Liking What You See: A Documentary

by Ted Chiang

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Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 801

“Liking What You See” is presented as a documentary that combines interviews, announcements, and speeches from a range of concerned parties in the run-up to the Pembleton University student elections. The central issue of the election is whether to make calliagnosia—a procedure that makes people blind to physical beauty—mandatory for the university’s students. Each character represents a particular perspective on the central issue at stake, and the narrative unfolds speaker by speaker. Because the issues Ted Chiang raises are so complex in their downstream implications, he makes sure to present both sides of the debate with equal credibility and rationality. Both the pro- and anti- calliagnosia lobbies present lucid and logical arguments that may challenge the reader’s assumptions and biases about individual rights and the greater good.

One of Chiang’s purposes in the story is to question society’s notions about technology as a solution to human problems. The scenario he creates forces the reader to confront their assumptions about what is fair, what is ethically right, and whether noble ends justify somewhat invasive means. Indeed, the story confronts the reader with a question for which there is no easy answer. Just because the technology exists to painlessly cure humanity of an antisocial tendency—a specific form of pervasive discrimination—it is not obvious that the procedure should be mandatory. Just as society benefits from having a level playing field for all its participants, so too does it benefit by protecting individuals from institutional, corporate, and political overreach.

In the alternative reality Chiang depicts, both the cynical, profit-hungry corporate interests and the idealistic, justice-minded Pembleton University student advocates share a fundamental goal. Despite their apparent antagonism, both groups seek to impose their views and their morality on others. Yet, as is often the case in real life, progressive idealism tends to claim the moral high ground by minimizing the less liberal aspects of its policies and not acknowledging its own sense of superiority. Chiang asks readers to consider how much of one’s free will and individuality is worth surrendering for an advance towards a more just and equitable society.

Because of the multifaceted perspective the story maintains on the subject of calliagnosia, no clear support is implied for either side of the debate over the other. The only thing that all the student characters might be able to agree on is not the issue of calli but rather the now-exposed threat of “paralinguistic” manipulation of corporate broadcasts. This direct and cynical infiltration by corporate technology into the domain of human sovereignty poses a more obvious social threat than does even the problem of lookism. The central characters in the story would agree that any form of appearance-based bias is wrong and should be educated out of society. Yet these antisocial tendencies reflect the erroneous biases of individual actors. By contrast, the media filtration technology Chiang imagines allows organizations to take advantage of people’s biases on an industrial scale. The puzzle-like story functions in the end as a kind of allegory, as one social-justice issue, “lookism,” is subsumed by a stealthier and more insidious one: digital paralinguistic manipulation of the public by powerful interest groups.

Chiang raises these stakes even further by positing that the digital manipulation technology used by Rebecca Boyer and PEN will soon inevitably become widely available for use in any form of messaging, from religion and advertising to political campaigns. This kind of technology can concentrate more power with the institutional interests at the expense of people’s democratic rights. There is no way of knowing for sure how the Pembleton students would have voted if not for the enhanced...

(This entire section contains 801 words.)

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PEN event, which adds another layer of ambiguity to the conclusion. Had the students not been influenced by the doctored broadcast, the campus calli proposition might have passed. That would have been a victory for Maria deSouza and her social justice supporters but arguably a bad day for the cause of individual autonomy.

Part of the story’s premise is that for every human problem solved by technology, another one arises. There is a tendency, especially among technology companies and entrepreneurs, to have zealous faith in the capacity of technology to solve humanity’s greatest challenges. But, too often, the technological fix demands nothing of its human users and cannot replace the collective work of changing society’s thinking and behavior. Just as Dr. Weingartner notes early in the story, the calli procedure was never intended as the end in itself, but rather as a therapeutic intervention on which substantial individual change could be grounded. While Chiang does seem to admire youthful idealism as a driver of positive change, his story questions the scope of people’s understanding of their own motives and the full implications of the outcomes they seek.