We’ll have seen them bombarding our newsfeeds and by now we’ve probably done one ourselves. ‘Old age’ profile pictures using an AI-based app, FaceApp, have gone viral over the past couple of days, with users given the opportunity to transform a photo of themselves into an ‘aged’ likeness.
Credit where credit’s due, FaceApp is an impressive piece of AI, using ‘neural networks’ to make remarkably realistic face transformations. And whilst there’s been concerns raised about FaceApp’s privacy statement and what exactly its makers are planning to do with our photo-data, this doesn’t seem to be stopping most of us signing up.
So, what might the popularity of this trend tell us about ourselves?
1. In a culture that idolises youth, we’re strangely fascinated with getting old.
On one level, it’s fairly amusing to see ourselves and others with wrinkles and grey hair. ‘Wow, can you believe it?,’ we might say. And maybe part of us can’t. We live at a time where youthfulness and visual beauty are especially celebrated, but where the elderly are often sidelined, tellingly absent from our screens, homes and ideals. We worship those who embody such youthfulness, but it can mean that we’re desperately trying to do what we can to ‘stay young’.
And so then ageing will always be a strange phenomenon to experience. Maybe this is why nostalgia is increasingly a source of interest and entertainment in our culture, from popular new shows like Stranger Things, to re-discovering old re-runs like Friends. Whilst we like to believe we’re all Peter Pan, we’re simultaneously fascinated with the process of growing up.
FaceApp’s ‘Old Age’ filter is like looking into the mirror thirty, forty, fifty years from now. We’re faced with a striking example of our own mortality and human frailty and it shakes us up from the belief that we’re ‘forever young’. Maybe we have to laugh, because how else have we been taught to respond? Our culture has given us little resources to face that reality. The psalmist asked God to teach him to ‘number his days’, but when was the last time you were encouraged to do that?
2. We’d all love to see into the future, but none of us can control it.
Surely part of the attraction of the FaceApp phenomenon is the possibility of a glimpse into the future. Don’t we all want to be able to fast-forward and see how things will pan out? Of course, even the best AI can’t guarantee what we’ll really look like – although it can’t be denied that the app offers a level of likeness that has been unseen before in readily-available technology. Yet the actual future remains beyond our grasp, for we’re simply not in control of our lives. It’s humbling to think that some of us will never even reach the stage of ‘old age’; others might not even make it past this year.
And I wonder if knowing the future will be especially spellbinding for any culture that focuses so much on the present. Theologian Richard Bauckham has observed how our late-modern culture has reworked the modern narrative of progress: a fixation with entitlement and a distrust of the future means we instead champion a ‘present of endless opportunities’. This was powerfully articulated by Evan Speigel, the founder of the photo-sharing app Snapchat: “We are who we are today, right now”. Ironically, the same app once ran an advert that featured the song ‘Silver Lining’ by Guards, with the line, “I wanna live forever, I don’t care”. But when all that’s offered is an ‘eternal present’, our ticking clocks and ageing bodies soon expose this idea as a facade. Time and tide wait for no man.
James puts it bluntly, alluding to Ecclesiastes: “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” (James 1:14). In the face of uncertainty about our futures, we’re instead encouraged to entrust ourselves to the one who is ‘the first and the last, the beginning and the end’ (Revelation 22:13).
3. For all that we’re told otherwise, we’re intrinsically embodied and finite creatures.
Our culture is strangely contorted when it comes to approaching our bodies. On one level, we give the impression that we hold the human body in high esteem. We emphasise healthy eating and healthy living. We spend significant amounts of time, money and energy on our bodies, be it through gyms, beauty products, or other forms of more permanent bodily enhancement. But whilst this appears to affirm the goodness of the body, Peter Leithart has argued it actually reveals, “for all our carnality, we don’t really like our bodies.”
In other words, we’ve so emphasised our freedom to self-define ourselves, that we’re actually championing the belief that we can transcend our bodies. The true self is instead within: the mind, desire and will. As Tim Keller puts it, the “self-actualization of the individual has become an absolute.” Inevitably the body is relegated to nothing more than ‘cultural plastic’, to cite feminist thinker Susan Bordo. Rather than being embodied creatures with a Creator, we are instead our own “master sculptors of that plastic”. Andy Crouch has labelled this the “irrelevance of our bodies”. Or as Matthew Lee Anderson puts it in his brilliant book, Earthern Vessels, our bodies become merely raw material to be moulded for the sake of pleasure, a ‘project’, constructed by personal wills.
But there’s nothing like seeing an image of my predicted seventy-year old self to remind me that I am intrisically embodied and finite. Sure, I am not just my body, but I am certainly not less than my body. Yes, I can nip and tuck, sculpt and shape. I can believe everything is fluid. But nothing can stop me from ageing. No matter how much we elevate the self, we can’t escape the createdness of these bodies, nor their slow de-creation. As Mumford & Sons put it in their track ‘Awake My Soul’, “In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die.”
As such, embodiment is not a curse to be overcome, but rather is intrinsic to what it means to be a creature. If anything, the Bible presents disembodiment as a curse. The FaceApp ‘Old Age’ craze is a palpable reminder that our bodies do count. They encapsulate what it means to be a finite creature, and yet staggeringly the Bible shows us this is part of being made in the image of God. God becoming man in Jesus Christ further underlines the goodness of the body, as well as the body’s need for redemption, and the future hope of restoration for the body. Our bodies are creation categories that define us, and therefore resurrection categories that await us too.
Coram App or Coram Deo
For all that the FaceApp ‘Old Age’ challenge seems a harmless bit of trivial fun and impressive technology, maybe we should also be glad of this opportunity to see ourselves as mortal, time-bound, embodied creatures. In that sense, FaceApp is less a window into the future and more a window into reality.
For centuries Christians have used the Latin phrase ‘Coram deo’, meaning ‘before the face of God’, to encapsulate this sense of living our whole lives before God. That’s what defines us; not age nor self-definition nor our grasp of the future. And as we see the reality of ourselves, then we see afresh the majesty of God – and vice-versa.
So as we face up to the truth of our humanity, let us throw ourselves into the arms of our Creator, who wonderfully doesn’t change, but whose mercies are new every morning. As the hymn-writer Timothy Dudley-Smith put it, “His mercy sure, from age to age the same; His holy name, the Lord, the mighty one.”