Why do we love our virtualized portraits?

Web Desk

ISTANBUL: Avatar creation is an emerging technology that is rapidly gaining popularity in various fields, from video games to virtual reality, and while it raises ethical questions about the blurring of boundaries between the digital and physical worlds, others view it as a step toward greater accessibility and inclusivity

Investing in our physical appearance is trendy in our era. Even this means investing not only in our physical body but also in our virtual body images. In that sense, how we present ourselves is very contingent on our body image.

Recently, the app created by U.S.-based “Lensa AI” became viral very quickly, initiating new dimensions in the discussion relating to the perception of our body image. The app is designed to create virtual portraits of people after they upload their pictures. The question is, why has this app become enormously popular worldwide so rapidly?

How we present ourselves to society is a highly significant part of social interaction. One of the most prominent examples of this presentation is social media. What we prefer to show or not to show and the context of these decisions relating to the type of social media platform can say many things about how we create our “selves.” The concept of “impression management” by Erving Goffman frames all these activities as presenting ourselves in everyday life. According to him, these conscious and unconscious decisions and efforts are part of “performances” to have a desirable presentation. In that sense, the attention given to the Lensa AI app can be part of impression management.

A woman plays a game in the metaverse via virtual digital technology. (Getty Images Photo)
A woman plays a game in the metaverse via virtual digital technology. (Getty Images Photo)
Images from fictionalized worlds

The app differs from the existing photoshop apps by creating pictures in fictionalized forms. The created self-portraits visualize you as a fairy from a fantastic world or an astronaut from a science-fiction film. In that sense, the app’s magic is to make you feel like you are part of a fictionalized universe. This feeling might be similar to empathy and identifying ourselves with a book or movie character we like. Here, some questions arise: Why can we not resist seeing an alternative portrait of us? Is it related to our motivation for imagination and creativity? But if it were the case, the users should have drawn the portraits, not the artificial intelligence (AI).

Then, can this urge be the consequence of our longing for an idealized version of ourselves?

Our perception of identity is complicated and related to how we conceptualize our ego, our bodies, and their connection. From a psychoanalytical point of view, Jacques Lacan’s argument on the formation of the ego can help us understand this phenomenon. According to him, ego formation starts when babies comprehend that the reflection of their image belongs to their bodies. This realization initiates the identification with our body. However, it also can bring alienation from the body because of its imperfection. This means we cannot fully identify with our bodies and always desire better versions of our egos. In that regard, the “magic” of Lensa AI can be related to our strong aspiration to have an alternative version of our bodies.

An AI-created abstract image. (Getty Images Photo)
An AI-created abstract image. (Getty Images Photo)
A standardized beauty

The app creates alternative portraits of users more appropriate to Western beauty standards. For instance, you can see yourself as being thinner, having a brighter skin tone and higher cheekbones. However, the users seem conscious of these little changes in their images. A young female Instagram influencer shared her pictures created by Lensa AI by commenting, “We know it is not the reality, but… ”

This comment might be interesting since the user explicitly states that she is aware of the changes that the app makes. However, she still wants to share the images. Thus, the app creates a platform where the users consciously let the AI skew reality and deceive themselves. In that sense, the app is like a “beauty game” with speculative fiction author Ursula Le Guin’s conceptualization. The players play the game at different levels by experiencing variable feelings. Sometimes, this game makes the players feel extremely inadequate and lead them to hurt themselves, such as having aesthetic surgery. However, people can join the game with smaller and more innocent steps, such as buying a new lipstick. Or, as we see in this case, paying money for a virtual AI portrait.

Courtesy: Dailysabah