I was on a train to Cambridge at the weekend and there were a group of four middle-aged guys discussing Faceapp. They had a group Whatsapp and they’d all been ‘olded’ by one of the group, who soon attracted the ire of the rest of them: “you must have been really bored, mate, where did you find that pic of me?” … “LinkedIn, mate, just downloaded it”… “you did like 20 of them, it’s kinda creepy, you fancy me or something?” Lads, eh?
But of course, I fully identify with that guy, the one who got bored and olded all his mates. When I saw the pics circulating on Twitter I downloaded the app and was mesmerised for about four hours as I scoured my camera roll for pics of myself, of family, friends. All the pics of my queer buddies I took at London Gay Pride the other weekend were uploaded to that Russian server, for God knows what eventual purpose. I couldn’t stop! Until I did, of course, deleting the app after a few hours. But in that time some deep, strange part of me had been fed (as had some remote database). I drunk up these images like I was parched, desperate for a vision of myself in a future I find it hard to really believe in. These sunny, smiling, craggy old men, peering back from 2050, seemed so impossible. I was obsessed, and I’m not ashamed.
The verisimilitude of the ageing filter is amazing. It’s probably the first example of a popular machine learning tool that really penetrated the public’s psyche. It just really works, fulfilling the same hunger for prediction as an astrological forecast. And as a forecast, it’s supernaturally good. I looked just like my Dad in one of the shots, the wrinkles were all in the right place. But there were some interesting weaknesses - the app seems to do better on men than women, and it excels on white faces. It should be no surprise that the best-realised future that technology has to offer is full of craggy Rupert Murdoch faces. Even my Latino partner ends up looking pretty Caucasian, his Faceapped skin looking like it spent 30 years inside the Arctic Circle. But, of course, the Arctic Circle won’t be quite the same in 30 years, and that’s one of the tragic ironies people have relished in pointing out about the app (yeah, my hot take is lukewarm at this point).
What does the future hold for you? That’s the big question, and one fraught with pitfalls, it’s a building site of hope and terror, especially as wobbly, unpredictable 2010s draw to a close.
I read recently that people with PTSD report a number of common feelings: they say they have lost the capacity to feel joy, they never feel really present, they have been changed irrevocably. But they also report an inability to envisage a future. I relate a lot to this. I’ve always struggled with imagining a future without calamity. Part of the reason I make artwork and write about technology is to crunch the numbers, calculate a safe path into the future, guard myself against uncertainty. The hypervigilance I developed as a gay man growing up before Will & Grace (!) converts neatly into an anxious foresight that attempts to predict what might lurk around the corner. Faceapp scratches this itch in the most peculiar way. It tells me I’ll age like everyone else, settle into my 70s like the boomers before me. But it leaves me with a cognitive dissonance, one that I just can’t shake.
Why does it feel like a fantasy, a cruel irony, like on a game show where they show the prize you could have won? Since when did ageing predictably become unrealistic?
Perhaps I’ve drunk some kind of 2010s Kool-Aid? What is that sadness I feel when I talk to or read interviews with people who say they knew Trump would be elected, or that Brexit would happen? Is it because now I’m conditioned to believe this pessimism is actually realism?
In my worst moments I feel this malaise is endemic, somehow, that the Kool-Aid leaked into the water supply. I don’t feel hopeful about mainstream political change, but I do detect strategies of resistance among my creative peers at Somerset House, many of whom spend more time than the average person trying to plot ways forward into the uncertain future. Ines Camara-Leret is trying to find a way to communicate how climate change really feels, Tobias Revell is dissecting the failure of speculative design to change the world, and Ted Hunt is looking at how we conceive of time at the most elemental level. I’m sure there’s many more. But these tiny struggles, are they enough to turn the tide? Can I myself develop any tools and strategies for countering the feeling of irrevocable decline? Can I reclaim my gently-aged Faceapp future?
The 2010’s have been a strange decade to live through, a battle of disconnected vectors, filtered through opaque and disruptive tech. In years to come we’ll look back at this time and wonder what happened. What were we thinking? Why were we idly playing with these dangerous toys? “I told you to be more careful” the voice of our Faceapp avatars will say to us, their laughter lines teasing us with what could have been.