If someone walked up to me on the street and offered me $5 to take a picture of my face, I’d probably say yes. Wouldn’t you?
Google has been doing just this for the past few weeks. Lately, people describe being approached at random to trade their face data for a $5 gift card.
The recent ZDNet article, Google Bought My Friends Face for $5 tells the story of George, who didn’t think twice about the exchange. When challenged about his decision, he responded, “Google basically has my whole life on their servers already. And removing Google from my life just isn’t going to happen from a practical point of view. I don’t really care about data privacy because I think it’s all an illusion anyway.”
George’s friend brought up the issue of privacy. The very mention of the word conjures specters of Facebook’s now infamous data breach with Cambridge Analytica. In fact, Internet privacy is of great concern today. From Harvard Law’s legal perspective to Wired’s technical prediction to CNN’s business analysis, everyone is talking about privacy.
Why Are Our Faces Important?
But perhaps there are deeper issues at play. Privacy issues aside, what does the selling of a face for $5 say in theological terms? What does it tell us about how we view ourselves? Our value as persons? And the image of God within us?
In Exodus 33:18-20, Moses asked to see the glory of God. God allowed Moses to see “all of [His] goodness” but told him, “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” Apparently, there is something powerful about the face of God. Something which reveals His glory in a way that mortal man cannot handle in his current state.
And yet, God encourages humankind toward such a vision. In Psalm 27:8-9, the psalmist admits his goal, “Your face, LORD, do I seek” and begs of God, “Hide not your face from me.”
Moses himself blesses the people with the words from Numbers 6:25, “the LORD make his face to shine upon you.”
Finally, at the end of the biblical story, God’s people succeed in gazing upon His face. Revelation 22:4 declares triumphantly “They will see his face.”
There seems to be something important about the face of God. If humankind is created in the image of God, could there be something important about our faces as well? Is there a deep sense in which my identity is present in my face?
In 2017, scientists discovered that even fetuses in the womb turn to follow face-like shapes in the womb. As infants, we process the image of another face long before we are able to process other visual stimuli.
We are scrambling to create better and better systems of computerized facial recognition. Companies pour vast amounts of money, engineering talent, and time to replicate the natural abilities of a newborn infant.
But deep in our hearts we know the difference between having our faces recognized by a device and the joy of being recognized by another face. Compare the experience of digital facial recognition with the eager anticipation on the faces of people waiting outside an airport terminal. The transformation on our faces when we spot our loved ones explains so much about our innate desire to be recognized.
Becoming What We Create
So what’s wrong with selling my face for a few dollars? Selling the rights to my facial data doesn’t impede any of the more personal encounters I long for. A few bits of information stored in a data server doesn’t hurt me at all. It’s not as if I’ve sold my soul.
But this exchange contributes to a transformation of how I understand who I am.
We can see this type of transformation throughout history. In the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, we developed powerful machines capable of doing the heavy lifting of manufacturing. In response, people became understood in terms of labor. Units of labor were bought and sold. We became bodies, capable of operating the machines of our world.
In time, we came to think of our own bodies as machines. The technology we created fundamentally changed our understanding of ourselves. After building machines, we began to see ourselves as machines.
At the same time, we knew that we were more than machines. Rene Descartes asserted this with his familiar phrase, “I think therefore I am” penned in 1637. Machines simply obeyed instructions. Our intellect gave us far greater capabilities.
Combining machines and intellect, the invention of the computer gave us an even more advanced way to conceptualize our humanity. Having created something which mirrored and even surpassed the skills of the human brain, we began to understand ourselves in the image of computers. One author in the New York Times exclaims almost gleefully, “Face it. Your Brain is a Computer.”
Once again, the technology created by humans becomes a mirror through which we develop our self-understanding. Our bodies became regarded as machines. Our minds as computers.
When God created humankind, he fashioned them in his image. That makes sense: what is created resembles the Creator. But we seem to have a peculiar tendency to reverse that process. After creating, we begin to understand ourselves in the image of the creation. As creators, we take on the image of the creation.
Going beyond computers, we see that the next transformation is upon us. There’s a reason why “Data is the Bacon” has become a rallying cry of current technology. Everyone wants a piece. Everything is about the data.
As early as 2013, David Brooks of the New York Times wrote, “If you asked me to describe the rising philosophy of the day, I’d say it is data-ism.” Yuval Harari, in his book Homo Deus celebrates this development as the natural evolution of humanity. He suggests that “the value of any phenomenon or entity is determined by its contribution to data processing.” (Homo Deus, p.428)
We’ve created huge amounts of Big Data. Once again, we observe how our self-identity transforms to match the sketch of our creation. What becomes important about me is my data: biometric data, purchasing habits, dating tendencies, and now a digital representation of the contours of my face.
First, my body was a machine. Then my mind was a computer. Finally, everything about me is simply data.
It’s not really my face that I would be selling for $5. My actual face doesn’t matter. All that matters — the only value that I have in the universe — is the data of how my face can be abstracted and digitally stored.
To Be Truly Seen
Refusing to sell my face to a stranger on the street won’t stop this process from moving forward. But maybe being aware of this pervasive data-centric view can combat the havoc such a view of myself will inevitably wreak upon my soul.
On second thought, I’d think twice about selling my face for $5. Not because of concerns over my privacy, but over how such a transaction could work its way deep within me. I would love for my phone to recognize my face instantaneously with no discernible delay. But more than that, I would love for my wife to see me and her face to unlock with joy.
And even more than that, I long for the day when I will see and recognize the face of God. On that day, I will see and be seen. Not for the digital data of my movements and interactions, but for who I really am. That’s what my heart longs for.
Father to five; husband to one; helping Christians engage thoughtfully as they follow Jesus Christ.
Pastor at Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto, CA since 2007. Graduated from Stanford University with a degree in Industrial Engineering and worked for Oracle Corporation as a Senior Product Manager designing software solutions.