Me and the Pigman

Or, Google’s Vengeful Assault upon My Vanity

It is no great secret that I fear the Machines. I often teach texts on surveillance, and I consider it the mark of a good semester when I receive probing, suspicious papers about smartphones, geolocation, and the various implications of living the Panoptic Life. I adore Guy Debord, to which anyone who knows about my fascination with athleisure can attest, and I find Edward Snowden’s reference to being “visually collected” one of the most chilling lines I’ve heard in a film in the past ten years.

That said, I am also a merry hypocrite. This weekend, that wonderful contradiction in terms, the “Google Arts and Culture” app, combined the power of portraiture with selfies. It’s kind of brilliant: channel people’s maddening impulse to take pictures at museums into letting them superimpose their favorite images — their own faces — upon paintings in the comfort of their own homes (or at least not at a museum, thank God). It accomplishes everything you could possibly want, anyway, right? That is, unless you have my face and have been waging war against the Machines for the past several months in a college classroom.

It began innocuously enough. My Samsung S4 finally died about three months ago. However, its insidious decline was calculated and calculating: it would not let me text. Well, worse, it would let me text, but then it would take an agonizing 15 minutes (at least) to go through. Sometimes they wouldn’t go through at all, but I couldn’t tell which had or had not. Of course, in addition to regular texting, I was in the midst of those initial, anxiety-laden communications with a man who happened not to be insane or repulsive. This, after teaching students about the terrifying social estrangement that texting both fosters and dispels. This, after whining about preferring emails or phone calls to nearly anyone who would listen. And, eventually, I would give in. I would wind up buying an iPhone, giving my money to the God of the Spectacle, that poison Apple.

But the satellites (or whatever the hell was in charge of monitoring me) weren’t done yet. I lost my voice. I mean, Vito-Corleone-at-best lost my voice. My job at the time involved speaking for 200 minutes twice per week, not counting frequent office hours and normal existence, including, again, trying to communicate with the not-insane-or-repulsive man. To recap, then: the Machines told me if that I wanted to continue to ridicule the new communicative paradigm, there was to be no texting, no calling, and no speaking in person to anyone in the foreseeable future. This went on for three weeks. Three weeks of healing and then blowing out my vocal cords as I fumbled with old phones and new while still (initially) criticizing them ruthlessly. But I learned my lesson: do not fuck with the Machines. I am a humbler person, a wiser person, a person full of fear and trembling. I, too, am dependent upon them. Bow before the Apple. They really are watching.

So, when I found out about this fun little app, I decided to let them watch. I accepted the App’s desire to gain access to my camera. I was to be visually and pictorially collected. Still, while I don’t think of myself as much of a selfie person or a looker — I have no enthusiasm for makeup or hair-doing — I didn’t quite expect the Machines to actually mock me.

Like all abusers that first try to charm you, the App matched me with a not-entirely objectionable image. She’s the Catalonian equivalent of Whistler’s Mother.

I was intrigued but slightly disappointed. Only 42%? Surely there is a better match out there for me. And there was: the Pigman. The cycle of abuse had begun.

As I said, I know I’m no looker, but I did not think that putting up my hair and not smiling would transform me into a paranoid, Dutch, porcine self-portraitist. Worse, I let my hair down and what did I get? Pigman. Turn to the side? Pigman. Smile again? Pigman. Tuck my chin? Pigman. This went on for an hour. I wandered around my apartment as if different lighting would exorcise the pig. I failed.

A day later, since I ain’t no quitter, I tried again, but the algorithm threw me a curve ball: you don’t have to be a pig, but you do have to have the likeness of a guy who wrote about the apocalypse. I found myself a bit troubled by how well it knew me after all.

Uncanny! And back to Catalonia we go.

Ultimately, though, I found myself resenting the algorithm’s humor. But instead of, as some female friends recommended, putting on makeup or doing anything logical, I decided to make as many grotesque faces as possible to quash Saint Piglet. The results were still often masculine, but resisting the algorithm gave me a pleasure that is not easily described. Here are two favorites:

I’m surprised by how well this one actually corresponds.

Baffling, but the most attractive option yet. Grrr, French Impressionists. Come and get it.

With the surfacing of Renoir, I thought, well, maybe I can escape Pigdom at long last. Maybe I broke the Machines’ collective will or appeased them with my levity. I then attempted a picture that, for me, counts as smizing. I even thought it was kind of attractive apart from the no-makeup and terrible dark circles and the delusions.

But nothing gets past the algorithm — it’s an undead Hungarian Expressionist for the win!

Thanks, Google. I hope you enjoyed collecting me as I did you. And, if you’re watching, I’m still duly humbled and being good… most of the time. I’m only human.