Talking mirrors are nothing new. They’ve been hanging around, offering blunt appraisals since the year 1812. That’s when the Brothers Grimm first published their shadowy, too-menacing-for-children children’s story about a virginal beauty, a vindictive queen, and an autonomous reflection on the wall. The tale of Snow White has been revisited and reimagined countless times since the early 19th century, with one fictional element kept faithfully intact: Things never end well for the person who consults the magic mirror. Also, no one ever blames the mirror; it assumes zero responsibility for helping a serial narcissist fly into a jealous rage. One has to wonder — with all its omnipotence and insight, why couldn’t the glass just have glossed over some details? (“The fairest of them all? That’s a really subjective question….”). But the mirror is a purely objective device, unfiltered and unbiased. It doesn’t judge; it declares truths. This, we’re told, is the basis of its appeal. The queen finds comfort and vindication in its candid, incorruptible voice. Until, of course, she doesn’t.
This is the stuff of fairy tales. Until, of course, it isn’t. There’s strong evidence to suggest that we’re quickly moving into a realm where gadgets that evaluate our appearance and modify our behaviors are no longer simply theoretical. “This is not fantasy. This is happening,” says Martin Lindstrom, a branding expert and the author of Small Data: The Tiny Clues That Uncover Huge Trends (St. Martin’s Press). Lindstrom is referring to a wave of technically enhanced tools that collect slivers of our personal data in order to help us optimize our daily lives and routines. The trend has officially landed on the beauty scene, often to surreal effect.
Take, for example, new voice-enabled “smart mirrors” that adjust lighting to your needs or mirrors with embedded cameras to scrutinize your skin in microscopic — and sometimes merciless — detail. The idea is that by using this data to track the status of every fine line, rough patch, blackhead, and blemish, you can accurately assess if your products are doing the trick — or if they need to be tossed out. Also in development are hairbrushes and styling tools fitted with tiny sensors that detect damage and dryness from your roots to your ends and then link to an app to prescribe restorative tips and customized treatments.
We have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge about ourselves.
On the surface, a beauty invention that points us in the direction of souped-up retinols and coddling conditioners seems perfectly harmless and flat-out appealing. But when you look closer, the implications take the shine off the apple, so to speak. Some of these tools attempt to eliminate human flaws by eradicating human error. They signal a future that appears just a little less…human.
Still, plenty of people seem willing — and even excited — to let their beauty products boss them around. “I hate to say it, but I think people are going to love this stuff,” says consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow, a note of buyer’s fatigue in her voice. Beauty products that analyze our features at close range don’t just satisfy our mania for self-care; they give us permission to lavish attention on our favorite subject: ourselves. “We have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge about ourselves,” says Yarrow. “People want to know all of the minutiae, from how many steps they take in a day to what’s going on when they sleep to the types of food they can tolerate to their genetic makeup. There’s no end to the obsession. And this new beauty technology fits right into that mentality.”
While self-obsession is hardly a new phenomenon (you can trace it all the way from Tiberius to Trump), Yarrow believes it has reached unreal proportions, as though a magnifying mirror has been fixed on our egos — as well as our pores. Did something happen to place each person squarely at the center of his or her own universe? In a word, yes. “Our self-absorption is linked to worry,” says Yarrow. “People are dealing with unprecedented amounts of stress. Faster news cycles, busier lives, longer workdays, and superficial relationships have made us incredibly anxious. And the natural antidote to anxiety is control. There’s something calming and stress-reducing about information. Even if it doesn’t offer solutions, it helps us to feel more in control.” In other words, we find comfort in data because the future is freaking us out.
Not only are we tightly wound, but the vast majority of people are also highly skeptical. (We sound like a fun bunch, no?) “Consumer trust is at an all-time low,” says Yarrow. “Buyers don’t just accept what brands tell them anymore.” This is exactly why the cynics among us (so all of us) are drawn to the idea of beauty gadgets that promise precision and deliver results that leave no room for interpretation. “Tech is the ultimate truth teller,” says Sharon Profis, an executive editor at CNET, who believes discriminating technology can help hold skin-care products and companies to account. “It’s so hard to really know if a skin-care product is working over time. Tech can be that objective voice.” Equally enticing: Many of these devices allow us to exist permanently inside our comfort zones by putting our everyday habits to productive use. “We look at our front-facing cameras to touch up makeup, take selfies, and analyze our skin,” says Profis. “This is behavior that we’re already exhibiting. If you’re looking into a camera and drawing your own conclusions, a skin-care company can help you to draw better, more accurate conclusions.”
In addition to providing dependable feedback, some of these beauty inventions give us power over our own environment, allowing us to create a space that’s refreshingly free of variables. Profis points to smart mirrors that harness machine learning to fine-tune the lighting around your face. “These mirrors work with Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant, so you can tell Alexa that it’s time for a skin check and it will give you the same exact lighting every time,” she says. “Right now, if you analyze on the bus one day and in a bathroom the next, you’re not getting consistent results.”
There’s a chance, however, that our environment is already too governed by metrics. And instead of making daily life more predictable, we’re becoming less and less secure in it. “We’ve never been more insecure than we are right now,” says Lindstrom. “The reason is transparency. We can see what everyone else has, and we want to match that.” As social media offers us a distorted, through-the-looking-glass glimpse into other people’s lives, we feel increasing pressure to stack up. According to Lindstrom, the way we determine our value and self-worth is through quantifiable statistics, such as how many ‘likes’ or followers we accumulate on Instagram. “People measure themselves today the way marketers track the popularity of global brands,” he says. “People are their own brands now.”
The biggest concern with some of this burgeoning beauty technology is that it plays directly into this mind-set, creating new ways for us to compare and contrast ourselves with friends, neighbors, and perfect strangers on an intimate, nearly cellular level. Just consider a new scanner that will capture magnified images of your skin and then plug into your iPhone, sifting through user data to let you know how your skin measures up against other people in your age group. “The human mind is simply designed to compare itself to others,” says Profis. “Tech can’t be blamed for this, but it does enable it on demand and more than ever.”
There are some obvious benefits to receiving these kinds of benchmarks and finding out where you land on the bell curve. “If it looks like you have 70 percent more wrinkles than the average 25-year-old, then it’s possible you’ve had too much sun exposure and are at greater risk for skin cancer, so I can see skin-care apps becoming an arm for our personal health,” says Profis. Some systems seem to be fulfilling that potential already, such as La Roche-Posay UV Sense, which monitors air quality and UV exposure and reminds you when to reapply sunscreen. “That’s the Utopian scenario,” says Profis. The alternative is less cheerful. “The biggest danger is that these apps could potentially make the next generation incredibly insecure about their skin.”
There’s a subtler, more unsettling side effect to all of this. “The more time we spend thinking about our own appearance, the less proficient we become at focusing on and relating to others,” says Yarrow. “It’s important that people understand the ramifications of that.” As we become the center of our own beauty ecosystems, our most meaningful relationship could very well be the one that we have with our own image, while other faces in the crowd simply function as a baseline for us to score ourselves against. It’s very possible that we’ll soon be asking our smartphones to determine who’s the fairest in the room when we’re sitting in a restaurant or riding the subway. “That’s already happening,” says Lindstrom. “There are apps right now in China, Japan, and Korea that rank and qualify your appearance.”
Beyond the existential threats, there are practical dangers, too. As smart beauty gadgets continue to capture more information on us, we could be opening the door to a breach of privacy. “Your mirror is your first point of contact in the day. It’s as vulnerable as a situation gets,” says Lindstrom, who can envision a scenario where smart mirrors learn to sync up with our other devices to collect a frightening amount of data. “It allows an insight into who you are, and the bad news is there are no data-integration laws in the United States to prevent this.” Still, many consumers, millennials especially, don’t necessarily view that as a deterrent. “The trend is, we’re willing to give up some privacy if there’s enough value being added in return,” says Profis. “For a person who wants to get better at makeup or is really passionate about makeup tech, it’s a small price to pay.”
To help us to understand where our precarious relationship with technology may be headed, Lindstrom provides a visceral analogy. “You may have heard the story about how there are two ways to kill a frog,” he says. “If you put it in boiling water, it will hop out immediately. But if you place it in cold water and slowly raise the temperature, it will stay put and adjust to a dangerous situation. We’re in lukewarm water at the moment.”