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When I’m deep in work mode, I lose awareness of my face. Whether I am free-writing ideas, editing images or responding to e-mails, I become so engrossed in my laptop screen that I forget about my silent parade of expressions: furrowed brow, tight grimace, wide grin, to name a few. This can be embarrassing, especially when I’m in my local café. The barista says she sees it on customers all the time. She calls it “Laptop Face.”

I’ve become familiar with these gestures through artworks that I’ve made over the past few years. In one, I asked friends and colleagues to record themselves during a work session by turning on the video feature of Photo Booth. It took a while for them to forget about the camera, but soon each face eased into a zone, its owner oblivious to its variations. After reviewing some thirty video “portraits,” my own included, I found that we shared a taxonomy; we were performing a common but unconscious choreography of gestures. Since then, I occasionally catch myself feeling one of their expressions—Ryan’s concentrated squint, Lauren’s resigned sigh, Beth’s cynical smirk—on my own face as I work.

How well do you know your face? When you look into the mirror to comb your hair or adjust your hat, you are not seeing the face that you carry out into the world. The truth is in a candid video or photograph taken while you were unaware, revealing an unguarded action or reaction. It is ironic that even though your face belongs to you alone, you rarely get to see its infinite and infinitesimal variations.

For all my thinking about our unconscious facial gestures, the idea of ownership was not something I pondered until I heard about Affectiva, a company whose software can track the emotional responses of people watching television commercials. I found this description of its flagship product on its website: “Affdex computer vision algorithms isolate key regions of the face, such as the eyes, the nose and the mouth. Affdex machine learning algorithms analyze pixels in those regions to classify expressions…. This allows brands, researchers and creative agencies to assess the emotional impact of the stimulus at a moment-by-moment or cumulative basis.” The website includes a demo that uses your computer’s camera to track your face while you watch sample ads. I wanted to try it, but hesitated when I was asked to agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. I skimmed the more than 6,200-word documents and came to this: “You automatically grant Affectiva … a world-wide, royalty-free, sub-licensable … perpetual, irrevocable license to use, modify, publicly display, reproduce and distribute the Content …” I quit the site.

There are many companies—well established and brand new—that use visual computing to measure sentiment by reading facial expressions, and there surely will be more by the time you read this column. The eventual ubiquity of their software is a no-brainer based on the confluence of twenty-first century technology and social habits: our faces constantly in front of screens, cameras embedded liberally in our devices, 24/7 connectivity and so on.

As with most of our everyday applications that collect big data, we will worry about losing our privacy and giving away our data-rich personal profiles for free. But that is not my current concern. Instead, I want to focus on a simpler point that is crucial because it is so fleeting: our awareness.

There’s a process through which a new piece of technology makes its way into the mainstream. In that process there is a cusp: a pivotal point in time when we are aware of the technology, but it is not yet ubiquitous. It has not yet become as unquestioned as air. Remember the day when you got on the subway and you saw for the first time a real, live (gasp!) iPhone? You asked the owner, shyly but excitedly, if you could look at it. It was a moment of both knowledge and ignorance. That combination presents an opportunity to be inquisitive and discerning about ourselves, our habits and our futures.

In the past few weeks I’ve read articles, studied websites of compa­nies like Emotient, Sension and Realeyes, and have had humorous and somber conversations with friends about the allure of facial tracking. I’ve learned not only about start-ups and their competitive forays into marketing, but also about investigations by university and industry research teams that could lead to life-saving advances in mental and physical health. Yes, my Laptop Face, with all its patterns and complexities, belongs to me. But now I have greater motivation, as well as deepening curiosity, to both protect it and to share it. ca

© 2015 W. Richmond

Wendy Richmond (wendyrichmond.com) is a visual artist, writer and educator whose work explores public privacy, personal technology and creativity. Richmond has taught at Harvard University, the International Center of Photography and the Rhode Island School of Design, and she serves on the BRIC Artists Advisory Council and the MacDowell Fellows Executive Committee. Her latest book is Art Without Compromise*. Richmond’s column began in 1984.

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