COVID-19 has molded us to be constantly vigilant about the epidemiological features of our face. We cover our airways while in public, we keep hands and face apart, we carry our bodies away from others, and we avoid blowing air towards them. After waves of denial and resistance, we eventually don a mask. Unable to meet in real life, we show our faces to each other over compromised video conference software, as insecure as malware. “Facial grids” are now our public spaces. The way in which we look at each other has changed forever.
Meanwhile, deep-time evolution operates on a different register: pollution is slowly shaping our airways; Botox injections inhibit our collective emotional intelligence; weird feedback loops keep renegotiating our relationship with screens through deepfakes, facial recognition abstractions, and face filters. Yet we still need to carry a picture of our face in our pocket, despite the fact that we already carry our actual face everywhere.
Expressivity becomes high functionality by dissolving the individual into a collective shared face - the face of an idea or ideal. A balaclava in Moscow, a black t-shirt in São Paulo, the array of face masks and shields wore by US protestors, a medical mask in Hong Kong. Across the world, emergency laws have been drawn in order to stop people from covering their faces during protests and so preventing individual identification. A mask primary function is to protect the user from physical threats (pollution, virus, tear gas), but in a protest a mask is also about protecting a user’s identity and signalling sides.
We start thinking that perhaps the face, which is thought to be the most personal and distinctive feature used to identify and recognize others, has actually always been a more-than-human project. Living through the ongoing planetary dramas, we reflect on the ways in which the face is a relational systemic tool more than an individual signifier. What are the ways in which the face is operating and will operate as shared infrastructure? How can it be thought of as an interface for atmospheric, ecological, and epidemiological projects? Where will the face go?
THE FACE IS A HORROR STORY
One of COVID-19’s unrequested insights has been the heightened perception of the flows of air and particles we push inside and outside of ourselves, of the order in which our hands touch surfaces, water, soap, cloth, and face. Today the door handle poses an existential threat, especially when paired with a scratchy nose. We all feel somewhat naked and fragile without a textile covering our airways, even if it’s no more than stretching a scarf across the neck and calling it personal protective equipment (PPE). Our insufficient immunological system called for rapid prophylactic adaptation, revealing how porous, contaminated, and threatening each of us are. In short, humans have rediscovered how the face is a vector of horror.
As the saga of COVID-19 wears on, Western cities go through waves of emotional responses. Wearing the mask itself threatens the sense of normalcy. The mask over the face is depersonalizing to such a degree people seem willing to risk catching the virus to avoid wearing a mask. The response against wearing the mask is almost as volatile as the response to the virus itself. In February, Western mask-wearers were ridiculed for being fashionistas, nothing more than trend adopters met with anger and disdain—the bearers of unwanted news. By April, it was clear that widespread mask adoption was a critical part of flattening the curve.
Faces are information as well as expression devices: covering the face is a primitive trigger. In a society so concerned with transparency and expression, that is a problem. The repulsion comes from the fact that masks reveal the intrinsic morbidity of our daily lives: the sudden fear that it may not be safe to breathe, and that our biological interfaces with the city may not properly protect us from a deadly and contagious virus or harmful pollutants (as the deadliness of the former is strongly correlated with the latter).
Perhaps the mask is a memento mori for the West, a stark reminder of death for a culture which has mostly experienced exponential growth through graphs of GDP per capita, not number of excess deaths per million. Maybe it is the memory of the fragility associated with being in hospitals, or the not-so-distant traumas of world wars during which soldiers, children, and civilians wore gas masks.
Or perhaps what is so unsettling is the prospect of obedience. Western civilization is built around the ideals of personal freedom and individuality. These pillars are so central to Western culture that any attempts to diminish them are taken as existential threats. Masks do not feed the same fears as surveillance, but they somehow provoke the same reaction -- a ferocious doubling down against authoritarian imposition. Perhaps the West was never scared of being surveilled as much as it was of being obedient.
Face-covering is a direct affront to self-expression. It points to a deeply ingrained and yet woefully outmoded pathology of the West: that self-expression is the essential dogma of its entire design ideology.
FACE AS A DEEP-TIME DESIGN PROJECT
The face is an ongoing deep-time design project. It is a project not because it is teleological in its nature, but because it is the calcification of repetition, desire, expressions, necessity, and whims, the desire for survival and the desire for freedom from the insufficiency of written and spoken language. During the past six million years, humans have optimized the hard and soft facial tissues for the maximum range of facial expressions over the ability to take punches. The face is the original genetic technology for becoming human, yet this process is inherently inhuman and biomechanical.
Our faces are short, small, and retracted beneath a large globular braincase. Biolinguistics say that genes are expressed through the environment, and not independently of it. While the image of the face might vary between populations and generations, what remains is our ability to identify and recognize others; to communicate and to signal about twenty emotions by passing or relaxing the muscles. The evolution went the way to provide more possibilities for non-verbal communication. The process of selecting faces for increased attractiveness and smoothness has resulted in selection for decreased facial bones size, called gracilization (from French gracile). It is possible to say that we live in times of accelerated gracilization: as our brain cages get bigger, our faces get smoother and ever more gracile and infant-looking. As the artificiality of the face becomes more apparent with plastic surgery and Botox, as well as face filters and deepfakes, its intricacy with its surroundings—and the feedback processes that design it—also becomes more apparent.
BOTOX TROPHIC CASCADES
The ecological term trophic cascade describes the nonlinear network effects when a predator enters or leaves an ecosystem. In trophic cascades, changes are registered not only in the adjacent species, like between predator and prey, but in multiple levels up and down the food chain. When wolves are removed from a landscape, so is the shrubbery as well—less wolves means more deer, which in turn equals less shrubbery.
The face is a site where many nonlinear network effects occur as well, changes that ripple across the ecosystem. Far from just an innocent part of the beautification process, Botox has deeply woven impacts on the fabric of human social life. As bizarre as it sounds, people with Botox tend to make more mistakes when interpreting the emotions of others. According to the Facial Feedback Hypothesis, the face participates in a natural mirroring process. Not only does it convey emotion to others, but the face mimics the expression of others—individuals feel empathy not only by reading the faces of others, but by matching expressions with them.
In an attempt to achieve attractiveness, Botox makes people even more isolated, blocking the natural “mirroring” process and the facility of social interaction. Only by experiencing emotions internally are we able to clearly recognize them. Facial expressions are mirrored in the same way as actions, both seeing and feeling disgust produce similar neural activity. In turn, generations raised by frozen faces will not possess the same range of expressive capabilities. Coupled with increased online connection and a distancing from the realities of clear facial communication, a new era of social distancing continues forward.
This expressive distance was highlighted when Melania Trump addressed the nation about COVID-19. To many across the internet the video appeared as a deepfake generated by facial algorithms. The popular hashtag #fakemelania highlighted the conflation of both physical and digital depersonalizations of the face. The unrealness of her face is real, but instead of algorithms, it’s just Botox.
CONSTRUCTED REALITY VS. REAL HALLUCINATIONS
Anthropomorphism is a form of hallucination. Pareidolia is a perceptual bias that indicates recognising patterns (including human faces) in inanimate objects. How many of us have seen a face in the clouds or in the doorway? Pareidolia is rooted in the evolutionary history of humankind, back in times when telling a human from a bear was indispensable for survival. Nevertheless, our ability to see faces in patterns is strongly correlated to our desire to make sense of the world. As soon as we hallucinate a human face in inorganic matter, our brain can treat it as human, and therefore as something we can understand and relate to. Pareidolia underlines numerous religious apparitions, visions, and representations, such as the images of deities in stones. Hallucinations add extra value to ordinary objects: think of the case of the 10-year-old cheese sandwich toast with the face of Virgin Mary on it that sold for $28,000 on eBay. The deeply human desire to make sense of the world explains why some people see a face of a dead warrior or an ancient city in a photograph of the Cydonia region of Mars.
For some, the world appears as a more facial place. Neurotic people tend to see more faces since they are used to perceiving reality as being full of dangers. Will we perceive a city full of faces as a safer one, or will it lead us to a helpless surveillance paranoia? Pareidolia is almost a bizarre bug appearing not only in the human mind but also in the systems we create: the ML algorithm trained to recognize human faces begins to see them in all kinds of eyes and mouth combinations, producing automated daydreaming. Pareidolia (both in wetware and software) leaves us wondering what kinds of hallucinations we might want to keep entertaining and which ones we might need to let go of.
THE FACE TO COME
The face to come will be a mesh of hallucinated collective features, rather than a sum of individuated and self-interested agents. As we come to understand the space of our social interactions as linked to planetary-scale processes, the network of our lives, mediated by the face, becomes linked to global infrastructure. The face does more and more each day, as the register of ownership, entrance into schools, payments, meetings, and cultural exchanges.
In spatial context, faces are like a distributed cartography of attention, health, and emotions. This distributed map of the face carries immense value. A global machine vision network architecture aggregates data, a facial economy for buying and selling both attention and emotion on the global market.
In this cartography, the face will again become the document of itself. No longer will an ID card, voter registration, or passport need to represent the identity of a user. Nor will a plastic card with a chip need to be swiped. The face, the voice, and genome of the human will become bank details, proof of ownership, access cards, and so on. As many of these new technologies are developed, a new era of hyper-hygenic technical architecture is designed to frame them in the city. But the ideal isn’t some glorified Neo-Shanghai. Instead, it will look more like Jordan’s Zaatari Refugee Camp—a city of 70,000 people running on blockchain currency, iris payments, and facial recognition interfacing. For the last twenty years, Zaatari has been the city of the future.
Face as infrastructure—or more specifically the face as the central unit of value in planetary technical systems and cultural constructs—has been rendered immediately visible by the spread of COVID-19, through both the spreading of mask use and the falling apart of their supply chains.
As the face is more and more integrated and operationalized with the environment, we ask: What is the face to come? What is the face needed in times of climate change, and how will the face integrate with this new environment?
SITE CONDITION FOR PLANETARY-SCALE DESIGN
To say that face is infrastructure is to introduce a contradiction in terms. Face stands for surface, the form, the shell, the image, the facade. Think of the human face, its soft tissues, face filters, a grimace, makeup, avatars, masks. Infrastructure, on the other hand, is what lies below (from Latin infra), often underground, sometimes intentionally concealed, hiding in the background or in plain sight. Think of transatlantic internet cables, the arrangement of the bones in our skulls, the QWERTY keyboard, grammar, train tracks, municipal water cables, and governmental bodies. One could say that infrastructure is backend while face is frontend.
But framing the face as infrastructure shows the instances where the border between frontend and backend, or expression and function, is blurred. In other words, it foregrounds infrastructure while showing how the human face, despite its expressivity and individuation functions, has always been a technology that exceeds the individual. In Are We Human?, Mark Wigley and Beatriz Colomina survey the archaeology of humanity, pointing out how humans have always been in co-evolution with the objects and environment they have designed, hence expanding the notion of what is human. Building from this, we identify the ways that the face is operationalized by non-human systems, blending and confusing the frontend and the backend. In this space lies the possibility for co-evolution, the face being the site condition for planetary-scale design.
How does face bleed into infrastructure? And vice versa? Is it possible that by changing the face, the facade, we can hack the underlying structure itself? What are the ways in which the face is operating and will operate as critical infrastructure?