Neuroscience says that the power of faces is unique and crucial: should Facebook be allowed to effectively own it, with or without regulation?

Audrey Hepburn, Jiddu Krishnamurti, younger and older

Two striking 20th-century faces: Audrey Hepburn at 24, top L, and at 60, bottom R; Jiddu Krishnamurti at 15, top R, and at 86, bottom L

Law-making ¯politicians in Facebook’s home country are wrangling with Silicon Valley over whether regulations from Washington slated for drafting this year, putting Big Tech under some degree of pan-U.S. leash control — for the first time ever — should exert a tighter or looser grip on these companies.

That is beside the point. Especially in the case of Facebook, it is impossible that regulation could — remotely — address the actual need, which is to curtail severely the shaping by mere business executives of the relationship between people and the computer technology with which human lives are ever more subtly enmeshed.

What needs protection from the naked, exclusive pursuit of profit is the co-evolutionary future of men and machines. That this has so far been left to commerce defies belief.

Facebook began as an American college student’s invention of a new form of amusement — organising on a digital platform a sort of beauty or sex-appeal contest, not as a staged event but a long-playing rating game. Through Mark Zuckerberg’s entrepreneurial shrewdness — and a lot of lucky stumbling-upon — a businessman created a corporation made unprecedentedly powerful by exploiting an absolutely basic biological element in human attachment to other human beings. 

This, according to science, is the power of faces.

‘We have modules for learning to interpret facial expressions — parts of our brain learn that and nothing else.’ So we were told in 1993 in The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, a book in which the science writer Matt Ridley theorised about the links between our reproductive instincts and the evolution of our species. ‘It is possible that facial features are a clue to genetic or nurtured quality, or to character and personality,’ he wrote. One of the scientists he quoted described the face as ‘the most information-dense part of the body,’ — and through research in the intervening quarter-century, the evidence justifying that remark has only multiplied.

Should any traditional capitalist enterprise own that power? Even one whose ethics could be above reproach — unlike Facebook’s? From the perspective of our species, it is elemental power equivalent to effective ownership of the dominion of air, or water, fire or earth.

Surely this — above all else — is what needs to be impressed on legislators and policy advisers in every government weighing Big Tech’s role in society? Not as just an elegant philosophical perspective, but at the crux of the matter? 

The Age of Insight (2012), by the Austrian-American neuroscientist and Nobelist Eric Kandel, should be required reading for everyone involved in deciding what do about Facebook’s annexation of face-power. Extracts:

The brain mechanisms underlying face recognition emerge early in infancy. From birth onward, infants are much more likely to look at faces than at other objects. In addition, infants have a predilection for imitating facial expressions, a finding that is consistent with the central role that face perception plays in social interaction.


Instead of trying to process a face from a pattern of lines, as it does other visual images, the brain uses a template matching approach. It reconstructs the face from a more abstract, higher-order figural primitive: an oval containing two dots (for eyes, a vertical line between those dots (for the nose), and a horizontal line below them (for the mouth). Thus, perception of a face requires less deconstruction and reconstruction of an image than perception of other objects does.


Moreover, the brain is specialized to deal with faces. Unlike other complex forms, faces are easily recognizable only when they are right side up.


Faces are by far the most important category of object recognition … We approach people as friends or avoid them as foes by recognizing them, and we infer their emotional state from their facial expression.

The real question that legislators have to tackle has been raised repeatedly on this site: isn’t it time for Facebook to be owned by its users? (See: ‘The media establishment has begun to see sense in a user-owned Facebook …‘.)

The alternative of public control by turning technology giants into public utilities would be an invitation to governments to replace unregulated Big Tech in the Big Brother role into which Silicon Valley has been growing — alarming many of us, rightly, if the quality and sources of answers to the search engine query, ‘Is Big Tech Big Brother?’ are any guide.

2 thoughts on “Neuroscience says that the power of faces is unique and crucial: should Facebook be allowed to effectively own it, with or without regulation?

  1. Those in power are often described as “faceless”. In 10 years our cyborg overlords may not feel the need to possess simulacra of faces perhaps. In many sci fi films (Westworld, Terminator) the rogue robot will at some point have its face burned/knocked/blasted off, to reveal the mechanical framework beneath. This usually makes the creature scarier. Frankenstein’s monster has a combination-aggregate sort of face, in most cine-incarnations.
    In a Philip K Dick story the androids will usually have perfect faces, or perfectly imperfect faces, allowing them to pass successfully as human (meaning they are as good at the surrounding humans at emulating and impersonating often not-deeply-felt facially expressed emotion).
    Are fake faces on androids better than fake faces on human beings? Perhaps there is a greater ontological honesty inherent in a fake face on an android, than on a human?
    At least, we are less shocked at the androids artificiality, and more disappointed in a human’s.
    Questions questions all around and never a drop to answer with…
    We speak of “facing the future”…but what if the future approaches us from behind, and itself Janus-like has two (or more) faces?
    We humans communicate now on Facebook, instead of communicating face-to-face.
    When the androids take over (fully and officially) perhaps they will get together on Chipbook, where they will use avatars of their internal processor hardware chips and circuitry with which to relate to one another (and themselves), as they may identify more fully with such icons than with the plasticity of “faces”? The Chip will then be the focal point of fetishisation, and starting point for the new religions to follow. No doubt Android Dickens-bots, suitably face-plated/bearded for the sake of form, will chronicle the ascent of it all, but will any of even all that be real progress?
    We must “face” up to it perhaps, all progress is merely movement on the surface of a disturbed stream, like a thought passing rapidly across the nervous-system-supported tissues of a human face, only to relapse again the next moment into a rubbery, vapid vacuity, which to the inner terror of android and human alike, may (or may not) truly underlie the mechanics of everything we see.

  2. You said:

    In 10 years our cyborg overlords may not feel the need to possess simulacra of faces perhaps. In many sci fi films (Westworld, Terminator) the rogue robot will at some point have its face burned/knocked/blasted off, to reveal the mechanical framework beneath.’

    Spot-on, John, and even you might not realise the degree to which you are. I couldn’t believe my eyes, reading about a Channel Four ‘dating’ programme mentioned in an article this weekend.

    Apparently, faces are no longer of any interest to some people selecting partners. The neuroscience findings I’ve highlighted in this post must be entirely beside the point, for them.

    The John Lanchester/ article overlaps with your many-angled Orwell-Huxley-Ionesco comment here in October, on ‘Big Brother takes an alarming step past watching us …

    Luckily — for this piece — they’ve taken down their paywall, so you can see exactly what I’m referring to:

    Orwell v Huxley: whose dystopia are we living in today?

    Huxley would have looked at our world of dating apps and sexualised mass entertainment — and perhaps especially shows such as Love Island and Naked Attraction — and awarded his predictions a solid A+. (Naked Attraction is a Channel Four dating show on which people choose a partner based on whether or not they like the look of their genitals. The audience sees the genitals too. When you describe this show to people, they often think they’ve misunderstood, and that you can’t mean that people stand with their faces concealed and their genitals exposed and are chosen by a prospective partner on that basis — but that’s exactly what happens. I recommend this programme to anyone who doesn’t agree that norms around sexuality have changed.) Orwell saw a future in which the state discouraged sex. In this respect he was completely wrong and Huxley was completely right.

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