Guarded Looks

Sunglasses — the original anti-facial-recognition technology — are both a reasonable defense against surveillance and an antisocial gesture that may encourage it

This spring, I moved back to Salt Lake City, and when I zig-zag around the city on foot, I keep my sunglasses steadfastly on wherever I go. When packs of stuffy, suited men stare into my face as I cut through Temple Square, my big, dark black shades deflect their attempts to make me out. When I dip into the grocery store, my sunglasses and headphones insulate me from the chaos of lunchtime and the glances of people scurrying around the prepared food bar. It’s satisfying to be impassive in the face of other passing strangers, particularly men — who look and look and look at women in public. The sunglasses crystallize a refusal to engage, a refusal of presence. And though satisfying, this antisocial posturing which sunglasses aid is merely defensive, a withdrawal from a chaotic public that only feels like control.

Sunglasses constructed a gaze of control over machines and oneself. But this façade doesn’t limit the real vulnerability of a body in public

Over decades, the uncanniness of a shaded, guarded gaze has been normalized as an appropriate social evasion, priming us for taking on new, more high-tech forms of defense against a world that is endlessly shifting, that feels uncertain and unsafe. The worn-in familiarity of sunglasses prepares us for adopting more elaborate defenses even as it naturalizes the idea that we should expect to have to hide our faces in public. This is evident in the media’s enthusiastic reporting on seemingly progressive, high-tech and artistic DIY anti-facial-recognition tactics that highlight their potential for fashionability, as if there were the main stakes. Though this 2017 Quartz article admits that an average pair of sunglasses and some kind of head cover should be enough to thwart current facial recognition tech, it still focuses on “Hyperface,” an experimental, wearable camouflage pattern meant to especially flummox it. In a listicle on the topic, Business Insider notes that though many designs for deflecting facial recognition are still “niche,” they could be the next big thing in “functional fashion.” Some are fairly familiar, like Jazzy Specs and Reflectacles — both produce eyeglasses and sunglasses, respectively, that embed additional features to thwart surveillance cameras. Others are more outlandish and fashion-forward, whether they disrupt facial symmetry with military camouflage-inspired makeup, shoot out facial-recognition-bamboozling infrared light, or consist of simple, chic little pieces of headgear. Zach Blas’s Facial Weaponization Suite — more or less a paper bag over the head  — is meant to go beyond fashion statement and create a space of potential revolt against surveillance. Leonardo Selvaggio also offered a politicized approach: As detailed in this New York Times article, he distributed masks of his face so anyone could adopt his white male visage and defy bias in how surveillance cameras work. The project, he said, is meant to “flood the system with weird, incongruous data.” He urges people to “wear someone else’s likeness or lend out your own.”

Some of these counter-technologies may amount to wishful thinking. This New Scientist article warns that facial recognition tech will soon no longer rely on spotting facial points like the eyes, mouth, and nose to identify someone already in a database. But regardless of their efficacy, the continual influx of tactics and blueprints for evasion suggests a widespread preoccupation with how to navigate public space with privacy, rearticulating the fantasy of seeing without being seen. As understandable as the wish to evade uninvited surveillance and stay out of tracking databases may be, the mainstreaming of facial recognition technology may be advanced by these individualistic attempts to deflect it. Each gimmicky mask or pair of sunglasses promises the maintenance of privacy and personal empowerment through defensive mechanisms at the expense of a potentially more impactful collective resistance. The uncanny, unreadable, and unrecognizable faces we present in public repel not only cameras but each other.

Sunglasses and the newer forms of anti-facial recognition technology draw on a heritage of anti-social modes of looking. In her 2013 novel Cool Shades, Vanessa Brown traces it back to the aloofness of 19th century dandies like Beau Brummell, who enacted the indifferent demeanor common to aristocrats, often assuming, in the words of novelist Thomas Henry Lister, a “calm and wandering gaze which examines without recognition, neither fixes itself nor will be fixed, is not interested or diverted by anything.” In Du dandysme et de George Brummell (1845), Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly described such a gaze as a response to the “agitations of modernity.” At the turn of the century, amid a fast-evolving industrial world advancing toward its first mechanized war, those agitations came in the form of a growing visual culture — or rather, a culture taken over by visuals: reproducible art, more accessible consumer goods, faster fashion cycles, advertisements, and diversifying cities full of people to see or be seen by in every direction. While dandies typically fashioned a blasé expression to signal both a detached cool and an apathetic resignation, Brummell’s version of the look made him appear, according to Barbey d’Aurevilly, as the “futile sovereign of a futile world.”

Sunglasses, when they became popular, constructed this gaze automatically for the wearer. Their immediate air of cool poise derived in part from their association with cutting-edge technology (they were worn by fighter pilots in World War I) and mastery of machines (auto and motorcycle racers wore them as well). Sunglasses thereby gave wearers an air of measured competence and risk tolerance in response to the chaos, speed, and stress of the modern world — the kind necessary to engage in aerial combat or to put the pedal to the medal. Sunglasses constructed a gaze of mastery and control over machines and oneself.

To look or act edgy is simply a product of being on edge

This mastery is, of course, a façade. It doesn’t limit the real vulnerability of the body in public. Proof of this can be found in the noir figure of the femme fatale, another classic wearer of sunglasses. The femme fatale is an inaccessibly mysterious figure whose potential to be dangerous can seem to protect her from danger herself. Sunglasses, in turn, can seem to allow wearers to participate in that preemptive security — but whatever satisfaction I may personally feel at frustrating male gazes, I know that men could still harass, attack, or even kill me if they wanted to in spite of my coolness, or maybe because of it. Theirs is an entitled gaze, no matter my attempts to thwart it. The men are always there, staring, and so I am always on defense. To look or act edgy is simply a product of being on edge.

The potential ubiquity of facial recognition technology takes the inescapable discomfort women experience from the male gaze and generalizes it. And just as sunglasses don’t abolish the prerogatives of the male gaze, neither will crafty evasions undo the prerogatives of the states and corporations building out facial recognition technology. Their gaze will be constantly there, searching for faces to cull information from. To adopt facial-recognition-deflecting sunglasses as a wearable defense — a low-tech defense against other people and a high-tech one against intelligent machines — is to embrace the “futile sovereignty” in the contemporary surveillance-ridden position.

It wasn’t just Brummell’s detached worldview that made him a “sovereign of futility” but also his literal view: his putting on of a gaze that foreclosed the possibility of solidarity and turned him into a singular subject reaffirming the modern world’s coldness by offering up coldness himself. Today, sunglasses achieve the same effect. Brown identifies the self-cancelling qualities of donning sunglasses, which attract the other’s gaze only to deflect it, conveying nothing.

The person who dons sunglasses is perfectly poised to be a flaneur, a figure Baudelaire described as being “at the very center of the world, and yet, the unseen of the world” — witnessing, marveling, staring, but never becoming involved. The reason for this lack of involvement, Walter Benjamin argues in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” is that the world is saturated with too much to see. To take in each passing pedestrian, each layer of loud traffic, each vibrant advertisement, sign, or shop window available to the eye would be to “shock” the psyche. The flaneur, then, is a position from which one can try to cope, “distancing oneself by turning reality into a phantasmagoria” — a world of consumerist pleasure that affords an illusion of cohesiveness. As Susan Buck-Morss argues in “Aesthetics and Anesthetics,” the chaotic fragments of reality can thereby become a diverting illusion of wholeness for a flaneur — an anaesthetic against the modern world’s shocks. This kind of narrow, selective vision presages another phantasmagoric scene: our phones. There we follow, unfollow, block, and mute users and their content, apparently curating what we see and don’t see. We can double down on this selective vision — whether being applied to the world on the screen or beyond it — by using headphones to block the sounds around us in favor of music or the babble of a podcast, or merely to signal our potential preoccupation with something that no one else can hear.

This process of avoidance and supposed choice within the phantasmagoria becomes second nature. The self-centeredness of anti-facial recognition tech can yield similar effects, offering similar illusions of control that reinforce the status quo distribution of social risk. In “The Right to Hide?” Torin Monahan points out that it is viable for white men to walk around a city wearing a mask, meanwhile, black people are consistently viewed with suspicion and treated with harassment for donning a simple hoodie. The designs for wearable anti-surveillance tech are defeatist by admitting, as the artist Selvaggio does, that “Surveillance is here, and it’s here to stay.” Rather than engaging critically with the reasons for and consequences of surveillance, he’d rather we take on the more abstract task of forgetting about exclusive identities altogether by putting on mask versions of his own face. Blas, the artist behind the trippy paper-bag masks, gets at this in another way by envisioning the complete erasure of identity differences — everyone as no one.

Today, sunglasses achieve the effect of reaffirming the modern world’s coldness by offering up coldness itself

Blas’s Facial Weaponization Suite exists in a vacuum where there aren’t already people who do cover their faces on a regular basis — Muslim women, for instance, who participate in veiling practices, particularly those that cover most of the face, such as the wearing of niqabs and burqas. And despite their obscured faces, veiling does not make their identities disappear. In “Veiling and the Production of Gender and Space in a Town in North India,” Janaki Abraham demonstrates how the veiling practices of some Muslim and Hindu women change according to circumstances — social status (caste), one’s neighborhood, marriage status, whether one has children, if one is around or in the neighborhood of in-laws or blood family — and these changes are part of what distinguish one neighborhood from the next. Face covering can articulate social identities as well as obscure them; it can prop up the rules and boundaries of societies, not necessarily dissolve them. To cover up is not to be unseen. Social systems of vision still work despite and because of blockades like the veil.

The likelihood of either Blas’s or Selvaggio’s methods of anti-surveillance tech becoming mainstreamed seems unlikely. But the way they respond to the problem of surveillance does exemplify the impulse of the privileged to value the isolated and personal viewpoint of a flaneur over exposure to the potential chaos of difference and collectivity.

If the consumerist phantasmagoria is meant to keep people appeased and distracted, then surveillance technology could be seen as essential to totalizing that false reality, using the information it gathers to seal any cracks — to continue to fill our vision with more ads, personalized products, wellness activities and other optimized, personal data-filled junk and keep us captivated, or captive. Unpleasant views — the cracks — are papered over. Visible evidence of inequality and poverty are met with gentrification and action against homeless camps.

Taking up defensive mechanisms like high-tech sunglasses to resist surveillance technology, which seeks to use our data to further seal us off from any reality besides that which it supports, is not defense at all. If anything it merely upkeeps the same old back and forth between oppressor and oppressed. What is needed is confrontation, which would rely upon a rejection of flat, anesthetized vision in favor of reinvestment in analytical, critical looking reunited with the rest of our senses.

Monahan cites the Million Hoodies Movement for Justice an example of solidarity (with Trayvon Martin) as well as a practice in illegibility and the right to look back into the face of violence — to dissect it, to be critical of it, to hold those responsible for it accountable. Protest and resistance tactics such as protest songs and dances, the shooting of lasers into a line of cops, and the dismantlement of actual surveillance cameras are all ways to also use senses beyond vision by using our voices and our bodies to carry them out. More importantly, doing these things together, as a group, invests our senses in the people around us — in the danger that comes with the moment of protest, being surrounded by and aware of others is vital to safety and success. To get to that moment of danger, which is a necessary step on the way to any meaningful confrontation with surveillance and oppression, we must first lower some of our defenses.

Erin Moore is a writer based in Salt Lake City, Utah. She likes to write about visual media and culture, technology, and identity, and works as the music editor for SLC Weekly. Her favorite things to do are listen to rock music and read theory — sometimes at once.