Worshipping At The Altar of Artificial Intelligence
Lensa AI portraits are a modern iteration of an ancient drive: emulating our God(s) through beauty.
Adhering to our current ideal of beauty — specifically in Western culture, specifically at this time in history — means being as divorced from your humanity as possible. See: the physical impossibility of “anti-aging,” the literal objectification of glass skin and jello skin, the digital transfiguration of Instagram Face and “filter”-inspired skincare, and, most recently, the popularity of Lensa AI avatars.
You’ve no doubt noticed these portraits polluting your Instagram feed over the past few weeks, courtesy of the Lensa AI app from Prism Labs. The app (which now sits atop the Apple App Store charts) asks users to upload 10 - 20 photos of themselves and fork over $3.99 before utilizing artificial intelligence to generate 50 flawless, fantastical renderings of the user as a woodland fairy or a warrior princess or a sex alien or some other otherworldly creature, complete with all the trappings of modern “beauty”: taut, textureless skin; a small, sloping nose; wide eyes, plump lips, and cheekbones carved from computerized stone. Users then share their results to social media as if to say, “See? Somewhere, in some alternate universe, I am exactly as beautiful as the world says I should be.”
But furthering already impossible appearance ideals isn’t the only problem with the program. As Jezebel reporter Emily Leibert wrote in “Lensa AI and the Trap of Otherworldly Beauty”:
“Lensa AI is full of red flags. The app, which prompts users to upload photos of themselves then spits out 50+ AI-generated portraits for $3.99, has been decried by artists as predatory to real, human-made artwork. Then, there’s the conundrum of privacy: The ‘Face Data’ users submit can be used by Lensa’s parent company, Prisma AI, to further train its AI’s network, according to ArtNews. And of course, there’s the ease with which Lensa AI is able to transform innocent photos of fully-clothed women or children into AI-generated nudes, heightening concerns around non-consensual porn and deepfakes.”
Leibert interviewed me for her piece — you really should read it — but so much of our (long! deep! juicy!) phone conversation didn’t make the cut, so I’m sharing portions of it here for Unpublishable readers.
On my initial reaction to Lensa AI portraits:
The immediate thing that came to mind is an idea that I have been researching for the past couple of months — this idea that modern “beauty” means being as divorced from your humanity as possible. Like, a complete separation from all that is human about you.* That's really what came up with these images for me, because there is almost no humanity involved. It's a cartoon, a digital rendering, it’s created by artificial intelligence — so there’s not even a human hand involved in the making of it. It feels depressingly on track for what our culture considers beautiful.
*Why is this is a problem? Beyond the social, financial, and political consequences of not conforming to a baseline standard of beauty that’s constantly being raised, you mean? Because the bigger the distance between our bodies and our understanding of beauty — and the bigger the cultural emphasis on being or feeling beautiful as a pathway to happiness, actualization, or embodiment — the bigger the risk to our physical, psychological, and psycho-spiritual wellbeing (and the smaller the opportunity for happiness, actualization, or embodiment). Basically, unattainable standard of beauty + cultural obsession with beauty = lower quality of life!
On my Meta Face prediction coming true:
A little over a year ago, I wrote a piece about the impending arrival of “Meta Face” as a sort of progression of Instagram Face [the phenomenon of people attempting to emulate their filtered, FaceTuned, Photoshopped Instagram photos in real life, courtesy of beauty products and procedures and surgeries]. I predicted what Meta Face might look like, and these AI drawings really seem to be an offshoot of that to me. I was like, a lot of my predictions are actually coming true! I had predicted that beauty standards would be … inspired by these avatars: more cartoonish in nature, very youthful looking, absolutely no texture deviation, no tone deviation.
*I want to add here that my issue is not with virtual avatars themselves. My issue is this: As virtual avatars become blueprints for physical beauty — which again, we saw happen with Instagram Face — many people feel pressured to partake in physically and psychologically damaging products and procedures in order to adhere to that blueprint (even under the delusion of “empowerment” and “autonomy”). An excellent example of this is the uptick in (alleged) buccal fat removal treatments.
This extreme hollowing of the cheeks calls to mind the shading of an AI portrait, the pinching of FaceTune — an artificial approximation of a human face, rather than an actual human face. (I’ll write more next week about how facial fat is essential for functioning skin and how fat-removing procedures threaten the wellbeing of our bodies and minds… stay tuned!)
On how users are willing to upload personal images and risk their privacy/security in exchange for ethereal portraits:
It shows just how much our beauty culture conditioning overrides common sense. You can see that in everything from how we engage with skincare — where we’re actually harming the health of our skin by using too much of it — to uploading our faces to this unknown online source just to get a pretty picture of ourselves without considering any of the downstream consequences. The human longing to be beautiful, to feel beautiful, to be surrounded by beauty, and to be part of that beauty really overrides a lot of our other urges — to the point that we will put ourselves in harm's way to look or feel as “beautiful” (read: socially accepted) as possible.
On why users want to see themselves as Lensa’s flawless fairies, princesses, warriors, aliens, and elves anyway:
This is an easy way to engage with the fantasy of beauty. “Beauty” — in the standardized sense — is always a fantasy; it’s a fantasy of the future. We engage in all of these beauty behaviors in the present moment, in the hopes that they will lead to future beauty — that we will be more beautiful eventually, that all of it will pay off. These pictures bring that fantastical element of beauty to us in a very concrete way.
On why users feel the need to post and share their portraits:
There's a lot to be said about the fact that beauty has always been — and is still now — a function of community. Posting these pictures of yourself when everybody else is posting these pictures of themselves is a way to participate in community through beauty. And that has been true of beauty from the beginning of time, basically. In early Native American communities and African tribes, for example, makeup was used as a form of communication — a way communicate who you were and your place in the community to everyone else. A tribal elder would have something that they would put on themselves to signify that position, or a person going through puberty would have certain things that they adorn themselves with to communicate their status. That drive is very, very deeply ingrained in us still. A lot of conforming to beauty standards today is really just an effort to fit in and to signal your place in community — hoping that other people find you beautiful and attractive enough to include you. But also, in a more sinister way, to signal your place at the top. So much of “beauty” today is a class performance, a display of wealth, and that's an aspect community, too. Signaling that you have power.
On why users don’t seem to care that Lensa AI steals from the work of real people and puts artists’ livelihoods at risk:
There is a huge parallel there with beauty culture and our sense of entitlement. In Western beauty culture, we feel fiercely entitled to features that are not ours. We see something that we like and we say, “I deserve that.” And then we go ahead and graft these features onto our faces with injectables and surgery, or even with things like contouring or fake eyelashes. We have this sense of entitlement to quote-unquote “beauty” — you know, to whatever features have been deemed beautiful by society — and we take that “beauty” for ourselves, no matter who it hurts. And like, our participation in beauty culture does hurt people! Beauty culture is a huge public health issue in terms of its physical effects on people who engage a lot of these behaviors, and in terms of its mental health effects, and it is a collective issue. And so I really see a huge parallel there with people having no qualms about stealing art from real artists to participate in this AI trend. Because that's what we do with beauty on a daily basis.
On Lensa AI sexualizing portraits of its female users:
It doesn't surprise me at all. I think, again, it's a continuation of what we see with things like Instagram Face and Meta Face, and all the ways that technology is affecting how we see ourselves and how we see others. Something we really have to pay attention to here is who is in charge — of algorithms, of app companies. If you look at the demographics of Silicon Valley, where a lot of this technology is coming out of, it is largely run by rich, older, white men. And it is impossible to divorce their value systems from the products that they create and disperse throughout society. Their biases are woven into almost all of our technology, specifically when it comes to gendered beauty ideals.
As I wrote in my piece on Meta Face:
A Guardian report from 2014 described Silicon Valley at large as a “youth cult” that pushes 30-somethings to take “extreme measures to overcome the sector’s ageism.” “Ageism in Silicon Valley Is Causing an Uptick in Plastic Surgeries,” declared TIME Magazine the same year. In 2020, a Washington Post investigation highlighted the appearance anxiety of an average Silicon Valley employee: “His ultimate fear: being banished to the cultureless provinces, unemployed and alone, with the rest of the saggy-skinned suburbanites.”
This anxiety doesn’t stay in Silicon Valley. When the pressure to override the most basic traits of one’s earthly existence — aging, emotion, expression, reaction — is forced upon those with access to the most cutting-edge advancements in social technology, it’s forced upon all.
So forgive me for mocking Zuckerberg’s slow descent into cyborg territory, but the bizarre beauty behaviors of tech’s elite demand dissection and discussion. These are the people creating the framework for filters. These are the people programming the algorithms. These are the people conceptualizing metaverse avatars. These are the people enforcing society’s beauty ideals. (Which is how Meta was always meant to function, by the way. Facebook was originally developed to rank the women on Harvard’s campus by hotness.)
On Lensa AI’s promise of “transformation”:
The language of “transformation” the app uses is similar to what you would hear in beauty advertisements, for sure. Like, transform your lashes with this mascara! But that's because a lot of the language that the beauty industry uses is borrowed from spiritual language. From centuries-old religious practices. The beauty industry has co-opted it, but the original promise of “transformation” was, you know, dedicating your life to the Lord or whatever religious institution was around at the time. And again, I do think that relates back to how beauty has always functioned! Let’s go back to the beginning and talk about makeup’s original purpose — for the ancient Egyptians, makeup was used as a form of worship. It was used in religious ceremonies. People wore it to reflect whatever traits they believed their gods and goddesses to have. The same idea is embedded in Christianity — you know, we’re all “made in the image of God.” Part of this urge within us, the urge to embody beauty, is still that: to reflect the image of your God. And yeah, if you look at the things we worship today, particularly in Western culture, we worship at the altar of Elon and Zuckerberg and Bezos, and we are reflecting that back into the world via “beauty.” I mean, I’m sure we don't think we're worshipping them a lot of the time! But when you think of worship in terms of sacrifice, I think it becomes really clear. Where are we sacrificing our time? Where are we sacrificing our energy? Where are we laying all of that down? On what altar? It’s the altar of artificial intelligence.