record images and audio from our encounters without your ever being aware that i am doing so, or be checking facebook while we converse, our face to face interactions become less organic and about you and more potentially pregnant and about me.

at root, it seems that all the “conveniences” that these technologies and software provide have the potential to deeply impact the human experiences of transparency, healthy spontaneity/risk taking, humility, and internal sturdiness. living in a time of self promotion makes it difficult enough to develop a hearty sense of self as it is. add to that a digital experience/world presenting us with a never ending flow of images, ads, and offerings all birthed from algorithms and preference charts generated by our own clicks and expressions. in so many ways we have little reason to think of anyone or anything else any more. the self that results from this intense personal focus is one that is over-developed on the outside (preferences, wishes, etc) and under-developed in the way of deep personal character and integrity. this is a self that has taught the world what it likes on the outside (to eat, to wear, to watch, to buy, to receive)  but has not spent enough time in quiet contemplation to know what it needs to thrive internally (a knowing of ones limits, abilities, feelings, and values; an ability to be quiet and bored; and a flexibility about relationships with self and others).

so why might it be important that a beer not be available at the soccer match the minute i want one? because if it isn’t, perhaps i’ll be forced to have a new experience with a new taste and a new level of awareness. perhaps i’ll sit tight longer and gain a deeper sense of attention to the game. or maybe i’ll be stretched in some other, small way that will connect me more deeply with a world that isn’t made up of my own self generated preferences. a world that isn’t all about me.