Technology is making us crave the similar, and the unique
What happens when we can facetune to something “better”, generate to something familiar, and filter to something different.
Over the past two weeks I’ve read multiple pieces that are on opposing sides of what we’re craving as consumers and in our digital self-expression. They all speak to a duality of how we are both starved for individuality as well as driven towards homogeny. These points are communicated to us through some interesting trends in technology, social media, and pop culture.
Beauty_GAN (not to be confused with BeautyGAN) is a sparsely documented implementation of a GAN that utilizes Instagram makeup trends and then generates new styles, which Dazed put on Kylie Jenner’s face. The resulting imagery feels very cherry picked (not a rarity based off of my experience with GANs) but the key point of the article is that these dataset sizes and inputs are continually built with human in the loop biases. Put more artistically in the article:
“…Beauty_GAN is like a mirror of popular culture, but the reflection staring back at you might not be what you expected. We teach a machine to see us and what it shows us back is not always what we see ourselves.”
Despite what the GAN mirrors back in terms of how “dystopian” something looks, there are two other related pieces that speak to this homogenization of taking the internet’s makeup kingmaker (Kylie) and re-painting the internet’s makeup onto her. Or as Dazed wrote:
“One could argue that, of all the beauty imagery we see on Instagram today, Kylie Jenner’s face, her aesthetic, holds the most influence. Every time someone copies her contour or lip liner there’s a further proliferation that happens. She influences what we think of as beautiful, what exists on Instagram. The Beauty_GAN project sees this inputted into a machine, and then lets the machine take over; the machine creates what it thinks is beauty imagery, and then paints it back onto Kylie’s face. And so, the feedback loop closes.”
And this feedback loop has proliferated into other forms of celebrities as Telegraph highlighted in this article.
“Lil Miquela, after all, is the ultimate embodiment of homogenised, Instagram-friendly beauty. An ambiguous mix of different ethnicities, with on-trend freckles and a body that can be shaped and moulded depending on the body parts required, she can be everything that consumers desire at any given time. “
But the key here isn’t what makes a character like Miquela or Imma.gram compelling. There’s time decaying first order interest points of “is this a robot or a human?!” and the general intrigue of a synthetic being, but then there’s the natural, more commonplace feeling amongst many influencers of “they are kind of like me, but better.”
And this close similarity is what I believe is akin to the dopamine rushes that gamification experts have hit on for a long time of being partially satiated, but not entirely fulfilled. This phenomenon has partially been described as Selfie Harm. It keeps us wanting more, liking more, swiping more, for something that we know we likely can’t obtain. But what happens when we can?
When we’re given tools that allow us to have those “on-trend freckles” of Miquela, or the contour and sizing of Kylie’s lips, or the dyed hair of Imma.gram, then what do we crave? Perhaps difference.
This is what I believe we’re seeing in pockets of the internet today. We’re seeing massive share numbers generated by very differentiated and unique AR filters that eschew traditional beauty trends. As one of the creators of these filters says in a Dazed profile:
“These filters can be used in creative new ways that partly break with the expectation of self-depiction on social media…Breaking fixed thought patterns on how we perceive gender and beauty is important and much needed.”
Maybe this is just how we cycle influence. We tire from the popular aesthetic/approach, early-movers push towards a new approach, some subset of the influencers make the jump, while new ones are borne, and on and on we go. Or maybe early pockets of culture are at a pivot point of individuality because for the first time we don’t get to escape and recharge our batteries from the influence.
Or as Oliver Sacks put it best:
“(We) have given up, to a great extent, the amenities and achievements of civilization: solitude and leisure, the sanction to be oneself, truly absorbed, whether in contemplating a work of art, a scientific theory, a sunset, or the face of one’s beloved.”