Liking What You See: A Documentary by Ted Chiang

★★★★★ (5/5)

For decades people have been willing to talk about racism and sexism, but they’re still reluctant to talk about lookism. Yet this prejudice against unattractive people is incredibly pervasive

Once again Ted Chiang strikes just the right cords in this masterfully crafted short story based on the central theme of aesthetics of beauty perceived either as a blessing or a curse. Narrated in form of a documentary, the story comprises of various interviews and speech extracts from people in favour of or against calliagnosia. So what is calliagnosia? In a distant future, neural technology allows humans to remove judgements based on appearances. This particular brain modification enables people to not be swayed by facades posed by advertisers and cosmetic producers which in turn aims to create a more equal and unbiased society.

A calliagnosic perceives faces perfectly well; he or she can tell the difference between a pointed chin and a receding one, a straight nose and a crooked one, clear skin and blemished skin. He or she simply doesn’t experience any aesthetic reaction to those differences.

So calliagnosia by itself can’t eliminate appearance-based discrimination. What it does, in a sense, is even up the odds; it takes away the innate predisposition, the tendency for such discrimination to arise in the first place

The story balances both sides of the equation by bringing forth arguments in favour of calli and against it. This reversible procedure allows people to have more nourishing and wholesome relationships with one another. It also acts as a boost to self-esteem as those who are unable to judge others by their looks become more confident in their own skin. Advertising stocks plummet as people become immune to unrealistic standards of beauty suggested by models. But at the same time, those who possess natural beauty criticise calliagnosia for rendering them as outcasts in an increasingly unprejudiced society. After all they were blessed with beautiful features by nature, with no fault of their own. And beauty, in whatever form or shape, requires praise and appreciation.

Maturity means seeing the differences, but realizing they don’t matter.

Running parallel to social dynamics and perceptions to beauty is the recurrent question of the nature and degree to which beauty must be celebrated. Blind adulation for beauty beyond a certain limit renders it superficial, but vilification of even the slightest forms of beauty negates the very purpose for which it was composed for.

Our beauty receptors receive more stimulation than they were evolved to handle; they’re getting more in one day than our ancestors’ did in their entire lives. And the result is that beauty is slowly ruining our lives

Beauty lies in eyes of the beholder

It kind of reminds me of an ad I saw a while back, put out by a modeling agency when the calli movement was just getting started. It was just a picture of a supermodel’s face, with a caption: “If you no longer saw her as beautiful, whose loss would it be? Hers, or yours?”

The aphorism clearly indicates that only the beholder is at a profound loss of being unable to witness and appreciate beauty placed before him. But the fact that corporate media uses this logic to sway people for their own financial gains invalidates the true essence of beauty.

Beauty can provide just as much pleasure for those who have it as for those who perceive it

Innate beauty versus the superficial

Being pretty is fundamentally a passive quality; even when you work at it, you’re working at being passive

Beauty is no doubt a subjective matter, but so is the pleasure extracted from it. Retouched photos of models give an illusion of beauty which appraise it as a mere commercial commodity, and calliagnosia helps prevent one from falling into this corporate trap. But the same process also screens natural, God-gifted beauty from calliagnosics. There is no way around filtering just commercial attractiveness at the same time being able to perceive naturally lovely features.

Calli takes away the good as well as the bad. It doesn’t just work when there’s a possibility of discrimination, it keeps you from recognizing beauty altogether

Limits of technology

Calli works fine if everybody has it, but if even one person doesn’t, that person will take advantage of everyone else.

Any technological advancements has certain inherent limitations, beyond which it becomes a hassle rather than a boon. Not everyone can adapt calliagnosia which once again destabilises the foundations of society. Technological counterparts are aimed at portraying opposing views in order to gain momentum for disparate parties.

The SemioTech Warriors announced the release of their new “Dermatology” computer virus. This virus has begun infecting video servers around the world, altering broadcasts so that faces and bodies exhibit conditions such as acne and varicose veins.

Where calliagnosia was intended to bring about equilibrium it leads to further division of society.

“They thought getting rid of beauty would help make a utopia”…but instead it precedes widening gulfs between those who have calli and those who chose not to.

Technology is being used to manipulate us through our emotional reactions, so it’s only fair that we use it to protect ourselves too

Calliagnosia also results in widespread propaganda mechanisms to thwart the opponent’s message. During the course of the story we come across interviewees who were brought with money to present a specific stance. New software are created to wrest more emotional responses from audiences which can radically alter their opinion regarding calli. This implies how an addition of technology can snowball into societal revolution if values, ethics and norms are threatened.

The more time any of us spend with gorgeous digital apparitions around, the more our relationships with real human beings are going to suffer

A decisive answer to the conundrum

Education. Education is a definitive answer to whether one can rely on technology to help eradicate inherent predispositions towards biasness and prejudice or become self-aware through knowledge of the basic tenets of humanity and equality.

There’s no neural pathway that specifically handles resentment toward immigrants, any more than there’s one for Marxist doctrine or foot fetishism. If we ever get true mind programming, we’ll be able to create “race blindness,” but until then, education is our best hope.

To sum it up, Ted Chiang expounds on the nature of beauty and its uses in this story. It is insightful and thought-provoking, a damning indictment against celebrity and commercial culture which has been rapidly gaining momentum in recent years so much so that it has made critical thinking virtually non-existent.

Beauty isn’t the problem, it’s how some people are misusing it that’s the problem

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