01
Mar
09

Facial Recognition Software, The Googlepocalypse, Facebookapocalypse, the Absent Ethics of the Index.

I was going to post this on my own blog, but I am interested to see what you guys may have to say about this, so I’ll cross-post it:

The MIT technology review has posted this article about the new wave of facial recognition software, which, as they succinctly state, is cool but creepy.

In their attempt to make index all information and make it universally available, Google has made another jump: they can now recognize your face in pictures. This brings up a whole new debate regarding the ethics of photography: it is not only the famous who will have to deal with their likeness being used without their explicit permission. Google, while you are tagging photos using their Picassa software, asks you for the real names and email addresses of those in your photographs. This database, as the article points out, is not stored on your computer, but on Google’s servers. Read–this is the same place they store your search history, your documents, which news stories you read, etc… Google may, in fact, someday have a nearly comprehensive database of each of us who use Google with photos, email addresses, addresses, pictures of your house (their map software’s “street level” option).

Now, I do not mean to be alarmist, but in light of the serious discussion that attended the birth of the camera and the ongoing discussion of the ethics of photography, should there not be more attention paid to this company that is not-so-quietly indexing our lives? This is no new idea, the indexing of our lives, but whereas it was originally posited as an option by people such as Gordon Bell and his MyLifeBits project (which creates a searchable database of everything he has ever seen, read, heard, etc…), this indexing is being placed on us from the outside, by our friends who may not be aware that they are indexing our faces, names, and addresses for Google. We all use Google and find it incredibly helpful, but this just seems ridiculous that this is passing over in a relatively uncontested manner.

As for the relationship of this tagging and indexing to human memory: I remember a radiolab (fantastic radio show, by the way) episode in which they discuss the scientific discovery of the physical mechanism used by the brain to store memories. The first step after this was to figure out how to erase them. So, they discuss erasing the memories of soldiers with PTSD–an encouraging idea. It also includes a discussion of the way that a memory is a recreation of your brain-state during the original event. When will we start using free Google software to index our memories? As opposed to Gordon Bell’s project, in which everything is stored on one’s own computer, we will be storing it on Google’s servers. The novelty of it will probably convince us to use it, and likely with little caution: we will use it to remember what we were supposed to pick up at the grocery store, but it will also remember things we may not want it to, like time spent privately with a loved one. Or maybe we do want it to remember that.

In a less ethical and more personal domain: do we really want everything remembered for us this way? Though the nuances of memory can often be frustrating, it is important to remember that to recall a memory is, in a way, to recreate the event. The recalling of a memory actually changes the memory each time it is recalled.  I honestly wonder if the undiscriminating indexing of the events of our lives would be detrimental to the processes and mechanisms of our memories, of our own self-creation, of the fictionalizing of the self, for better or worse. Call it the literature of the memory: without it we would have no Proust, Nabokov, etc. etc. etc. etc.. Though, it could be argued that there is a part of this mechanism that would escape indexing, I think the remainder in this equation is hardly enough to justify the subtraction of the powers and poetry of our own memories. Maybe I’m a neo-luddite, but I doubt it.

As a result of all these issues, and following the debacle exceedingly well laid out in this Slate Magazine discussion blog regarding Facebook’s “Terms of Use,” (which are not really terms of use), the not-so-distant discussion of the near-impossibility of deleting a Facebook account and your information from its server, and recent controversy surrounding internet-announced (and sometimes carried out) suicides, I think that these are ethical issues that deserve quite a bit more legal, philosophical, and political attention.

So, I wonder what happens when not only does The Memex nearly become a reality in terms of a consumer product, but also our likenesses and information are stored by a giant American Corporation (we already see just how little accountability American corporations have). What is to stop Google from selling this information without our knowledge? This is quite a bit of political and social power they are storing on their servers, and it seems their ability to index will only grow.

What part of our lives do we want to keep for ourselves? It will only get easier from here on in to index everything about ourselves. Will it someday be seen as daring and/or backwards to refuse the assistance of the internet and computer databases in indexing our lives? Is it daring or backwards to keep yourself to yourself?

Where is our sense of caution? Has it been overwhelmed by our magpie-like fascination with shiny objects and new technologies? Who do we want to be in relation to this new technology?

I would like to call for a more stringent system of ethics in response to these developments. The prospects are too terrifying if we fail to act.

Again, the Onion is strangely prescient on this point.

What do you guys think?

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2 Responses to “Facial Recognition Software, The Googlepocalypse, Facebookapocalypse, the Absent Ethics of the Index.”


  1. 1 butttub
    March 1, 2009 at 11:37 pm

    Drop your ego and join the future man. Give up that self-control = freedom thing you’re carrying and dive into the digital river. Well, we don’t know shit anyways so the internet may as well know what kinds of porn-ad pop ups to send us, right? Save me a lot of hassle….

    Or alternatively, consider Villem Flusser. In his work on Photography, he writes about ‘playing against’ the machine. That is to say, seeing the designed parameters of a the camera (in this case camera, but it works for any kind of machine/machinic assemblage) and then redefine the narrative that says what the machine is for. Something about software/hardware fits in here.

    Which is all to say: thank you google/fuck you google. godgle, the allknowing allseeing helps and harms in whimsical, old testament fashion. what godgle ought to do is find its (it’s) christ and built itself a messianic eschatology, tear down the boundaries of the individual subject, capitalism, and weblogs. rearrange our brains and give us some kind of hope in a future without triple-ply toilet paper or middle class values.

  2. 2 scottsjackson
    March 2, 2009 at 6:30 am

    These intelligent technological forms that catalog people’s lives certainly enable a huge marketing potential. As technology becomes intelligent/user specific one’s cultural tastes risk becoming more predictable and shallow. However, at the risk of sounding classist, I think such technology can be empowering if one is culturally aware and able to avoid being thought through the terms we use (and our cataloged identity).


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