Do you suffer from automobile face? What about airplane face? Or moving-picture face? These are just some examples from a strange historical pattern: For more than a century, people have claimed that new technologies are physically deforming our faces — and we still say it today. (No, you don’t have “tech neck”!) On this episode, we explore where this fear comes from, what it means, and what happens when the fear really does come true. Time to put on your podcast face!
Jason Feifer: This is Pessimists Archive, a history show about why people resist new things. I'm Jason Feifer. You know what I love most about old newspapers? It's the mix of stories. Look at any one page from any one day, and the collection there tells you a bigger story about how people felt at the time, what was important to them, what scared them. For example, let's pick, page eight of the Topeka State Journal of Topeka, Kansas from July 22nd, 1899. There's a story about Chinese cannibals supposedly eating a Mexican child and another one about a horse race where the winning horse was named Wondering Jew.
There's a report of a diarrhea epidemic that's sweeping through South Florida, and I grew up in South Florida, so that sounds about right, and there's an ad for the cleaning brand, Sapolio, which says, "A handful of dirt may be a house full of shame." But the most interesting report on this page is about a woman identified only as Second Avenue Lady. It's a short piece of writing, just nine paragraphs long reprinted from the Detroit Free Press, and it paints the scene of a woman who's telling her friends and neighbors what it's like to ride an automobile.
Because this was a very rare experience at the time. The earliest versions of cars had only hit the streets a few years earlier and the Model T Ford wouldn't come along until 1908. Again, this newspaper story is from 1899. That makes Second Avenue Lady one of the earliest adopters of the car. Her friends and neighbors all want to know what it's like to ride on this new machine. And she says, "It's delightful. I can't describe the sensation," she says, "but I imagine that it's very like that of sailing through the air on wings."
But this does not impress the friends and neighbors. Afterwards, they walk away grumbling about how much she's changed since you became a fancy car rider. Here, according to the Detroit free press was the conversation between two of them.
Speaker 2: You'd think that she invented the horseless carriage and owned the only one in use instead of taking a few rides by special invitation. And did you notice that she's getting the automobile face?
Speaker 3: Indeed, I did. Awful, wasn't it. Looked scared, didn't she? As though she were afraid you were going to have a collision or run over something, or upset and get wrecked.
Speaker 2: Oh, that's it exactly. I'd rather walk all my life than get that terrible automobile cast of countenance.
Jason Feifer: The automobile face. This wasn't just the insult of a caddy neighbor. Newspapers everywhere were reporting on the automobile face. They described it as a kind of medical condition, as in you would ride in a car and the experience would leave your face permanently changed. And what did that look like? In 1897, The Black Hills Union of South Dakota said that, "The mouth became set, rigid, immovable, and stonily grim."
The Montgomery advertiser of Alabama in 1897 described the automobile face as positively startling. Even the earliest famous drivers claim to fall victim to it. In 1902, the race car driver, Henri Fournier said ...
Voice Clip (Henri Fournier): The automobile face is no joke. It is this a startling presentation in the human physiology of the record of thousands of dangerous past, or rather, close escapes from danger.
Jason Feifer: This would be an interesting little side note to history, except it's more than that. As we, at Pessimists Archive searched through old newspapers to see how people react to new technologies, we saw a pattern innovations kept being recast as a physical malady of the face. Something displayed for everyone to see and that made us just a little less human. To give you sense of just how broad this trend is, let's take a quick chronological tour of just some of history's many faces. In 1897, the Wilkes-Barre Times record described newspaper face as someone ...
Voice Clip (Wilkes-Barre Times): Whose features are sharpened by needless nervous friction.
Jason Feifer: In 1902, The Times of Richmond, Virginia reported on the terror of ping-pong face.
(The Times of Richmond, Virginia): The typical ping-pong enthusiasts already begins to look as if life's game consisted of a succession of small Globes whizzing past her incompetent racket.
Jason Feifer: In 1904, the Chicago Tribune reported on elevator face.
Voice Clip (Chicago Tribune): It is the elevator boy's boast that he has discovered that women have two faces, a natural face and an elevator face.
Jason Feifer: As you can see, sometimes the face is an actual deformity, and other times, it's just something unpleasant that someone does when they're interacting with a new innovation. Three years later in 1907, for example, the Lancaster Intelligencer of Pennsylvania ran a piece headlined the subway face, which describes how commuters become pale and twitchy.
Voice Clip ( Lancaster Intelligencer): The woman who had an attractive face at 96th Street has changed. Of course, there are still traces of beauty, but they have unruffled.
Jason Feifer: A year later, we're back to physical deformities. In 1908, airplane rides became available to the public, and the Chicago Examiner describes the passengers as developing what it calls airplane face, which is ...
Voice Clip (Chicago Examiner): Squinting eyes, overgrown nose and head bulging between the ears.
Jason Feifer: By 1915, as entertainment options evolved, we even reached moving picture face. Here is the Baltimore Evening Sun.
Voice Clip (Baltimore Evening Sun): Have you ever noticed the moving picture of face? In a moving picture play, a country girl will have counts and dukes at her feet, begging her to accept the best looking and richest one and permit the others to drown their sorrows in the nearest deep water. The moving picture face will look at a scene like this unconcernedly and continue to chew gum.
Jason Feifer: We still hear versions of that today. Just think of all the organizations that campaign against television or video games. They always argue that children are becoming desensitized to sex or violence. That's the problem, they say. As it turns out, that argument goes as far back as the dawn of movies. Here's a little more from the Baltimore Sun in 1915.
Voice Clip (Baltimore Evening Sun): A hero desires to stop a train on which a villain is escaping. The hero grabs the locomotive running at 90 miles an hour and stops it. But the moving picture face does not express either wonder or surprise. So much that is wonderful, indeed has happened in moving pictures that nothing surprises the moving picture fan.
Jason Feifer: But here's the most important thing to know about all these faces, they are not just a silly quirk of the past. They are still with us today. Even now, we take a new technology, we add the word face. We give it some unfortunate physical characteristics and we scare people. And all you have to do to find an example of this is put on your television face.
Voice Clip (Baltimore Evening Sun): Do you suffer from jowls?
Speaker 11: Well, have you ever heard of smartphone face? I wonder if it's because you got your little Blackberry smartphone or whatever, and you're down here like this, and that's causing your face to droop.
Speaker 12: The way you use your smartphone could be changing the way you look, giving you something called tech neck.
Speaker 13: Sun damage, diet and stress can all wreak havoc on your skin, but can looking down at your smartphone really cause premature aging?
Jason Feifer: You know why people should gasp like that? They should gas because television producers are willing to broadcast irresponsible garbage, but here we are. This isn't just some frivolous stupidity, these new segments and others report that, because of fears over smartphone face and tech neck, people are going to cosmetic surgeons. This impacts people's lives.
Voice Clip (Nicholas Cage and John Travolta): Doctors in the US and the UK reports seeing an increasing number of younger men and women seeking treatments for saggy, jowls and double chins.
Jason Feifer: What are we seeing here? Let's call the whole trend innovation face. After we, at Pessimists Archive, discovered innovation phase, we also developed curiosity face. Where did this come from and why is it so persistent? We had to find out. Usually, on this show, we pick one innovation and we go back to its beginning to understand why people resisted it. But on this episode, we're doing things a little different. We're going to look at one recurring fear, the fear that innovation physically changes our faces, because the more we researched this, the more we realized that this is a complex subject that goes far beyond a few silly anecdotes.
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All right, we're back. As you heard just a moment ago, this is a big and broad subject with many, many faces. I mean, we have got more face offs here than Nicholas cage and John Travolta.
Voice Clip (Nicholas Cage and John Travolta): It's like looking at a mirror, only not.
Jason Feifer: We've got more faces than the faceless man's Hall of Faces.
Speaker 15: [inaudible 00:11:29] good ones to serve for self. Yeah, we serve the many face God.
Jason Feifer: And even more faces than the greatest of all He-Man action figures, man he faces.
Voice clip (He-Man): I'm man-he faces with [inaudible 00:11:44].
Speaker 17: Oh no.
Jason Feifer: Oh, and we've got ... All right, you get the point, no matter references. Listen, we have a lot of ground to cover, so here's how we're going to do it. I've picked three faces to look closely at, three faces that represent the key insights into this phenomenon. Three phases that, once you gaze into their eyes, you will better understand our collective fears of change. To start, let's look at them individually, and we begin with the mother of them all, the face that is credited with starting this entire thing, the face of faces, the original sin of faces, and here it is. (singing).
Yes, bicycle face, so many articles about faces, including the ones that we cited earlier in the episode use bicycle face as their point of reference. It's as if everything that came after is in some way a nod to the original. Remember that 1897 piece I quoted about newspaper face, it actually began by saying that newspaper face, "doesn't out rival the bicycle face, but the two belong in the same class." That 1908 story about airplane face actually kicks off the same way, "Everybody remembers that famous bicycle face," it says.
Now, we have already done a pessimists archive episode on the bicycle, which included a quick mention of bicycle face, but it seems a deeper investigation is required here. Bicycle face appears to be kind of like Watergate in that forevermore, a scandal could be a gate and a technology fear could be a face. So, how did that happen? Why did bicycles become associated with faces at all? To answer that, let's start with a super quick history of the bicycle itself.
Voice Clip (Bicycle History): Where there's a wheel, there's a way, but with bicycles, the way has been rather torturous, as this [crosstalk 00:13:23].
Jason Feifer: The bicycle began life in the early 18 hundreds as a pretty stupid looking innovation. It was basically a seat between two wheels with no pedals and no shocks. That was totally impractical. You just scooted your way down the street. Then inventors set out to improve the thing which took many forms. For example, it eventually evolved into the penny far thing, which is that crazy looking thing with a giant front wheel that was designed for shock absorption, but ...
Voice Clip (Bicycle History): Life became just one mad world.
Jason Feifer: Because if you fell off a penny far thing, it was a long way down. But by the 1880s, victory was insight. It came in the form of a new bicycle called the safety bicycle. It had pedals, shocks, was lower to the ground. It is basically what we know today as the bicycle. This thing was great for getting around town and getting off?
Sarah Hollenbeck: There was the idea that a woman riding a regular bicycle seat was masturbating, that she was getting some sexual pleasure.
Jason Feifer: This is Sarah.
Sarah Hollenbeck: My name is Sarah Hollenbeck, and I'm an associate professor of English at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
Jason Feifer: Sarah wrote a book called Claiming the Bicycle: Women Rhetoric and Technology in 19th Century America. The story of the bicycle's adoption is very much also a story about women's evolving place in society. The bicycle was a liberating tool for women, who, until then, had very limited ways to get around by themselves and so it was quickly adopted by a feminist movement of the time called the New Woman. This, it seemed, sent the more or less to the day into a tizzy and amplified all the concerns people had about the bicycle. There was talk of the bicycle causing exhaustion or infertility or insanity, or even making people homicidal.
But above all, it seemed, there was a lot of talk about people's faces. The condition known as bicycle face was never exactly defined, but everyone described it as a kind of hardening.
Sarah Hollenbeck: This is actually from a British article called Women as an Athlete, and it was written by a doctor. She's one of the few doctors who participated in the bicycle face idea, but she said that she had met this cyclist named Clara. She was upset when she saw her after becoming a cyclist, because she said, "The haze, the elusiveness, the subtle suggestion of the face are gone. Now one could paint her portrait with ease. Formerly, only the most ingenious and sympathetic art could have reproduced her subtle and mysterious charm."
Jason Feifer: Articles at the time advanced all sorts of theories on what's causing bicycle face. Some suggested it was the constant wind in your face that just sort of stretched it out. Others said it had to do with the unnatural act of learning to balance on the bicycle, that it was such a strain on the brain that it caused headaches and nervous exhaustion and a permanent tightening of the facial muscles. Okay, a lot of this follows familiar themes. People are concerned about new technologies and people are concerned about women having access to new technologies.
We have seen that a million times before, but why did it focus so heavily on the face? Why not bicycle back or bicycle legs or bicycle feet? For that, Sarah says we have to look at another thing that was happening at the exact same time that the bicycle became popularized. The late 1800s also saw the first big boom in consumer magazines.
Sarah Hollenbeck: So, they were kind of creating this shared national culture that hadn't existed before, where people all over the country were able to have access to these fashion and beauty ideals and recreational objects through these magazines.
Jason Feifer: What kind of beauty ideals were showing up in these magazines? Well, obviously it wasn't the feminists known as the New Woman, but they were in there in contrast to someone else.
Sarah Hollenbeck: Cartoonists depicting the new woman would have a very masculine woman standing next to a bicycle, often with a skinny little husbands doing the dishes next to her, something like that. Whereas the Gibson girl, she was sort of standing there holding a flower next to her bicycle or bathing at the seashore with her children.
Jason Feifer: About that Gibson girl, the Gibson girl was an 1890s beauty ideal based on the work of an artist named Charles Dana Gibson, who illustrated a lot of popular magazines. He'd drawn these tall waifish young women with their hair loosely swept up on top of their heads. They were carefree and harmless. They were like VSCO girls today, and they were often drawn with bicycles. When I heard that, it felt like a real puzzle. I mean, the bicycle was often associated with feminists and was being accused of causing all this physical and moral damage.
But it was now also being associated with the Gibson girl, this form of modern woman that the public found lovely and unthreatening. How do you explain that? Sarah says there's some economics at play. I mean, the new consumer magazines were also discovering a new revenue model called advertising, and a lot of bicycle companies were taking out ads. That meant the magazines didn't want to demonize the bikes. Instead, they could position themselves as being part of an ongoing conversation and solution, teaching people how to ride them properly and use them appropriately and so on. As Sarah explained this, I got to thinking, maybe the fears of bicycle phase weren't part of a war against the bicycle. Maybe they were part of a war for the bicycle.
It sounds like the kind of broad culture wasn't trying to stop or expected to stop women from having access to the bicycle, but they did seem to want to steer it towards a more familiar, less threatening version of women riding the bicycle.
Sarah Hollenbeck: Yes, absolutely. That's exactly what I would say.
Jason Feifer: That's interesting all by itself. It's like you recognize that change is going to happen and you want it to happen on your terms.
Sarah Hollenbeck: Right. Exactly. That's a perfect way to characterize what happened.
Jason Feifer: Do you think it happened?
Sarah Hollenbeck: You mean, do you think it happened that they were able to kind of temper the change so that it loosely happened on the terms of the dominant culture?
Jason Feifer: Correct.
Sarah Hollenbeck: It's always yes and no.
Jason Feifer: I mean, our cultural definition of beauty today is still pretty close to the Gibson girl, not the new woman, but the bicycle did have a lasting impact on women's mobility. For what it's worth, Sarah says there really was some truth to bicycle.
Sarah Hollenbeck: It's just not specific to ... You could would get those effects doing anything outdoors or anything athletic.
Jason Feifer: The problem wasn't the bicycle, it was the sun shining endlessly on the faces of people who had mostly spent their lives indoors. Bicycle face might've just been sunburn. Now, there is a little more to this story, but we're going to come back to it later after we've learned about the two other faces that followed. For now, let's put away the bicycle and move on to our second face, which is ... (singing).
Yes, radio face. Although the very phrase radio face seems silly and antiquated, you may be surprised to see how many connections this has to our modern era. To start, of course, we have debates over the safety of on-air communication today. We had the fears of cell phones causing brain cancer in the early 2000s, and we have activists organizing against 5G, because they think that it's millimeter waves are going to damage our bodies, which to be clear, there is no scientific evidence to support that. But back in the 1920s at the dawn of radio, people had a different concern.
It wasn't about unnatural radio waves. It was about the unnatural act of listening to something so captivating. Here's a story from the Ottawa Journal of Canada in 1925. The headline was, Women in England Fear Radio Face.
Voice Clip (The Ottawa Journal): Women are in fear of developing wireless wrinkles. Concentration night after night by the fireside listening in closely to the sounds coming from the loudspeaker or sitting with earphones jammed against the ears is likely to give women a radio face, they think, the strain of trying to catch every word of wireless broadcast, constantly puckers the lines around the woman's forehead and draws more lines around the sides of her mouth.
Jason Feifer: This very serious condition does not take long to set in. Women will see the difference after just a few months of listening to paper reports, and then they are changed.
Voice Clip (The Ottawa Journal): Their habitual expressions, instead of being alert and intelligent, have become transformed into the look of the perpetual listeners in mechanical and placid.
Jason Feifer: Which is interesting, right? Because now, instead of this sounding like today's 5G concerns, it actually sounds like today's concerns that tech companies make their products too addictive. Our brains, they can't handle the infinite scroll and the constant updates of likes, people say, we're powerless against this addictive technology. And yet, we can look back to 1925 when people were worried that radio was so absorbing that it was literally deforming women's faces. How exactly did people start to worry about radio face? The answer might actually tell us something about where today's tech fears come from too. Let's get oriented.
Donna Halper: Before we even get to a radio face, let's also talk about a radio thumb, which supposedly, if you twisted the dials of your radio too much, because this is the era before digital, so you're twisting a lot of dials and supposedly you would get a sore thumb from doing that.
Jason Feifer: This is Donna helper, an associate professor of media studies at Lesley University. The thing is, back when the radio was introduced, thumbs were not the only thing feeling a little sore.
Donna Halper: Bottom line, radio comes along and newspapers are worried. Why are newspapers worried? Well, because radio can bring you to an event in real time, which has never been possible before. Some of the earliest broadcasts are news events, sporting events, live concerts. Donna, what's your point? My point is the newspapers, fearing competition, figured, hmm, how can we make radio look bad? Now, obviously not all newspapers felt this way, but in some cities, yeah, they did. So, they tried to find stories that would cast doubt on the benefits of radio. So, you start reading, in the early '20, stories about radio destroying conversation, like people will no longer talk to each other. They'll just be sitting and listening to the radio.
Jason Feifer: This may sound familiar too, by the way, just find anything written by MIT Professor, Sherry Turkle, author of a book called Reclaiming Conversation. Say the piece that she wrote in The New York Times headlined, The Flight From Conversation, where she argues that by using communication technology today, "We have sacrificed conversation for mere connection." But okay, back to how the 1920s were ruining conversation.
Donna Halper: Or radio making people antisocial. They won't go out of their house. They'll just be sitting there listening to the radio or radio getting rid of libraries. Because I mean, if everybody's just listening to the radio, they won't be reading. Now, there's no research behind any of this stuff. Okay? None whatsoever. These are people's opinions.
Jason Feifer: But they're powerful and compelling opinions, and they're amplified by a very willing newspaper industry. At the time, newspapers had these people called exchange editors whose jobs were to read other papers and identify stories that they'd like to republish. This is basically how something can go viral back then. If something interesting shows up in one paper and enough exchange editors around the country like it, suddenly, this one local story gets national exposure. Back then, the exchange editor saw something about radio that they really, really liked.
Donna Halper: In the middle of 1925, in Berlin, like Germany, there's an article that suddenly appears from The Associated Press. Now, The Associated Press had a love, hate relationship with radio since the early '20. In fact, the head of The Associated Press had told newspaper journalists to not go on the radio.
Jason Feifer: The article from The Associated Press said that women in Berlin are getting radio face. They're listening so intensely to the radio that their faces are becoming hardened and wrinkled. Dozens of newspapers picked this up, which got people all over the world concerned about radio. I mean, remember the version of this report you heard earlier, it was about how women in London were afraid of this. Once all this happens, another industry sees opportunity too.
Donna Halper: If you wait a couple of days, you see that there are cosmetic companies that immediately jump on and say, we have the cure for radio face.
Jason Feifer: Yes, we're witnessing the perfect combination of protectionism and opportunism. A combination that will repeat itself throughout history and is really perfectly designed to create and amplify fears of new things. An incumbent industry raises concerns about a challenger, and then the third industry validates them because they see an opportunity to profit. What's today's version of this? Well, remember that montage I played in the beginning of the show about smartphone face? Here's one of those clips again.
Voice Clip (Fox News): Is your face beginning to sag? Do you suffer from jowls?
Jason Feifer: That's from Fox News, a major player in the cable TV industry, which show maybe is feeling some pressure from smartphones in the internet. This host brings on a plastic surgeon named, Anthony Youn to talk about smartphone face, and bless this man, because he is here to call it BS.
Voice Clip (Plastic Surgeon): That phenomenon is not true. There's no evidence to suggest that looking at a phone for so many hours a day can cause you to look older. I think it's just a fancy little term that some doctors have made up to try to get a little bit of news, like on a show like this.
Jason Feifer: Yes, on a show like that. Imagine it, someone somewhere watched this man on television and was saved from pursuing elective surgery to cure a made up condition called smartphone face, and this is why talking about this stuff matters. All right, so we had bicycle face kicking this whole thing off, radio face showing us how fears can be weaponized, and now it is time to talk about our third and final face. (singing).
Telephone face. This is my favorite of the three, because in some ways, the fears of telephone face really deed come true, but maybe not in the way people imagined. To understand what all the fuss was about, consider the monumental change that telephones represented. Before the telephone, nobody could come into your home unless you opened the door and physically let them in. But then, the telephone arrived and it was like a portal.
Josh Lauer: It's like an open door and you can't see out before you open it.
Jason Feifer: That's Josh Lauer, an associate professor of media studies at the University of New Hampshire. He makes a good point there, because back before the days of caller ID, you had no idea who was calling you. The phone rang, and if you answered it, you could be talking to anybody.
Josh Lauer: And these voices are coming into the home, so there was anxiety, especially about young male suitors calling young women in the home and not having the traditional supervision that a young women in the respectable posh well home would have to insulate them from those kinds of suitors. You also had cranks calling and harassing people. You have situations where people can call others of a higher class status and just have a direct connection with them.
Jason Feifer: The horrors of cross class conversation, though, it could get amusing. One time, a couple of American tourists couldn't get into Buckingham palace for a tour so they managed to get the King of England on the phone to ask permission. The opportunity for social disaster was about to grow even bigger. Inventors of the early 19 hundreds were claiming to have created seeing telephones. That was what they called video phones, or at least phones that would take and transmit a photograph of the person on the other end of the line.
This fed into a lot of other anxieties that people had at the time, because just like today, new technology was forcing people to rethink the boundaries of privacy.
Josh Lauer: In particular, portable camera, which was being manufactured during the late 19th century and also phonographs, which were a new technology during the late 19th century. Both of these technologies made it easier for people to capture images in one case or capture voice and sound in the other case. Together, this made it so that there were more opportunities where you could be captured doing something candidly that you might not have been captured doing or saying in the past.
Jason Feifer: This is where telephone face comes in. People are still adjusting to having telephones in their homes, and now they're anticipating what will happen when you add some form of photography or video to that, because the way they saw it, the images would be an automatic part of the deal. Being on the phone would mean being photographed as well. You couldn't escape it. To get a sense of what people imagined, check out this 1919 story in The Times Dispatch of Richmond, Virginia. The headline says ...
Voice Clip (The Times Dispatch of Richmond): Will Science Voice the Telephone Face.
Jason Feifer: And it goes on to imagine all these scenarios were being seen could make a telephone call more complex.
Voice Clip (The Times Dispatch of Richmond): Dear, madame, suppose for a moment, the grocer will be as prompt in delivering the articles for which you are waiting. If a scowling, sour telephone face thrust itself into his vision. don't you think so, Mrs. Waterborne will be more likely to forgive your 11th hour declination of her invitation if your telephone face had been trained to conceal the true state of your feelings? If you, dear girl, must call upon that good-looking young man at his office and ask him if he has lost our mislaid address, do you not know the kind of telephone face that may help him find it?
Jason Feifer: This seemed to be a common way of thinking, by the way. Over in Oregon, The Morning Register of Eugene in 1910 also laid out a bunch of terrible telephone face scenarios. For example ...
Voice Clip (Morning Register of Eugene): Seeing all things will cause a chain of embarrassments and complications, especially in the rosy days of courtship, who wants her Reginald calling her early in the morning to discover that those curls he finds so ravishing are the work of curl papers or bristling coding kids?
Jason Feifer: Telephone face wasn't like bicycle or radio face, which is to say it wasn't some deformity caused by using new technology. Instead, telephone face was something private and not meant to be seen. The telephone face was what you looked like when nobody was looking. That is, unless there was no way to hide. As it turns out, there was nothing to fear in the early 1900s. Nobody successfully created a seeing telephone, but a few decades later, in the 1960s, AT&T did accomplish it, and ...
Josh Lauer: The product is famous for being a failure.
Jason Feifer: Sales were dismal. Nobody wanted it. This anxiety actually showed up in The Jetsons once. Remember how the characters are always talking to each other through video phones. One time Jane Jetson's friend calls up ...
Voice Clip (The Jetsons): Calling The Jetsons, Jetsons.
Speaker 28: Oh, it's a phone. I'll get it.
Gloria: Morning, George, dear.
Speaker 28: Morning, Gloria. Honey, it's your friend, Gloria. Do you [inaudible 00:32:15].
Jane: Gloria, oh dear. I can't let her see me looking like this.
Jason Feifer: Jane looks like she's just rolled out of bed. Her eyes are baggy and her hair is a mess. So, she walks over to her closet and picks up what she calls her morning mask. It is a perfectly manicured version of her face, but like moves and everything, which he pops on. Then she's ready to see her friend.
Jane: Hi, Glor.
Gloria: Jane, darling. Don't you look lovely. How do you do it?
Jason Feifer: But then, Gloria needs to sneeze and ...
Gloria: Oh dear, I have to hang up now, Jane.
Jason Feifer: When Gloria sneezes, her own morning mask pops off to reveal a bedraggled Gloria underneath, and so the irony is complete, two women afraid to show each other their real faces over the video phone. In the decades that followed, there would be a lot of debate over whether a video phone is something people would ever want. In 1988, The Associated Press ran a story exploring why nobody wants this thing, and it quoted a guy named a Michael Noll, a professor of communications at the University of Southern California who wants worked for American Telephone and Telegraph Company. He said ...
Voice Clip (Michael Noll): Seeing somebody almost destroys the intimacy of the communication. When we ask an audience, whether they want to see on the phone half or more, say, no.
Jason Feifer: By 1990, a few video phones did make it to market, but use was limited. A study at the time found that when someone was being called on a regular phone, it took them an average of three rings to pick up. But when people were being called on a video phone, it took them 11 rings to pick up because they were busy tidying themselves up. I find this so fascinating because we now live in the future that people once saw is so dystopian. We are all carrying devices that can function as video phones, and with Skype or FaceTime or Zoom or whatever, we are routinely seeing each other's telephone faces. So, what changed?
Why are we so happy to do the thing that once seemed so awful? I'm going to float a theory here, which may sound crazy, but stick with me. I think that we've embraced video phones because we also developed text messages. I know, I told you it sounds crazy, but first, consider how we communicate today. Josh puts it nicely.
Josh Lauer: There's a hierarchy in terms of how you communicate with people and that indicates the level of intimacy or urgency in these kinds of communications.
Jason Feifer: Right. In other words, we don't meet new friends and then start FaceTiming them. We start with texting, which is our most informal mode and then we might progress to phone and then to more intimate modes like video. Now, contrast that to what people of the early 1900s were concerned about. When you look back at those early stories about telephone face, they're all describing situations in which people are not in control. They describe scenarios where people are talking to their new boyfriend or their boss or whatever, and they're visible in a way that they don't want to be.
People had a multitude of relationships, but imagined only one mode of communication. The video phone was the only option, which meant no control. But of course, that is rarely how technology is actually introduced. New uncontrollable things don't wholesale replace old controllable things. Instead, new technologies integrate into an existing and ever-growing ecosystem. They create more options and therefore, even more control. So, here we are in nearly a century later, and we have lots and lots of modes of communication to meet our vast multitude of relationships. We developed the low end of texting and the high end video and many in-between.
This means we feel more in control, which means we no longer have a telephone face that needs to be hidden. Instead, we just have a face, which sometimes we decide to show over the telephone. That's bicycle face, radio face, and telephone face. Together, I think they offer a good survey of how people react to new technologies, but I still wasn't quite sure why the face remained the sticky idea. I mean, okay, it kicked off with the bicycle phase at the dawn of consumer magazines, but why did it stick around so long?
Sharona Pearl: It's not surprising to me at all that people would enact these kinds of reactions or fears into the face itself and a change on the face, because that stands in more broadly for the idea that we are somehow less ourselves and less in control of who it is we are, and that always gets written on changes in the face.
Jason Feifer: That's an expert on the history of how we perceive the face. Really, I am so glad that there's a history niche for everything, and we'll hear a lot more from her in a minute, because as it turns out, this trend of innovation faces isn't just a story about how we react to technology. It's a story about how we judge and understand each other. It's a story of Socrates and Darwin, and a questionable science that lasted thousands of years, which just happened to resurface at a critical time. It is a story about who we are and what we're afraid of becoming. So, it is now time to truly face the face and we're going to do it after this break.
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Jason Feifer: All right, we're back. So, we've done our broad survey of how technology impacts our faces, and now we're going to get to the root of it all. Why are we so focused on our face to begin with?
Sharona Pearl: A lot of these ideas emerge from this notion of physiognomy.
Jason Feifer: That's the woman you heard just before the commercial break.
Sharona Pearl: My name is Sharona Pearl, and I'm an associate professor of medical ethics at Drexel University.
Jason Feifer: Sharona is a historian and theorist of the body and face and has written books that explore how our identities are tied to our faces, as well as a book on the history of that thing you just heard about a second ago, physiognomy. It is the belief that a person's facial features can reveal who they are as a person. It is essentially an endorsement of judging a book by its cover, and it goes back at least as far as antiquity.
Sharona Pearl: The morally best, the most beautiful, the morally worse, the deformed. That's [Calico Gothia 00:41:04] at this framing principle around which physiognomy emerges, and also a huge amount of literature and literary theories. It's not an accident that the ugly stepsister is always the bad step-sister. The badness and ugliness are kind of intimately connected in ways that we still see today quite powerfully. Better looking people get more stuff. It's just true.
Jason Feifer: Thousands of years, physiognomy comes in and out of fashion. It becomes a guiding principle for artists and storytellers, and people make many judgments about each other because of it. Socrates, for example, was not an especially attractive man, and Sharona says there are tons of amazing documents written by ancient scholars who were wrestling with how he could be both ugly and noble. It just didn't compute to them. But as we make our way into more modern times, something changes. Physiognomy begins to calcify into an accepted science.
Sharona Pearl: Move through to the 19th century, you have London, this enormous, almost unprecedented city of scale. You have rapid industrialization, you have urbanization, you have social upheaval of an incredibly dramatic extent. One of the things that happens is people have to figure out how to know one another in a new way in this speed and pace of life. It's no longer you're living on a farm, you have another farm farther away. You're a peasant. You're in the castle. There's no time in the same way to know people. One of the things that I argue is that physiognomy, this practice that had lived for a very long time as a way to paint pictures or theorize abstractly and philosophically became this much more concrete tool that people could say, oh, okay, I know how to do this now. I can look at you and then I can look you up or I can base it on my gut or my instinct. This is a technique that I can use to get to know a person.
Jason Feifer: This has many, many consequences as you can imagine. For example, it becomes used in criminology, where people who have high cheekbones, a flattened or [inaudible 00:43:01] her nose, large jaws and other features are identified as born criminals, AKA racism. Soon, many people are treated with suspicion leading to some potentially historic decisions.
Sharona Pearl: The best anecdote around this is that Charles Darwin almost didn't get to go on The Beagle, that was the ship that he took around the world to the Galapagos islands, which was what motivated his particular theory of evolution. The captain of that ship, Fitzroy, was an avid physiognomist. He thought Darwin's nose was too short, which meant that he lacked the fortitude to see the journey through.
Jason Feifer: It's time to bring this back into our exploration of innovation faces because, remember the time period we're in here, it's 19th century, London, and physiognomy is a tool that people are using to manage this massive social change. Do you know what other tool of social change just happened to be appearing in London at the same time? Well ...
Voice Clip (Safety Bicycle): The 1880s saw the introduction of the safety bicycle with two wheels of the same size.
Jason Feifer: Remember, I told you that European inventors had spent the entire 19th century refining and evolving the bicycle. Well, as it turns out, some British inventors were major contributors to the final popularized form known as the safety bicycle. As promised, here we are back to reexamining bicycle face. This is the final piece of the puzzle. This is the key to understanding how and why faces became fused with technology and why forevermore, we worry that our faces would become forever changed by the new things we were tinkering with.
The timing was absolutely perfect. The bicycle had come along at a time when the magazine industry was defining a cultural standard of beauty and when scientists were declaring that the quality of your face revealed the goodness or badness inside of you. This was a time in which people were obsessed with the face and closely studied what it revealed, and what did they see?
Sharona Pearl: If you asked me to theorize why we're seeing this repeated response to new technologies as being manifested in some kind of scary implication for the face, I would say it is because the face is the visual manifestation to the world of who it is we think we are. So, if we are being changed in some way, good, bad indifferent, although in these cases, it seems like it's really tends to be bad capital B, it's going to show up in the face.
Jason Feifer: This is the very heart of why people fear new technology. They see it, not as something we created, but as a force that acts upon us. Over and over again, throughout time, people worry that technology literally changes who we are. When the 1920s radio opponents or our modern Sherry Turkles are talking about technology impacting our ability to have conversation, this is what they're saying. They believe that the things that make us fundamentally human are so fragile and so circumstantial that they are easily alterable. But could that be true? I'm not convinced obviously, but I understand why it's such a hard idea to defeat.
I mean, take these two persistent beliefs. Belief number one, new things, change who we are. Belief number two, the face reveals who we are, and if we change our face will change too. These have been our constants, so of course they were going to become tied together. It doesn't seem to matter that physiognomy has long since been discredited or that we never fall victim to whatever terrifying change a new technology would supposedly cause. We are, and always will be, afraid of losing ourselves. We're afraid of looking in the mirror one day and not recognizing our face, but you know what else is true about us?
Here, bicycle face has one more or less than to offer, and it's one that I find a lot more hopeful. As we talked about earlier in the episode, many people were concerned about the way that bicycles were going to be bad for women. It would make them infertile or give them sexual pleasure or whatever. Historian, Sarah Hollenbeck, says that, yeah, that stuff did hold some women back from riding a bicycle, but many others took it as an option.
Sarah Hollenbeck: Some of those fears also prompted them to innovate. A lot of women were inventors and they patented bicycle seats that were softer and wider, and that object, and people seeing that object in the world on their bicycles would help to kind of offer a different narrative, who this woman is.
Jason Feifer: They made hats and sunshades to block the sun and protect the face, and they wrote stories and instruction manuals for each other, to make bicycle riding field normal and exciting and to guide each other on how to do it. The world threw up barriers to change and created fears of being changed. So, the women became their own agents of change. They made something new. They innovated on top of the innovation, they profited. Then I'd like to think, their faces did change a little because they had a smug smile, which would be well-deserved, because this is what people ultimately are.
We are not the victims of our creations, we are the creators. We innovate our way around problems, even if those problems are the result of other people's beliefs. This, I think, should be the real lesson of bicycle face, and radio face, and telephone face, and the airplane face, and moving picture face, and newspaper face, and ping-pong face, and on and on. All of these things were delivered as a warning. They were an older generation saying, stop, don't lose yourself to what comes next. Yet, what did we do? We embraced the change anyway and contributed some of our own and found our core humanity intact and our lives a lot richer.
Because as it turns out, we are not just the products of what we've already been comfortable with. We are not just people who look backward. We are people who move in the direction that our face is facing, which is to say that we're always looking in front, always looking forward, and whether we like it or not, we are facing the future.
That's our episode, but of course, it's not all I've got for you. I just mentioned how women were writing pieces, encouraging other women to ride the bicycle, and we found a great one that really took on bicycle face. We'll share a part of it, but first, can I ask you a favor? If you like Pessimists Archive, we'd really love if you did a few simple things, tell your friends about us, subscribe to the show, wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating and review. All of this helps us grow and make more episodes.
Also, if you have an idea for the show, let us know. Big shout out to [Katherine Passage 00:49:30], who tweeted a few examples of technology faces out us a few months ago and inspired this very episode. You can also tweet at us or just follow us on Twitter at @pessimistsarc, that's pessimists A-R-C, where we're sharing the ill-conceived words of pessimists throughout history, or visit our website at pessimists.co, which has links to a lot of the things discussed in this episode, and also an archive of historical pessimism that's easily searchable by innovation. We also love hearing from you, so drop us a line at email@example.com.
Thanks to our amazing voice actors who read our archival material. They were Brent Rose, who you can find at brentrose.com, and Gia Mora, who you can find at giamora.com. Gia also went above and beyond this episode and created those acapella jingles you heard. Our theme music is by Casper Babypants. Learn more at babypantsmusic.com. Pessimists Archive is supported in part by the Charles Koch Foundation. Learn more about the foundation at ckf.org/tech. Additional research to this episode by Louis Anslow and Britta Lokting.
We were recorded by Charlie Culber at Degraw sound and sound edited by Alec Bayliss. Our webmaster is James Steward. And of course, thanks again to all the experts who spoke to us for this episode. Okay, as promised a final more rational note on bicycle face. At the turn of the century, a woman named Christine Terhune Herrick had become a well-known journalist who wrote more than 30 books about housekeeping. In 1904, she penned this newspaper column that just picked apart the idea of bicycle face. It started like this.
Voice Clip (Christine Terhune Herrick): The outdoor life, no less than the indoor life, is bound to leave its mark on a woman's face and bearing. By this, I do not refer only to the effect of wind and sun on the complexion or of fresh air on the general health, I mean, as well, that the occupation to which one, most devotes oneself will, in time, alter the expression of the countenance.
Jason Feifer: Here is how I read that, anything you do will alter your face anything. And if you stay in doors, cleaning your house, that too will live on your face. Then she went on to describe golfers with golf face and an old man writing with a pen and his mouth was twitching, and then she dropped some real truth.
Voice Clip (Christine Terhune Herrick): There can be no good thing without the defects of its qualities. Our care must not be to let the defects outweigh the qualities or to permit a really admirable thing to do us harm as well as good. Take bicycling, for example. So good thing as this should not sink into condemnation because those who use it are too weak or too careless to conquer the few drawbacks connected with it. There's no reason why a bicycle should be the cause of a bode hunched up back, or an unpleasant countenance if it's riders will pay as much attention to their attitudes and their expressions, as they do the costumes they wear when riding. The case is the same with golf.
Jason Feifer: Christine Terhune Herrick really got it, didn't she? All right, that's all for this time. Thanks for listening to pessimists archive, I'm Jason Feifer, and we'll see you in the near future.
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