Thank you to Kris Cohen, author of new book Never Alone, Except for Now: Art, Networks, Populations, for today’s guest blog post.
Apple’s design aesthetic mimics social media intimacy, so the arrival of a new Apple product can feel a lot like something blowing up on one’s Facebook feed, even if not a single person in the world actually cares. Nevertheless, the arrival of a technological capability such as facial recognition software, built into Apple’s new iPhone 8, is worth paying attention to even if it does follow the now entirely predictable commodity arc from military-funded R&D fantasy to ordinary mass consumer good. Maybe its new ordinariness means that people have become numb to it, but it always means that people now have to bargain with it in their daily lives. In the case of facial recognition software—a technology that now plays a major if sometimes shadowy role in all aspects of the security industry: border policing, population control, crime prevention—what exactly are we being made to bargain with?
Like the cameras on our phones and computers, embedded facial recognition software is one more place where the “personal” device becomes entirely porous to the corporations and governments that extract data from all devices. Try shopping for computer camera covers and you will get a sense of how deep and habitual the feeling is that the most personal devices are now the ones we control the least. The threat with a camera is quite concrete: someone is watching. The threat with facial recognition software is slightly more abstract (for some), but it exists because in order to recognize one’s face, the software has to create an open channel between our device and the massive database of faces and correlated data that make automated recognition possible (for some), but over which we have no control at all.
Here we see how, in networked cultures, an intensely individualistic address is tightly laminated to a massive effort to form groups of people that can be put to work, producing value, relations, suggestions. As I say in my recent book Never Alone, Except for Now: Art, Networks, Populations, individuality in networked cultures is a kind of group form. In order to better understand individuals in relation to group form, I adapt the term population. The term comes from census technologies used for managing the resources of a nation, but also from Michel Foucault’s late work on neoliberalism. A population logic is one that addresses and organizes individuals through the informatic power of statistics, making the individual into a kind of effect, even a side effect of the population as a predictive and statistical entity. In networked cultures, populations get assembled in databases and prediction is keyed to desire: what we want to see, read, buy. Networked populations make the individual a distillate of the database, and the database an effect of the ordinary habits and activities of individuals, recorded as data. I think this is the untold story of the too-told story of the individual and individualism in contemporary American politics. And this is why populations are not the same as the masses of modernity, which always prioritized some form of unity or sameness. Facial recognition software prioritizes individuality, the quiddity of the unique face, but can only do so by participating deeply in population logics. How can we learn about such effects even as they’re being rolled out at paces and scales beyond human comprehension?
I’m an art historian as well as a media studies theorist, so one of my methods is to look to art: not art as in fine art objects magisterially pronouncing judgment upon the jumbled events of ordinary life, but art as a mode of thought about the present embodied in an encounter between more than one person, any of whom are invited to improvise a relation with one another in a scene that can work at a range of paces. On this view, art is no less mired in and impacted by the present tense than anyone else, and one can read the marks of those impacts on the work as a kind of impression of the ways the present tense shapes people, labor, environments, institutions. The artist Josh Kline would be one kind of resource for thinking about facial recognition software, as it appears so often in his work. There, the mediation of the problem is more or less direct. In this, Kline’s work offers the anchor of concrete feeling, even the prospect of a community of sorts galvanized by shared feeling.
But in the book I also think about artists whose work has no biographical or directly referential relationship to the networked technologies I study (performance artist Sharon Hayes and installation artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres). But as facial recognition software shows so graphically, one of the most distinctive features of networked technologies is that they are distributive by nature, automating the extraction of data from gestures, from movements through streets, from things we say out loud and in print, from our very facial expressions. So we need better resources for thinking about that kind of spread, in which literally nothing doesn’t bear the imprint—maybe slight, maybe bruising, maybe overt, often subliminal or subdermal—of networked technologies. Working between media technologies and works of art that often seem to operate at some distance from those technologies helps me to sense some of these more distributed and deeply encoded impacts.
Facial recognition technology fundamentally, even physically, changes what faces are. Think about that next time you encounter faces such as those in the paintings of Kehinde Wiley, Chuck Close, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Henry Taylor, or Amy Sillman; in the early videos or late paintings of Sadie Benning; or even in the massive public works of Julie Mehretu, which contain no faces, but then neither do the circuits that connect our phones with the populations of people that allow phones to discern a single face out of millions, a face we might once have called our own.