A Face in the Crowd
Until the invention of photography, even the world’s most renowned individuals could pass through a crowd unrecognized by anyone not personally acquainted with them. Painted portraits were a costly adornment of the few, and the only likenesses in mass circulation were the faces of emperors and kings stamped on coins. Jesus, Mohammad, Charlemagne, Joan of Arc and Christopher Columbus all passed into history without leaving a likeness behind. The fate of most of humanity was to live and die in anonymity that became total within a generation or two, after the last of those who knew them had passed on. They would have “perished as though they had not lived,” as the author of Ecclesiasticus expressed it.
Photographs were also a costly adornment in the beginning, reserved for special occasions, including the memorialization of the dead. In an era of high infant mortality rates, post-mortem photographs were a common practice, with dead children photographed in lifelike poses for the consolation of their grieving parents. “It is hardly too much to say, that those whom we love no longer leave us in dying, as they did of old,” wrote Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. when photography was still in its infancy. “They remain with us just as they appeared in life; they look down upon us from our walls; they lie upon our tables; they rest upon our bosoms; nay, if we will, we may wear their portraits, like signet-rings, upon our fingers.”
In effect, photography has conferred a kind of immortality on its subjects. Anatomically modern humans have been around for some 12,000 generations, and for all but the last handful they have come and gone without leaving behind any impression of themselves. We know plenty about Jesus, Charlemagne and Christopher Columbus, but we don’t know what they looked like – much less those who lived a hundred or a thousand generations ago. If we were somehow reunited with our distant ancestors beyond the grave, we would recognize none of those whose blood runs in our veins. As it is, we are often hard-pressed to identify family members in old photographs unless someone has had the presence of mind to label everyone in the picture.
Normally we think it is a good thing when we are recognized by friends, acquaintances and people we do business with on a daily basis; less so when we recognized by strangers. Those who do become world famous, if only for 15 minutes, may find they must now navigate a world in which large numbers of people they don’t know all think they know them. However much famous individuals may have craved adulation, it does not come without cost – not just the loss of privacy but also the loss of anonymity. They are no longer able to lose themselves in a crowd: to walk unnoticed down the street, to browse undisturbed in a bookstore or to take their kids to a ball game without attracting unwanted attention.
Those of us who are not famous face no such problems – or do we? With facial recognition software, we are no longer just a face in the crowd, however anonymous we may feel. If our image appears on social media or captured on surveillance cameras, there are algorithms that can attach a name to the face. With the name comes an address, a Social Security number, a credit score, voting record and criminal history – all the raw material for the darkest paranoid fantasies. No, the machines can’t read our thoughts, but they can read our comments on Facebook – and they do. We should be thankful if they only use them to sell us stuff.
The passage from Ecclesiasticus begins with the verse, “Let us now praise famous men, our ancestors in their generations.” It goes on to sing their praises for a bit before mentioning those who leave behind no memorial, who “have become as though they had not been born, and so have their children after them.” No one wants to be forgotten, of course, and the author of Ecclesiasticus is reassuring on that score: “But these also were godly men, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten….” Not forgotten? How so? If we perish as though we not lived, who will remember us? Quite apart from any digital profile that may live on after us, we will abide forever where we have always been, rooted in the mind of God.