Saturday, September 03, 2011

A parable

Herod’s Temple was an enterprise of some magnitude, of that there was no doubt. It caalled for competent staff in many different departments. An executive in the Human Relations unit took a look at the photo attached to the job application submitted by a candidate who seemed quite promising, Jeshua ben Joseph.

“Put him on the short list,” said the HR chap to his assistant, “and run the usual checks, of course.”

To cut a long story short the ‘usual checks’ involved the use of the latest facial recognition technologies which have become more and more advanced of late. Covariance matrices, the Hidden Markov model, neuronal motivated dynamic link matching… algorithms informing and collaborating with other algorithms.

So it was very soon that another image of young Jeshua came to light. The lad wasn’t hired and we are told that he might later have been so annoyed that he took it out on the money-changers at the Temple who were simply doing their job… but that’s another story.

I was moved to this slightly silly flight of fancy when the cleverly ‘shopped image on the left popped up via Google Reader from one of the feeds I subscribe to. The potentially dire consequences of widely available facial recognition software is a story point in my current writing project.

Dire? When self-portraits heedlessly uploaded by teenagers come back to haunt them, yes.

From the New York Times five years ago…

The era of cheap, lightweight digital cameras… in cellphones, in computers, in hip pockets, even on key chains… has meant that people who did not consider themselves photography buffs as recently as five years ago are filling ever-larger hard drives with thousands of images from their lives. 

And one particular kind of image has especially soared in popularity, particularly among the young: the self-portrait, which has become a kind of folk art for the digital age. 

Framing themselves at arm's length, teenagers snap their own pictures and pass the cameras to friends at school or e-mail the images or upload them to the Internet. For a generation raised on a mantra of self-esteem, striking a heroic, sultry or brooding pose and sharing it with the world comes naturally. 

Psychologists and others who study teenagers say the digital self-portraiture is an extension of behavior typical of the young, like trying on different identities, which earlier generations might have expressed through clothing and hairstyles. "Most of what I've been seeing is taking place in the bedroom," said Kathryn C. Montgomery, a professor of communication at American University, referring to teenage self-portraits. Dr. Montgomery studies the relation of teenagers to the digital media. "It's a locus of teen life where they are forming their identities, and now it's also a private studio where they can develop who they are. 

"What better tool could they have than one that allows them to take pictures of themselves and manipulate them like never before?"

To Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a developmental psychologist, digital self-portraiture is a high-tech way of expressing an impulse among teenagers and young adults that psychologists call "the imaginary audience."

"This is the idea that adolescents think people are more interested in them than they actually are, that people are always looking at them and taking note of what they are doing, even if it is just walking across the school cafeteria," said Dr. Arnett, who is a Fulbright scholar at the University of Copenhagen. 

To Dr. Arnett, the role-playing evident in many self-portraits found online is "a form of ‘pretend’… the adolescent version of children dressing up." Others speculate that today's young people are different from earlier generations because they are more comfortable with public self-exposure.

Since this article was written the ‘self-exposure’ trend has by no means abated. There are websites and Tumblr blogs devoted exclusively to what are termed ‘selfies’. The Samsung camera is a product designed to capitalize on this. But many of the images eschew the limited camera angles which can be achieved with an outstretched arm and instead use the mirror. And an adequate mirror is most often found in a bathroom. And in thousands of these photos the subject… most of them girls but a few boys, too… is blatantly naked.

In my novel the character implicated skates on thin ice as a result of a ‘selfie’ turning up. But I have the feeling that in real life facial recognition technologies are going to be a big problem when they become tools commonly used in HR screening.

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