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Anxiety and the dark art of facial recognition I Chuck's World


November 22, 2017

In 1948, the year the Marshall Plan began, the year Al Gore and Clarence Thomas were born, the year Harry Truman held a headline that blared fake news, and the year that George Orwell scrawled the final words on his famous manuscript that would eventually take its title from transposing the year’s final two digits, W.H. Auden won a Pulitzer Prize for a poem that nobody read.

Well, not nobody. Somebody. I assume at least a few judges.

But “The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue,” as catchy a phrase as that is, never quite entered the lexicon of popular poetry, the kind that kids memorize and adults scrape free from the cobwebs of aging brains. Most of us can retrieve a few nursery rhymes, perhaps a famous Robert Frost stanza, whole swaths of Dr. Seuss, and possibly the entire “Hamilton” libretto, but Auden’s lines don’t exactly fit on a birthday card:

We would rather be ruined than changed/We would rather die in our dread

Than climb the cross of the moment/And let our illusions die.

Don’t look at me. I know nothing about Auden that I haven’t gleaned from 10 seconds on Wikipedia, other than that poem of his from “Four Weddings and a Funeral” (the sad part).

I just know the title, intended to emphasize postwar American angst but now a catchall for any era in which we find ourselves living. We are an anxious people.

It’s always the Age of Anxiety, then.

And while there’s a lot of competition for insomnia-inducing worry, I don’t seem to have a hierarchy. I can lie awake at night, aware that the president of the United States is taunting other world leaders on Twitter, that the earth is heating up, that celebrities are toppling off moral pedestals as quickly as we can construct them, but I’m just as likely to lose sleep over the possibility of Russell Wilson twisting his ankle.

Seriously, what would we do then?

This is apocalyptic relativism, picking our poison but understanding that it’s all poison. I can nibble my fingernails over the threat of nuclear war or rising inequality, but I’m just as likely to sweat over the sound my car is currently making. This is equal-opportunity anxiety, and the final straw could be anything.

Also, I’m old.

There’s a relativism to age, too, particularly in a world in which Patrick Stewart and Rob Lowe scamper around as if they got hall passes from the Age Fairy, but some things become obvious, particularly in front of the bathroom mirror.

At some point, we all glimpse our swollen eyes and sleep-deprived faces, and realize we’re not ever going to look younger than this. Not ever.

This awareness is enough to turn even the most civic souls inward. We stop exercising, we get possessive about our front lawns, we yell at the TV, we forget about recycling, and God knows whom we might vote for next time around.

So, thank you, modern technology. You’ve saved a wretch like me from this current age of anxiety. You’ve given me identity, if not purpose. You know who I am.

And I am, as it turns out, a punch line. Let me explain.

Reading a couple of articles recently on facial recognition software and its many applications (e.g., the new iPhone security features), I was once again in awe of how far the technology has advanced, and understood why. We all feed the beast, collectively uploading over 300 selfies every second of every day, carving notches in the social media belt and adding data with every click.

Now combine those dollops of narcissism with a world in which we’re captured on security cameras constantly, and the possibilities for personal privacy are depressing. On the other hand, a criminal would be wise to suspect that his blurry, grainy image from a convenience store camera will be fed through Facebook, looking for matches.

You can test this yourself, you know. Not that you have the time or interest. That’s what a professional newspaper columnist is for. You know there had to be a reason.

I’m no different than anyone else. There are a bazillion photos of me online, not only on social media accounts but in various publications, such as this one. I have no plans to rob a gas station, but I was curious anyway. Can an algorithm assess my identity? Can my anxiety about a troubled world be somewhat alleviated by recognition from a line of computer code? Can the internet confirm my existence?

I was probably overthinking this. Still, I was curious.

Google image search is probably an underused tool in this age of scams and Photoshop. Share a link or upload a picture, and Google will try to find a match somewhere.

I have some understanding of the limitations. Upload a shot of yourself, standing in front of Stonehenge, and the program will most likely identify the place, not the person. I chose a screenshot of myself from a video, a random shot that couldn’t exist anywhere as a still photo but was obviously me, without any distractions from geographic landmarks. I clicked “search” and waited.

I say waited. It took less than a second. It felt longer, but then I was looking for validation.

And Mr. Google passed judgment. “Best guess: Senior citizen.”

And that, my friends, is how to ease anxiety. Know thyself. And get a second opinion while you’re at it.


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