Calliagnosia

In Ted Chiang’s short story, “Liking What You See: A Documentary,” he offers us a typical science-fictional hypothetical, in the form of a staged debate regarding the value of seeing beauty in others. What if you could remove your own capacity to see the beauty in a human face? While at first this seems like an absurd question, Chiang slowly submits a pseudo-scientific neurological explanation and a set of political and ethical arguments that many of his readers will find familiar. By the end, he’s produced both an engaging short story and a kind of policy briefing on a thorny problem: what should we do about the ordinary discrimination of beauty and ugliness?

The deeper societal problem is lookism. For decades people’ve been willing to talk about racism and sexism, but they’re still reluctant to talk about lookism. Yet this prejudice against unattractive people is incredibly pervasive. People do it without even being taught by anyone, which is bad enough, but instead of combating this tendency, modern society actively reinforces it.

Educating people, raising their awareness about this issue, all of that is essential, but it’s not enough. That’s where technology comes in. Think of calliagnosia as a kind of assisted maturity. It lets you do what you should: ignore the surface, so you can look deeper.

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