From Pokémon to Beauty Filters

Augmented Reality and the New Nihilism

Avatars in the Park

In a feature article for Salvo 60, I shared a strange experience I had in 2016 when visiting a favorite park with my children. The park was unusually populated with visitors who were “seeing” creatures I could not. They were playing Pokémon Go—an augmented reality game that overlays projections of virtual creatures onto spaces in the physical world. 

What was going on that day at the park was an early version of “augmented reality” (AR), also known as “mixed reality” or “computer-mediated reality.” AR is not the same as Virtual Reality (VR). With a VR headset, the user leaves the real world to interact with an entirely simulated environment. By contrast, AR simply enhances our perception of the real world, providing users with an experience that blends the physical with the virtual. 

Augmented Reality Update

Since that day in the park seven years ago, many of the predictions about AR have not materialized. Projects by Apple and Google to create AR-equipped glasses have been shelved, while a project to bring out AR contact lenses, pioneered by the California-based research lab, Mojo Vision, has been paused due to lack of capital.

Yet AR is still very much alive and well. From an increase in “blended spaces” to Instagram’s beauty filters, mixed reality is all around us, and it no longer seems strange. In fact, a preference for what is real (often pejoratively referred to with the abbreviation “RL”) has become merely one option in a plethora of choices.

To date, most AR is accessible through phones and special display headsets. Through these devices, users have been able to enjoy everything from seeing how a new sofa would look in their home to watching a dead composer perform a piece. Moreover, AR has brought incredible advances to fields like medicine, education, and urban design.

Yet as our interaction with the world becomes digitally manipulable, and as AR offers an array of perceptually enriched experiences, the body continues to be problematized, and the real world is losing some of its taken-for-granted normativity. Many of us now welcome services that unbundle us from our environment and context, as if real life ("RL") is simply one more product that can be packaged, repackaged, and tweaked for the consumer. Yet as is often the case, consumer-driven economics leads not to more diversity but less. For while AR offers the allure of multiple realities, in practice it results in a homogenization of taste. Nowhere is this more evident than in beauty filters made popular by Instagram and TikTok, which promote a stereotyped idea of attractiveness, and a narrowing of what the tech industry considers beautiful. Unlike makeup, jewelry, and beautiful clothes, which accentuate and underscore the uniqueness of a woman’s natural beauty, these filters eradicate individual distinctives for a one-size fits all notion of feminine beauty.

How We Became Avatars

Originally, augmented reality filters on social media were deployed for comic purposes, enabling users to engage in digital dress-up or to add features like bunny ears or a mustache to their selfies and profile pictures. But increasingly, video and photo-sharing apps are offering services that allow girls to “fix” their appearance. By combining artificial intelligence with computer vision technology, Instagram and TikTok enable thousands of women to tweak how they look - for example, by adding in artificially large lips or cheek-lifts, or altering facial symmetry. It is no longer merely parks and ponds that become raw material for optimization and digital enhancement, but our own faces.

A Reader’s Digest article from July 2022 described some of the filters that are available, including "Top Model Look" ("smooths skin, plumps lips, brightens eyes") and "Boho Filters" (editing tools contain understated brown tones that are pleasing to any look) and even one called "No Filter Filter" ("gently evens skin tone, hides imperfections, tightens your face a little, and makes you almost perfect").

Originally it was thought these filters would help boost girls' self-confidence. As the Reader’s Digest article observed, “it improves your appearance and perfects any flaws, letting you feel more confident.” But, of course, it didn’t take long to realize that these beauty stereotypes would undermine girls’ confidence in a toxic loop. As Liv Boeree explained on the Lex Fridman podcast, when everyone is using beauty filters, the baseline for what is normal changes, leading to new incentives to stay competitive in what amounts to a race to the bottom.

This is good business for Meta, whose corporate executives are always seeking to give Instagram a competitive edge. But this competitive edge comes at a heavy cost. Whereas Pokémon turned nature into a commodity, Instagram turns us into commodities. A woman is reduced to mere features that can be optimized independent of her context (for example, her parents and family ancestry from which she inherited one set of features and not another). Human beings essentially become pure information that can be unbundled from their embeddedness in time and place. Whereas avatars were once a proxy for a person, Instagram has reversed this by reducing the person to essentially little more than an Avatar.

Toward a New Nihilism

What is at stake with AR is not simply what can count as beauty, but what can count as reality. This becomes clear when we compare augmented reality with traditional art. Looking at a picture book or watching a movie combines elements of the real world with fantasy; yet it is only because these art forms occur against the backdrop of a stable external world that the fantastical is fantastical, just as a lie can only make sense within a context in which truth is normative. But AR threatens to disrupt how we perceive the normativity of reality and the truth about reality on which our understanding of it depends. The emerging subtext in multiple self-reports from girls who use AR to change their appearance, is, "Who's to say that the beauty filter isn’t merely bringing out the true self? Who’s to say that the real world has any more truth than the world of digitally enhanced perceptual experience?"

Questions like these emerge not merely because we have lost a shared understanding of the importance of truth, but because during an age of enhanced reality we can no longer take for granted a shared world as the common framework for action and belief. Thus, philosopher Byung-Chul Han describes the era we are entering as “a new nihilism” that emerges when “information is completely decoupled from reality.” This decoupling entails a loss in “our sense of reality and its factual truths." But, Han contends, “the loss of factual truth means the loss of a shared world as a framework for our actions.”

Without a shared world as a framework for action, even our sense of self becomes disrupted. In the world of augmented reality, if I were to meet my own digital projection at the park, would I even recognize myself? Indeed, as the demarcation between reality and illusion becomes blurred, we can only echo the character in the opening lines of Ghelderode's Death of Doctor Faust, who muses that everything in the modern age is so false that one can blunder into one's self in the darkness.

Further Reading:

       

has a Master’s in History from King’s College London and a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is the blog and media managing editor for the Fellowship of St. James and a regular contributor to Touchstone and Salvo. He has worked as a ghost-writer, in addition to writing for a variety of publications, including the Colson Center, World Magazine, and The Symbolic World. Phillips is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches (Ancient Faith, 2020) and Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation (Ancient Faith, 2023) and co-author with Joshua Pauling of We're All Cyborgs Now (Basilian Media & Publishing, forthcoming). He operates the substack "The Epimethean" and blogs at www.robinmarkphillips.com.

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