Liking What You See: A Documentary Summary

Liking What You See: A Documentary” is a 2002 science-fiction story by Ted Chiang about calliagnosia, a procedure that eliminates one’s ability to perceive physical beauty.

  • The story is largely composed of interviews conducted in the run-up to an election at Pembleton University, whose students will vote on whether to make calliagnosia mandatory.
  • The interviewees and excerpts include Pembleton students and faculty, a neurologist, and spokespeople from organizations on both sides of the calliagnosia issue.
  • The central character is Tamera Lyons, a first-year Pembleton student who grew up with calliagnosia but who decides to experience life without it.

Summary

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Last Updated on January 6, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1323

“Liking What You See: A Documentary” is a story that takes the form of a series of interviews. The characters interviewed offer a range of perspectives that are supported or challenged by excerpts from various written announcements and broadcast speeches. The story opens with Tamera Lyons, a new freshman at Pembleton University. She is frustrated that the school is considering adopting a policy that she is strongly against. Because she was not notified of the potential policy in advance, she feels deceived. The college wants to require a procedure known as “calli” for all students, and she says that the thing she was most looking forward to about turning eighteen and going to college was having her own calli turned off. If she had known that Pembleton had been planning to put the issue at the center of its upcoming student elections, she would not have chosen to attend.

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Next to speak is Maria, the head of Students for Equality Everywhere (SEE), the campus group responsible for the initiative to amend the university’s code of ethics to require all students to adopt what she calls “calliagnosia.” The issue gained traction after a new software application for “spex,” a device resembling a pair of virtual-reality glasses, allowed its users to see what their peers would look like with cosmetic surgery. In response to this fad, many Pembleton students became outraged as they recognized the deeper social justice implications for what they recognized as a symptom of “lookism.” This form of bigotry, which is based on physical attractiveness, is ubiquitous yet still unrecognized by society as the civil rights issue that Maria’s group believes it to be. They want to raise awareness of the issue but also recognize that changing people’s thinking is not enough. For them, calli provides the perfect opportunity for a technological intervention to alter people’s natural perceptions towards an ideal state of beauty-blindness.

A neurologist is interviewed, and he gives a thorough definition of the state of artificially altered perception known as calliagnosia. He explains the evolution of the human ability to distinguish faces based on a universal aesthetic standard that favors faces with certain shared characteristics considered desirable. Calliagnosia is simply a state in which one does not respond to such aesthetic cues; it does not otherwise affect people’s perceptiveness of facial characteristics or fashionable trends. Because of its narrow reach, the procedure to induce calliagnosia cannot by itself cure society of lookism. The doctor sees it as a unique method of achieving the kind of social equilibrium necessary to begin teaching people to ignore superficial physical differences. He imagines that the ideal environment for this kind of socialization process would be one where everyone has gotten the calli procedure.

Tamera has just gotten her calli turned off. She describes the painless, noninvasive, electronic procedure as no more than attaching some sensors to her head, wearing a kind of helmet, and looking at pictures of faces for a short time. She hasn’t noticed any difference so far, despite constantly looking into mirrors to see if she can tell whether she is pretty or not. In a subsequent interview, she excitedly relates that day’s events, which started with her looking in the mirror as usual and still seeing no perceptual difference. Then, while eating lunch on campus, Tamera found herself noticing how pretty a girl sitting across from her was. She realized that she was staring into a mirror and that the girl was her.

After a student debate at Pembleton on the proposed calli initiative, an anonymous band of anarchist hackers releases information proving that a major public relations firm paid the student debating the anti-calli position. The firm was paying other students to disseminate information on their clients’ behalf as well. Soon after, the president of the National Calliagnosia Association comes and speaks on campus, describing the way that human psychology has been exploited by advertisers who have saturated the culture with images of impossible beauty. He compares the effect of this hyperstimulation of the brain’s innate aesthetic response to that of an addictive drug in its ability to make the neural circuitry go haywire. He argues that since corporations already have the technological power to manipulate people’s thoughts, feelings, and actions, people should seize the opportunity to use another technology to resist this superhuman onslaught. A news bulletin following this speech indicates that more than half of Pembleton students surveyed expressed support for the pro-calli measure. In addition, there has been a recent increase in the percentage of college students nationwide who would support a similar measure at their schools.

One day, Tamera is showing her roommate, who doesn’t have calli, a photo album with some pictures of Tamera’s ex-boyfriend, Garrett. The roommate is surprised that Garrett would have broken up with Tamera, because Tamera is noticeably more attractive than Garrett. Looking at his picture, Tamera can’t help thinking that Garrett still looks cute to her. But now she wonders if they ever would have dated had they not both gone to the Saybrook School, which requires calli for all of its students. She talks to him about possibly getting his calli turned off, and he is open to the idea; this excites her, because she hopes they can get back together.

A special interest group called People for Ethical Nanomedicine (PEN) begins spreading fake news about lives ruined from the calli procedure. The ads liken calli to self-imposed brain damage that does more harm than good. Maria investigates the group and discovers that it is a front for a collection of interests from the beauty and cosmetic surgery industries. Tamera finds PEN’s ad false and misleading, and she mentions that Garrett just got his calli turned off. Tamera has been talking to Garrett a lot, learning about makeup, and focusing on her appearance in order to persuade him to think about a future together. She asks him whether he has been dating anyone else, and he is embarrassed to admit that he has found it difficult talking to the girls at his college. Tamera is mortified to think that maybe the homely Garrett has been talking to girls who are more attractive than him without realizing it. She sees that many other factors made him attractive to her—factors that other people cannot recognize because of his looks. Soon after, he gets his calli turned back on.

The day before the election, the spokesperson for PEN gives a speech in which her anti-calli message focuses on the students’ antidiscrimination motives. She argues that calli makes it impossible to fight lookism, because the procedure makes it impossible to detect such bigotry. If students were truly committed to countering beauty bias, then they must retain use of their full perceptual faculties to maximize their vigilance. The election results are reported: 64% of Pembleton students voted against the measure. While a majority was in favor just days before the election, many report changing their minds after the PEN speech. Soon after the election, the anarchist hackers release information demonstrating how the public relations firm working for PEN used sophisticated digital manipulation software to heighten the perceptual impact of the spokesperson’s speech and appearance. The effect was one that proved impossible to resist, which troubles the president of the national pro-calli lobby. To him, this breach of public trust points to the need for even more adaptive technology. After the election, Tamera announces that she is also getting her calli turned back on. Her decision is partly motivated by the revelation of PEN’s duplicity, which makes her realize how much she was deceiving Garrett—that is, using her appearance to try to convince him to date her again. She has come to appreciate the value of calli as a protection against such manipulation, but she still wishes her parents had not made her grow up with it.

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