One year. 100 articles. So we're having a Reader's Party. Come along to Upsidecrown.
You, Me, and Face-space
17 July 2000
I'm not pissing about here: Metaphors are as real as you and me.
Pigeons in spandex, monkeys who carry calling-cards: All part of this place of my mind where people are animals. For instance, there was a boy at my school who was obviously a sparrow. I'd tell you who he is, but you probably don't know him, and to be honest it's not important.
And then the connection's made, I treat the people differently: The man in the shop who looks like a friend's dad, I chat to him. The guy I meet who has an accent like another guy I really didn't like, I have an irrational hatred for. Alan Shearer is tough because he looks like Bruce Willis. I feed crumbs of my packed lunch to Robin (the boy who looked like a sparrow, confusingly).
The Victorian idea of a typical criminal face isn't entirely false: Bad people look bad (and are either British or South African). Great looking people with pointed noses have shitty personalities. Don't you dare deny it (and if you do, I know you have thin lips). Why is this? Is your personality determined by how you look? Are your features formed by how you act? Bollocks they are: It's the third way. It's more holistic than that.
Let's break out of the binary. Yes? No? Mu: Your features are genetic. Your responses are learned as you are socialised by the people around you. The people around you act towards to you depending on how they expect you to be. How can they tell? They guess, depending on how you look.
You look dull? They make no effort in conversation. You look evil? They bend to your whim incase you put their head on a sharpened stick. Of course people around you fawning and drooling staring at your breasts is going to make you manipulative and cynical. And stupid, too, if those beautiful tits make getting into your pants a higher priority than making intelligent conversation.
Another child becomes what it appears to be: The image is strengthened into another generation.
You can describe a face with a limited number of quantities: How sharp the nose, how high the forhead, how many chins. Some of these go hand in hand: Ten chins implies large jowls. Reduce these quantities so they are all independent. IBM did this, for a photo identification card: They needed twenty.
Okay, so we've got a twenty-dimensional space and each point in that space gives a different face. But we can describe this space with any twenty non-parallel vectors: That is, any twenty different faces that aren't too similar. These are the basis vectors of face-space.
So you've got your group of friends. There's the joker, the one everyone sleeps with, the one whose shoulder you cry on. And then you join a new group of friends: There's the joker, the one everyone sleeps with, the one whose shoulder you cry on.
And the people look roughly the same in your new group. They're combinations and mixes of the people you used to know. They're a stable group of people whose roles don't overlap too much -- other members would get confused if they did.
Are you getting the picture? A group of people is the set of basis vectors of face-space. The size of a socially stable group is exactly the maximum number of people we can easily visually identify.
We are metaphors. We're shaped by metaphors. Our perception of the universe isn't direct: It's through towers of ever more precarious metaphors. If we looked at our bodies as swarms rather than machines, instead of braces and splints we'd have compression funnels and pipes.
As we abstract, we create: We regard a people as two selves, as a convenient separation. Suddenly we find genes and memes, physical and mental illnesses, heart and brain. We attempt to describe the emergent properties of the social combination of minds: We create the noösphere, of us but separate from us.
So be careful what you create. The body-as-machine will lead us to an Earth within a computer mainframe, virtual selves, the flesh itself withering tethered to an RJ-45. The holistic-body-and-mind will ground us, stop us from leaping into new worlds of the imagination, limit our abstractions and constrain us to limited consumption.
The choice, it's sad to say, is no longer yours. But those memes you're carrying, ask them what they think.