Yesterday’s Apple event, at which it launched the iPhone 6S, iPad Pro and new Apple TV, was generally a pretty congenial, upbeat affair. This was a confident, affluent company heading into its most profitable quarter, showing off some typically lovely stuff that lots of us will happily buy and happily own. There was, though, one sour note, one discordant blarp of minor-key trumpets in the midst of the joyous chorus.
During one of the demos, in order to show off one of their clever tools, a representative from Adobe took a photo of a model and used the new facial feature recognition tool to pop up a dial that could adjust the extent to which the model smiled. He took a photo with a neutral expression and made it happy instead.
And in the few seconds the segment took, many watching experienced a deeply unpleasant barrage of conflicting emotions.
This, to be sure, was impressive tech, at least within the controlled context of a demo. It looked all but automatic, and the result was not the ghastly grimace of the Joker or the silly cartoonishness you get with a liquify filter. The finished effect looked natural and believable; no uncanny valley. That itself is unsettling, though; we know – we who have grown up with Photoshop, who watched Terminator and Jurassic Park as kids, who rail against the toxic effect of impossible beauty standards – that image manipulation is universal and trivially easy, but there’s something that troubles the most ancient level of our brains when people start dicking about with faces in particular. We spend so much of our lives reading faces that doing something so fundamental as changing a frown to a smile, especially in front of our eyes, is unnerving. The potential, even in the abstract, of whitewashing our past and making everyone in it happy has weird, uncomfortable echoes of a despotic regime frantically rewriting history books.
"Smile, Love, for Christ's Sake"
Yet more discomfiting still was the fact that the model chosen was a woman. “Hey, girl; you’re pretty n’ all, and this photoshoot cost thousands, but that resting bitch face has to go; smile, love, for Christ’s sake.” And I’m afraid that it just is worse than if it had been a man.
Had the model been male, all the stuff about feeling an animal revulsion to making unsmiling faces grin would still hold true, but it’s simply moronic to suggest that centuries of patriarchalism hasn’t weighted things such that women still come under huge and damaging social pressure around appearances and their subjugated role in society, and this casual manipulation of this woman’s face to make it more palatable is nothing more nor less than yet one more wearily predictable example of the classic male gaze. Yes, that’s going to be controversial to some people, but those people are fucking idiots so we can safely ignore them.
And we’re not even at the worst part. The worst part is that this apparently don’t occur to anyone when okaying the segment. Apple, under whose aegis this demo took place, is one of the most open and progressive companies around diversity and equality, and it seems the Adobe representative or his colleagues and bosses saw nothing wrong with the demo or its source materials. That’s the problem. That’s how pervasive and insidious misogyny is, and that’s why it’s bad; it’s bad because even ostensibly caring and smart people forget to check their privilege, forget to interrogate their actions and their presumptions to make sure they’re not perpetuating damaging, demeaning or unfair practices. “All lives matter” is rooted deep down in the same place; it’s not wrong – just as using a picture that happens to be of a woman to demo a clever feature isn’t itself wrong – but both betray a person who has been so marinaded in privilege, of their race or their gender, that they struggle to empathise with groups whom they have subjugated, however gently and however unintentionally.
Look, it’s just a few seconds out of a demo of a small feature in a new app on a new tablet, I know, and I’ve spent a few hundred words doing what some would see is blowing a tiny and inconsequential detail up out of all proportion. It’s just a picture. It could have been a man. Who gives a shit?
And I neither want to censure Apple – whose work in this area and whose acknowledgement of work still to be done is easily among the best in this or any other industry – nor single out the Adobe rep; that’s why I haven’t named him. There’s every chance he’d be horrified at the suggestion this his actions were misogynistic, and upset that he caused offence.
Making the Same Mistakes
But we keep getting this wrong, folks. We keep making the same stupid mistakes. We need to work harder. We need to do better and better and better until we’ve stopped peddling discriminatory language and practices, or at least until we’ve stopped doing it so thoughtlessly and so often. If, like me, you’re a middle class white guy, you have to work even harder still because it’s so easy to forget, especially when you tot up all the challenges you find before you, how ingrained our advantages are.
It’s especially true that we have to work to make tech as diverse and welcoming a place as possible, since even those of us who work in tech are probably going to be surprised by how completely ubiquitous it will become in the next fifty years. Get that right, and everyone will be happy – for real.