What if a technology made us immune to people’s beauty?
Disclaimer: This is the translation of an article published at TAB UOL.
Warning: This article has spoilers of the short story “Liking What You See: A Documentary,” by Ted Chiang
Published in 2002, the short story collection “Stories of Your Life and Others” by North American writer Ted Chiang features the story that inspired the movie “Arrival” (2016), starring Amy Adams. The collection also includes a series of short speculative stories that discuss scientific scenarios after topics such as language, maths and fictional technologies like “calliagnosia”, presented in “Liking What You See: A Documentary.”
Despite the fact that Chiang uses literature to tell the story, the author seeks to emulate the rhythm and the format of a documentary. Due to this transmedia style, the short story caught the attention of companies like AMC, which announced in 2017 a new partnership between Chiang and Eric Heisserer (screenwriter of “Arrival”), for the production of a series based on the short story, though there is no date of release. In “Liking What You See”, we meet a society in the near future, in which people are able to use a technology capable of modifying their brains, to the point that they no longer judge people’s appearance — that’s the so-called “calliagnosia” or “calli”, to make your reading experience more straight-forward.
Throughout the story, users and critics of the technology share their opinions about it. The narrative peaks when people start to vote on the mandatory use of “calli” in collective spaces, such as universities and schools. With the release of a new model of smart glasses including the software Visage, users can see each other with modifications, as if they went under plastic surgery. It could sound like something farfetched, but, believe me: it’s already past. In 2019, Instagram raised a ban for the creation of filters that emulated the results of plastic surgery, in order to avoid further body image issues. However, we already know that the problem is much more complex than that when we talk about filters.
And this is the question that Chiang posed already in 2002. He explores the possibility of transposing this modified version of someone’s body beyond Instagram posts or even livestreams of our daily life. He imagined something like Snapchat’s Spectacles, but they wouldn’t just record what we see, they would rather modify our vision by inserting real time filters. Curiously, Chiang suggests that this software was first developed for entertainment purposes, but its success started to be seen as an offence to college students who, by their turn, decided to implement an ethical code in campus to ban these devices.
The source of the problem, however, is not in technology, but in what they call “lookism”, but it is also known as “Unatractifobia”: fear or aversion against people who are considered ugly. In the context posed by Chiang though, he is talking about something more social than medical: it is this cultural aversion and aesthetic repulsion which could border racism, for instance.
“For decades people’ve been willing to talk about racism and sexism, but they’re still reluctant to talk about lookism. Yet this prejudice against unattractive people is incredibly pervasive. People do it without even being taught by anyone, which is bad enough, but instead of combating this tendency, modern society actively reinforces it.
Educating people, raising their awareness about the issue, all of that is essential, but it’s not enough. That’s where technology comes in. Think of calliagnosia as a kind of assisted maturity. It lets you do what you know you should: ignore the surface, so you can look deeper.”
But how does calli work in the end? A testimonial from a fictional character called Joseph Weingartner aims to explain the technology from a neurological perspective. He says that there is a real medical condition called associative agnosia, which makes people unable to name or recognize an object, though they still can perceive it. On the other hand, the unperceptive agnosia makes people unable to even perceive objects. The term agnosia is a combination of the Greek a+gnosis, which means “no knowledge.” By adding the suffix “calli,” which means beauty in Greek, an individual with calliganosia is someone who processes faces, but cannot tell the difference between “a pointed chin and a receding one, a straight nose and a crooked one, clear skin and blemished skin. He or she simply doesn’t experience any aesthetic reaction to those differences.”
Chiang, who is very much dedicated to make his speculations scientifically plausible, explains that the calli technique is possible due to certain neural patterns:
“All animals have criteria for evaluating the reproductive potential of prospective mates, and they’ve evolved neural ‘circuitry’ to recognize those criteria. Human social interaction is centered around our faces, so our circuitry is most finely attuned to how a person’s reproductive potential is manifested in his or her face. You experience the operation of that circuitry as the feeling that a person is beautiful, or ugly, or somewhere in between. By blocking the neural pathways dedicated to evaluating those features, we can induce calliagnosia.”
This kind of solution would be important if, for instance, we think about the way the fashion industry, or even personal taste and culture change continuously and increasingly faster. At the same time that this pattern makes it impossible to reach perfection and keep it, it is also hard to say what a beautiful face is. Despite of that, there are certain consensus such as a healthy aspect that could be represented by a smooth skin or a symmetrical face — even though we are not capable of recognizing differences in the range of millimeters, measurements performed on individuals considered attractive by the common sense show that this symmetry was indeed stronger.
All these characteristics, however, may have a genetic origin, but they can go under phenotypic alterations throughout someone’s life: diseases, accidents, hormonal dysfunctions or even nutritional variations and ageing leave marks on the body and make people’s appearance change with time. More importantly than keeping plastic surgery and cosmetics up to date, or even causing the development of eating and body image disorders, why can’t we simply remove this aesthetic judgement factor from people?
In Chiang’s fictitious universe, people with calli are not insensitive to fashion trends and beauty: a user knows that a certain lipstick color is in vogue, but they wouldn’t express any judgement about it by interpreting a different aesthetic or symbolic value in someone’s wearing that color. In other words, what calli does is to remove the innate predisposition to discrimination, thus teaching people how to ignore someone’s appearance during socialization.
To understand how this works in the universe created by the author, we read the testimonials of a student named Tamera Lyons, who grew up using calli. For children and teenagers, the adoption of the technology could be seen as a benefit, as suggested by Tamara’s school principal Saybrook: “Everyone’s teens were asking for cosmetic surgery so they could look like fashion models. The parents were doing their best, but you can’t isolate your kids from the world; they live in an image-obsessed culture.” Though this could seem extreme or even dystopian, in some countries like South Korea, teens indeed are gifted by their own parents with plastic surgery.
If a technology like calli could be legalized and disseminated, what would be the benefits of educating children like that? For Tamera’s mother, Rachel Lyons, this was an important thing for her when choosing the school her daughter would study. Many students had some kind of facial abnormality caused by bone cancer, burn or congenital disease, and all these children were purposefully enrolled in that school so they wouldn’t suffer from discrimination and ostracism. Consequently, Rachel tells that a 12-year-old child with burn scars on her face was even elected the class representant:
“She was wonderfully at ease with herself, she was popular among kids who probably would have ostracized her in any other school. And I thought, this is the kind of environment I want my daughter to grow up in.
Girls have always been told that their value is tied to their appearance; their accomplishments are always magnified if they’re pretty and diminished if they’re not. Even worse, some girls get the message that they can get through life relying on just their looks, and then they never develop their minds. I wanted to keep Tamera away from that sort of influence.
Being pretty is fundamentally a passive quality; even when you work at it, you’re working at being passive. I wanted Tamera to value herself in terms of what she could do, both with her mind and with her body, not in terms of how decorative she was. I didn’t want her to be passive, and I’m pleased to say that she hasn’t turned out that way.”
However, after finishing school, Tamera decides to turn her calli “off.” Slowly, the character starts to recognize some changes in her processing of people’s appearance and even her own looks. She finally finds out that she is pretty — and to certify that, she developed a habit of checking herself on all mirrors she found throughout the day. But, in spite of enjoying this recently discovered characteristic, Tamera still couldn’t overcome a recent breakup. She decides to go after her ex, Garrett, so she can try to “win him back” and also convince him to turn his calli off. — after all, he would then find out that his ex was beautiful and then be together again.
Curiously, however, when Tamera shows a photo of her ex to a friend from university, she is surprised by the question whether Garret was the one who decided to break up, after all, he was not even as beautiful as her. But Tamera starts to understand that calli is like love: “when you love someone, you don’t really see what they look like. I don’t see Garrett the way others do, because I still have feelings for him.”
After learning how to wear makeup and preparing for a video conference with Garrett, Tamera notes that the boy reacted to her image in a much more intense way than she did when looking at him. Her conclusion is that, while she still loved him after seeing his “actual” look, she also expected that he felt the same. But Garrett actually becomes self-conscious of his own looks which are not as good as Tamera’s.
Whereas Tamera was involved with some guys from university, that didn’t happen to her ex. If Garrett was popular in high school due to his intelligence and sense of humor, his recent acknowledgement of his own looks made him lose his confidence and thus harm his social skills. Consequently, Garret decided to turn his calli on again, so he wouldn’t need to look at Tamera as intensely as he was. That’s the precise moment when Garrett realises that Tamera’s request for him to turn his calli off was rather a strategy to seduce him.
And since we already talked about South Korea, there is a specially interesting and disturbing movie called “Beautiful”, directed by Juhn Jai-hong. It explores precisely the frightening trajectory of a woman who is considered very beautiful, to the point that she is stalked by a man who is obsessed with her looks. In his short story, Chiang explores terms such as “charm” and the idea that beauty can “bewitch” people to the point that such a quality can be actually used for manipulation — with calli, people would become immune to that though.
The writer mentions in his endnotes that his inspiration for this story was an experiment performed by psychologists, in which a fake enrollment form was lost by someone at the airport. The answers were always the same, but the photo of the fictitious applicant changed. According to Chiang, “it turned out people were more likely to mail in the application if the applicant was attractive. This is perhaps not surprising, but it illustrates just how thoroughly we’re influenced by appearances; we favor attractive people even in a situation where we’ll never meet them.”
In other testimonials featured in “Liking What You See”, we learn about other perspectives on the technology: would it be considered censorship or would it be freeing people from the pressures of the beauty industry, fashion trends, and advertisement? While there is a certain consensus that education would be the best way to avoid such issues, it is hard to believe that it alone would be enough. Among the most interesting arguments is the fact that beauty has been commercially used like some kind of drug, a “supernatural stimulus”, since it offers a peak of aesthetic fruition and hence creates this decompensation in our perception of reality, consequently of our relationship with other people too — be them romantic or not.
With the release of the smart glasses including the plastic surgery filter, the characters are constantly seen as supermodels: “Software companies offer goddesses who’ll remind you of your appointments. We’ve all heard about men who prefer virtual girlfriends over actual ones, but they’re not the only ones who’ve been affected. The more time any of us spend with gorgeous digital apparitions around, the more our relationships with real human beings are going to suffer.” No sooner said than done: in Japan, youngsters are already finding it a hard time to be in a relationship, and increasingly more men are marrying or engaging in a relationship with fictitious characters.
On the other hand, the fictitious critics presented in the story argue that observing beauty is like watching the performance of an Olympian athlete: our self-esteem is not affected by that, but actually people would feel inspired by their exceptionality. Arguing that feminists are responsible for making beauty something political, one of the critics of calliagnosia suggests that removing this aesthetic valuation would make people insensitive and, therefore, separated from an important aspect of reality. However, when we read books like “The Beauty Myth” by Naomi Wolf, we find historic notations of the female beauty standards were developed throughout the years as a means to rather manipulate the behavior and the role of women in society.
In this book published in 1990, we travel through time and see how the beauty standard for women was more robust in the Renaissance paintings (and this was mostly related to an idea of fertility), and how this changes over time with the creation of corsets which limited the body and translated the Victorian rigid morality. In the 1920s though, the suffragist movement crashed with the flapper trend, which envisioned women slim and absent of curves. After this, we have another wave of valorization of a more fleshy female body, with narrow waist and traces of fertility in the 1950s during this period known as the American Dream. However, in the 1970s, with a new feminist awakening, we were once again surprised by trends that now presented the supermodels — from the child-like appeal of Twiggy to Kate Moss’s heroin chic, till the creation of top models, from Linda Evangelista to Giselle Bündchen.
To achieve these standards, women submit themselves to extenuating exercises, restrictive diets, cosmetic and surgical procedures, photomanipulation apps: all of them subterfuges that fill the weight of an emotional and intellectual burden which imprisons and sicken women. For Wolf, these are strategies to control women through the imprisonment of their bodies in the very moments when there is a new feminist wave. In face of that, today we have these statistics from the US which show that only 1 in 10 people who suffer from eating disorders receive treatment, and 80% of girls or women who had their disorder treated didn’t have enough and recommended follow-ups. We have anorexia as the third most common chronic disease among teenagers. We have 50% of girls aged 11 to 13 who consider themselves overweight no matter what the scale or the BMI shows. In fact, we already have data that shows that even four-year-old girls are already unsatisfied with their own body. Finally, we also have the statistics that show that the rate of mortality from anorexia nervosa is 12 times bigger than all the other causes of death between women aged 15 to 24.
In this sense, the character Maria DeSouza, one of the biggest supporters of calli in the fictional universe of Chiang, mentions an advertisement in which a model agency reacted to the technology by using the picture of a supermodel and the saying: “If you no longer saw her as beautiful, whose loss would it be? Hers, or yours?”. In other words, the counter-reaction to the procedure is making people feel as if they are losing something or that they feel regret for eliminating such dimension from their own lives — some characters even compare calli with an Orwellian context.
More than guiding the reader to a conclusion whether the best choice would be dealing with the technology or the social issue, the story ends with the ascension of movements against the mandatory use of calli. These movements, however, are proved to be supported by the cosmetics industry, but they still are strong enough to influence the results of the university poll for a calli ban. On the other hand, there is also the news about this new smartglasses company that managed to develop a device that allows people to turn calli on and off whenever they wish. That is, users could arrive to a consensus about the relevance of beauty fruition, but without being constantly subjected to manipulation (being it through media or not) or totally separated from reality.
Still, we already know well that companies always find ways to adapt to the context: we already see this with movements being appropriated by capitalism, such as it is the case of the body positive movement that are being featured in the advertisements of brands like Dove. Besides that, there is also the rise of a new perspective about people’s looks and bodies as a response to the “lookism” that we have been experiencing for real. Body neutrality, for instance, is a movement that promotes the (r)education of people so they are able to emulate what calli does: they are simply neutral about their bodies and faces, there’s no judgement, a body is just a body and not an instrument of commercial or aesthetic fruition.
Despite the fact that marketing agencies are already adopting some strategies to include more diversity in their deliveries, so these images can get more “natural” between people, there is still a war being fought between the ambiguities and ambivalences of profit and mental health — after all, it is through the same media that we can see advertisements that invite us to enroll in a gym or go under cosmetic procedures, but also to try a new release of fast food, alcoholic beverages and candies. There’s nothing new in this equation: it is through the everlasting dissatisfaction of consumers that profit is gestated. As some body neutrality activists argue: first they try to make us hate ourselves so we buy products and services that might fix us, then they make us love ourselves and buy products and services that might help us with that. Therefore, neutrality, calliagnosia, could be the means to emancipate us from these fallacious discourses featured in the fictitious universe proposed by Ted Chiang.
The question that I leave though is this one: in case there was a technology capable of making this emancipation of the aesthetic judgement easier, would you be brave enough to use it or at least try it? Chiang mentions in his endnotes that he definitely would test something like that. And it was based on this suggestion that the American designer Craig Moscony created a fictitious media kit advertising calliagnosia as a product that could be purchased by people. While this technology doesn’t arrive though, at least we can understand this story as an invitation to think again about the way we see bodies and beauty, being that in ourselves or in others.
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