TIt has been the year of a thousand faces. Each face is an inch or two tall on my laptop screen and trapped within a rectangle. The rectangles form a sided wall that is built brick by brick. As each new face arrives, the wall shifts and rearranges itself. Out in the real world, other people’s faces have been frustratingly elusive, half hidden by masks. Or they have looked away, focused on completing their essential journeys and not wanting to exchange their saliva with mine. But here the faces keep appearing, magically appearing from anywhere in the world, happy to be seen.
During meeting breaks, my eyes scan the virtual room. You can peek into people’s faces online in a way that would be rude in real life. Never before have I paid so much attention to how the hairline runs across the top of the forehead, how an eye sits in its socket, or how the jawline turns into a neck. He hadn’t noticed how vulnerable faces are, so soft and fleshy and bruised, and how fickle they move between moods. The faces look in turns dazed, stubborn, sweetly attentive, filled with distant thoughts that no one could guess, and as if they are striving to be bright-eyed and smiling but suddenly collapse in tears. It’s been that kind of year.
Finding faces like this feels strangely intimate, but also inappropriate. All the intricate topography and chiaroscuro of its features are gone. Some faces are right in front of a window, which bathes them in an impenetrable shadow. Others are too close to the screen and pale in its glare of blue light. Others fidget, out of sync with your speech, or freeze in the flow, eyes closed and mouth open, as in ecstatic prayer.
The strangest thing of all is that neither of these faces returns my gaze. We cannot maintain eye contact because we are looking at our screens, not our webcams. The whites of human eyes are larger than those of other animals, allowing us to detect where they are looking, a vital social cue. Even when those eyes aren’t bigger than the dots on your screen, you can still tell when they’re not looking at you.
We are born hungry for other people’s faces. Babies under 10 minutes have been shown to prefer the image of a human face to other images. Our brains are so eager to detect faces that this explains the most common form of pareidolia, the human tendency to create meaningful shapes from random patterns. People can’t resist seeing faces in cloud formations, gnarled tree trunks, house fronts, toast … All it takes is the slightest suggestion of two eyes and a mouth. The brain does the rest.
What makes the faces so attractive is that each one is both reassuringly familiar and utterly distinctive. The design template hasn’t changed for millennia. The faces of the bodies found in swamps, centuries old but preserved by the mob, have incipient chins, furrowed eyebrows, laugh lines and dark circles. Those faces are like ours, without ceasing to be his definitely. Each face is made from the standard raw materials of skin, bone, muscle, cartilage, and fatty tissue. It has the same roughly oval shape and the same classic arrangement: eyes and ears spaced to allow us to see and hear in stereo; nose above the mouth to reduce the chances of choking; jaw and mouth built to eat, speak and smile. And yet each face manages to be as original as a fingerprint.
The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas believed that looking at other people’s faces was how we learned to be human. Every face we meet, he thought, reminds us that we share the world with people who are fundamentally like us, but who are also, like us, irreducibly unique. Levinas was inspired by the Talmud, the book of Jewish laws and teachings, which says that God “coins all people since the death of Adam and no one resembles another.”
Recognizing other people’s faces is a basic component of social life. Most of us do it instantly and effortlessly. We can identify someone we know from a childhood photo of them, and someone we haven’t seen for years, even though their face is now a flabby, wrinkled version of the one we knew. No one knows exactly how this virtuous human ability works, but it seems to involve doing a rough estimate on how the face comes together as a whole, rather than marking all the individual elements. This is why the compound faces of crime suspects look so bad. A witness tries to recreate a face by choosing from a collection of parts, but we read faces more intuitively and impressionistically than this.
The problem with being so good at reading faces is that we read them excessively. Neurons in the temporal and frontal lobes of our brain just start firing and doing calculations on the ground, behind which lie the unconscious biases. Multiple studies have pointed to the “attractive halo effect”: people with attractive faces are seen as more competent, intelligent and personable than normal. As the internet and the smartphone have made it easy to share images of our faces, these quick judgments have become a part of daily life. Social media companies know that other people’s faces are human catnip and use them to generate clicks. It’s called Facebook for a reason. Showing your face is part of the business model.
Due to a mixture of shyness and meanness, I generally refuse to join. I have never taken a selfie and I hate to have my photo taken if it is posted online. I once convinced a reluctant editor that my author’s photo should be an image of my hand holding a pen. My Twitter avatar is a picture of the animated children’s television character Mr Benn. In a commercialized culture that values the free flow of collectible data, my reluctance to show my face marks me as eccentric, even suspicious. “Please tell us why you don’t want to provide a profile picture,” a social media platform scolds me, sounding less angry than disappointed. “You don’t need a professional headshot!” says another cheerfully. “Just something that represents you.”
I’m old enough to remember when you had to meet someone to know what they were like. I feel like an alien, thrown into this new world of almost mandatory visibility. I still find it disconcerting that people happily upload photos of themselves to dating apps that allow anyone to say “like” or “no” to their photos, swiping rejected matches as if they were removing a speck of dust.
In Don DeLillo’s novel Mao II, a Salinger-like author emerges from three decades of seclusion by agreeing to have his photo taken. The photographer warns him that people “will absolutely question your right to look different from your photo.” I have found this to be true. And I’d rather not be reduced to a frozen, two-dimensional simulation of my face that countless strangers can see. I prefer it when my real face interacts with the real faces of other people. A face is protein. The eyes and lips are partially liquid and sparkle with life. The skin changes color and tone. A bewildering variety of muscles works the many moving parts of the face. Our eyebrows convey a world of meaning. We make and remake our faces in every moment of our lives.
The neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks was painfully aware of this fluid and elusive quality of faces. He suffered from prosopagnosia, or facial blindness, which affects approximately 2% of the population. Prosopagnosiacs cannot identify people by their faces. Once, Sacks was grooming his beard while looking at what he thought was his reflection in a window. He slowly realized that there was another bearded man on the other side of the mirror, wondering why this strange person was looking at him and grooming himself. The blindness on Sacks’s face compounded his already acute shyness. He avoided most social gatherings, knowing they would involve the shame of not recognizing people he knew well or greeting strangers like old friends. Sacks died in 2015. He may have found Zoom, who always gives a face a name, a godsend.
“Face blindness” is a misnomer, actually. Prosopagnosiacs are, in fact, fierce observers of faces, carefully scanning them for idiosyncratic and tell-tale details such as moles, crooked teeth, and single eyebrows. They just can’t skip the details to do that simple recognition click. They look again with each new iteration of a face. When that face is lit from a strange angle, or its owner is feeling tired and drained, it could also be looking at a whole new face, which in a sense it is. The rest of us process faces so fast that we’ve stopped looking at them.
However, after this year, I don’t think I will take faces for granted again. Now the world is reopening and once again filled with faces – real, contoured, life-size faces. When I pass people on the street, I hold their gaze a little longer than usual, perhaps because eye contact feels like a newly earned privilege. I may just be projecting my own feelings onto them, but those faces seem sober and chastened to me, aware of how quickly the world can change and hopes can fade. I find myself in agreement with the Mexican priest in the novel by Graham Greene. The power and the glory, who believes that when you look closely enough at other people’s faces, the corners of their eyes and the shape of their mouths, you can’t help but feel tender towards them. Hatred, he thinks, is “just a failure of the imagination.” Or maybe just not looking.
People younger than me have a phrase they use when chatting online: “I see you.” It can be used for everything from congratulating a friend on a new haircut to comforting them when they feel rejected or wronged. Deep down it means “I have noticed your existence.” Now that we look into each other’s eyes again, I realize how much I have missed being “seen”. The other day I saw a friend outside the supermarket and we stopped to talk, without a mask and a few meters away, as we did before. The face in front of me didn’t blur or pixelate like those on my laptop, nor was there any disconcerting lag in the way it responded to mine. He just picked up where he left off a year ago, noticing my nods and smiles and reflecting them back with his own, a wordless message he’d almost forgotten how to read. Roughly translated, it said: “I see you.”
If You Should Fail: A Book of Solace by Joe Moran is published by Viking for £ 14.99. Buy it for £ 13.04 at guardianbookshop.com
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism