Inevitably, unpleasant truths shadow every cliché: Each of us, we are told, is a work of art. We too often forget, however, that even the most beautiful artworks rarely show us beautiful people.
There is no clearer demonstration of this fact than the viral popularity of Google’s Arts & Culture app. Take a selfie with the program, and it will compare your face with those found in digitized paintings from museums around the world. Moments later, it presents you with a series of images, showing you an array of historical mugs that most clearly match your own. Though Google introduced the feature last December, it exploded over the weekend, as Twitter and Instagram users shared screen grabs of their best—and often worst—pairings.
In theory, at least, the tool is meant to be educational. Click on one of your matches, and the app takes you to a scan of the full painting. (The headshot is typically just one detail from the original artwork.) Keep clicking, and it may take you to a Street View–style representation of the museum that houses the work, giving you the opportunity to see your paired painting in context. This seems to be in keeping with the ostensible purpose of Google Arts & Culture, which contains enormous repositories of historical data, from virtual tours of ancient sites to meditations on the contemporary resonance of emojis. If my Twitter feed is any indication, though, few are using the app to excavate the past. If they’re anything like me, they’re too busy trying to get the perfect match.
And try I did, though my own experimentations with the app were often … less than ideal. It repeatedly told me that I looked like an Anthony Van Dyck subject whose upturned moustache and pronounced underchin offered me a horrifying image of my possible future. On another occasion, it compared me to Diego Rivera’s foppish portrait of Adolfo Best Maugard, a 1913 image in which Rivera’s fellow painter seems less substantial than the billowing smog behind him. Only after repeated attempts—and careful fiddling with my apartment’s lighting—did the app serve up anything remotely handsome: Santiago Rusiñol i Prats’ brutish but contemplative 1895 portrait of the sculptor Carles Mani. I was satisfied at last, but, if I’m being honest, this final match wasn’t that much more accurate than any of those that had come before.
This may be the app’s secret: It charms because it simultaneously appeals to and deflates our narcissism. Serve up a sultry stare and it compares you to some puffy 19th-century dandy. Try to show off your jawline, and watch it match you up with history’s dopiest Danish prince. Occasionally, the results satisfy, as they presumably did for the writer and comedian Dana Schwartz, who paired (repeatedly!) with John Singer Sargent’s Madame X. My friend Topher, meanwhile, received one that resembles nothing so much as Matt Damon auditioning for a role in some misbegotten sequel to The Revenant. Most of us, though, will find that the app flatters only the impressions of our enemies. Posting the results to Twitter or Instagram often proves an exercise in the subtle art of the humblebrag, allowing us to show off how much better we look than our historical doubles.
Still, even when the comparisons are undesirably inapt, they rarely feel entirely inaccurate. Studying the worst of my matches, I still noticed clear points of comparison. Each time, it seemed to zero in on particular features, though they weren’t always the ones I would choose to emphasize. Once, it seemed to dwell on my pronounced eye sockets and sloppy facial hair, another time on the close-cropped sides of my skull. Perhaps I’m giving the app too much credit, but this attention to detail suggests that Google’s digital eye has grown uncomfortably attentive to specificity, seeing things we ordinarily miss about ourselves. Flickering back and forth between my own image and that of my supposed doppelgängers, I began to read my own face as a machine might. It became a collection of discrete and peculiar details rather than a familiar whole. I may not have liked the pairings Google produced, but I still studied myself more carefully—maybe even more clinically—than I might have when struggling to decide whether I should keep or delete an ordinary selfie.
The precision of these virtual inspections may raise hackles. Some of my acquaintances suggested that, in using the app, we were really providing Google with images of ourselves or at least training its algorithms. While that’s possible, it would be a striking violation of trust if it proved true. When you first access the comparison tool, it announces, “When you take a photo with this feature, your photo is sent to Google to find artworks that look like you. Google won’t use data from your photo for any other purpose and will only store your photo for the time it takes to search for matches.” In any case, Google—like Facebook—is already more than capable of recognizing most of us with its existing technology. It has limitations, of course, most famously its difficulty recognizing people of color, and some of those problems seem to persist with the new feature. But in practice, the matches primarily serve to show off what Google can already do, not (I hope) what it’s heading toward.
There may still be a cynical read on this viral phenomenon. Like Apple’s Animoji before it, the feature may serve to make a case for facial recognition more generally. This is, after all, a technology that few of us really asked for. Its potential benefits for the visually impaired aside, facial recognition seems most likely to benefit corporations and law enforcement organizations. By offering us a playful (if sometimes rude) spin on such algorithms, Google is further acclimating us to a potentially invasive technology.