Face-Aging Software Presents a Terrible (and Fascinating) Social Dilemma

How-Old.net, a website that purports to estimate users' age based on a picture of their face, went viral last week, garnering tens of thousands of hits within the first few hours of its release. The success of the Microsoft-made site, whose algorithm bases its judgments on facial features such as skin creases and laugh lines, showcases more than just technology's ever-increasing ability to harness information in marvelous new ways. It also highlights several fascinating aspects of human nature.

First, there's the rule which by now has surely become axiomatic amongst those attempting to create popular sites, lists, and apps: tell people about themselves. Nothing sparkles more in the eyes of Internet users than the quiz that breaks down their sex life, the horoscope that proffers career or relationship advice, or the chart that displays how they measure up against peers in wealth or beauty.

Psychologists call this the "self-assessment motive," and research suggests it is basic to our nature. In fact, people will seek out information about themselves even when the news isn't all good. This may explain the popularity of dating apps like Tinder, even among those with no intention of ever following through on a genuine rendezvous: there's something thrilling not just about meting out judgments with the casual swipe of a finger, but also about being subjected oneself to the same standards of evaluation.

Microsoft's site, though, taps a motive that runs deeper, perhaps, than even those that inform users of their wealth or attractiveness. The question of aging--of how well we're weathering the passage of time--is one which, though it goes largely ignored by those whose baby fat still pads the face, becomes increasingly salient as the vicissitudes of late nights and bright days take their toll. How else can we explain the exorbitant demonstrations of financial excess that reach at least one of their most horrifying peaks in the prices of overhyped anti-age creams and ointments that grace the shelves of beauty parlors in those neighborhoods wealthy enough to afford them? As a species wise enough to understand our own transience and yet still unable to do anything about it, we are condemned to spend every morning looking at ourselves miserably in the bathroom mirror until we manage to alight upon some favorable standard of comparison (a craggy friend, a long-lived aunt) to mollify our discontent.

It's for this reason that, for as many users as visited the site in its opening days, there were undoubtedly just as many shrieks of glee as there were sighs of despair as people learned the algorithm had placed them a few years short or long of their actual benchmark. "I got 3 years older than I actually am on that photo age thing," someone wrote on Twitter, "and I'm going to be upset for the rest of the day now."

It's a troubling fact of logic: half of us look older than the average person our age. What are we to do? Perhaps we should take seriously the line uttered by the character Jessa in Lena Dunham's HBO show "Girls": "I am going to look 50 when I'm 30, I'm going to be so f---ing fat...know why? Because I am going to be full of experiences." This philosophy flips the youth-centric approach on its head, espousing instead the creed that the unblemished face is the face of innocence, and therefore the face of ingenuousness, inexperience, and naïveté.

Of course, there are many behaviors that will mature a face without conferring any of the compensatory wisdom. An unhealthy diet or a lack of exercise, for instance, is sure give the appearance of age beyond one's years. The same goes for excessive drug or alcohol use, or too many hours in the tanning salon. But if the goal of life is to make the most of a limited number of days, then surely it must be the case that some of our most precious experiences would have to be sacrificed for the sake of a porcelain complexion. "Make sure you eat a healthy dose of antioxidants every day," we can imagine the doctor telling the age-obsessed patient, "And cut down on all that smiling!"

We would do well to remind ourselves that the goal is not to look as young as possible, but to look as young as possible for the amount of world we've seen. We should be cognizant of the mechanical nature of the body, and allow this awareness to redound to respect, but we may also benefit from remembering that the body is meant for a purpose, that is, to engage with the physical and the social world, and that wear and tear is an inevitable and desirable consequence of it having served that purpose well. Like Velveteen Rabbits and good leather shoes, some things get better with age.

By contrast, other things, like humanity's tortured relationship with self-knowledge, never change. The popularity of this website is just another entry in a long line of evidence to this effect. There's an ongoing battle in our minds between the desire to learn the right things and the nice things. Usually (but not always), the latter wins. Oftentimes, we will want the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth--so long as it's good.

{written with Yaacov Trope}

Originally posted at The Qualiast.

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