Time was when beauty lay in the eyes of the beholder. The great minds at work in Google and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), however, can now do away with the little foibles that make a person who they are. Researchers have developed an artificial intelligence (AI) system that will automatically retouch photos taken on smartphones in the same way a professional photographer does. The AI, by deciding how people ought to look, brings out the hypocrisy of social media: The claim that standardised platforms and technologies on the internet can be a way to express individuality.
Take the idea that a “professional” retouching of photographs should be uniformly applicable. Any one who has regularly had to have passport photos taken in India can attest to the penchant of many photographers for making customers look fairer, or erasing marks and pimples. The ostensible advantage of the selfie-age is, we are told, the democratisation of information and expression. Every person’s opinion mattered: No tweet is lesser than another, and the Facebook rant of the unrepentant troll is of the same order as the considered opinion of an experienced academic.
That an AI can — and likely will — decide the aesthetic behind an image erodes the very idea of choice and freedom inherent to the internet. Who’s to say that the badly composed photographs taken by well-meaning parents at their children’s birthday need to follow the rule of thirds? On social media, Instagram has already made pre-set filters and colour correction the norm for the manufactured artistry of enthusiastic amateurs. Retouched photographs are basically an extension of emoticons and emojis — clichés created and marketed by large corporations that make emotions and individuality a monetisable commodity. And that is the fundamental contradiction of social media and the internet — it provides the platform to catalogue every moment and thought, but then lays down normative “filters” about what form that expression ought to take.