Every Thursday, Luke T. Harrington explores Internet culture from a Gospel perspective.

There’s a fascinating post up at Google UK’s research blog right now about image recognition and “neural networks.” These are networks of computers designed to mimic the human brain in the way they operate—they think, and they can learn, and yes, they’re probably plotting world domination as we speak.

Here we had an act of terrorism carried out by a man who was enough of a racist cartoon to make Yosemite Sam look like Laurence Olivier doing Hamlet. . . . And yet, so many of us still wanted to make it about anything other than racism.In the meantime, though, they show a lot of promise for automatic image classification. For instance, if your phone has thousands of photos on it, and you haven’t done anything to sort them (imagine that, right?), a neural network could search through them for you. If you search for “dog,” and the network has been taught what a dog looks like, it’ll return all of your photos of dogs to you; if you search for “vastly overrated television program,” you’ll presumably get some stills from Breaking Bad.

I know what you’re thinking: “Luke, this is great and all, but how will it enhance my drug trips?” Well, have I got news for you. In order to test how the network is “learning,” engineers often reverse the process, feeding individual photos into the system and asking the network to find something specific in them and then enhance that aspect visually. For instance, they might feed it random noise and tell it to find bananas, or they might feed in a picture of a knight and ask it to find the animal faces. Doing this repeatedly with the same photo results in a feedback loop that produces some truly trippy images that will no doubt soon be adorning the walls of every dorm room at CU-Boulder.

You’ll notice, though, that it tends to find what it’s looking for, whether that thing is actually there or not. And while that might seem like merely an amusing novelty, you’ll realize how instructive it is when you consider that a neural network is designed to think like a human brain—and like all artificial imitations of nature, it throws nature’s quirks into sharp relief for us. Just like the human brain, what it sees is determined entirely by what it’s looking for.

Maybe when I say that I sound like a college freshman who just saw his first Aronofsky film and is trying to, like, blow some minds, man, but psychological evidence is actually on my side here. There’s a famous experiment, for instance, where researchers showed the subjects a video of some people passing a basketball back and forth and asked them to count the number of passes by people in white shirts. Following the conclusion of the video, they then asked the participants if they had noticed the gorilla. Half of the subjects responded, “Huh?”

The subjects then rewatched the footage, and, sure enough, they saw a guy in a cheap gorilla costume walk into the center of the frame, look directly into the camera, beat his chest, and walk off. It was almost impossible to miss—unless you weren’t looking for it. Loath as we are to admit it, our eyes aren’t movie cameras dispassionately recording whatever happens in front of us; they interact directly with our brains, constantly deciding what to look for, and therefore determining in advance what they’ll actually perceive.

So now you know how so many people can continue to pretend that basketball is interesting.

I‘ve been thinking a lot about this lately, as the last few years have been rocked with instance after instance of racial violence. When the Trayvon Martin incident occurred, it seemed like half the white people on the Internet mobilized immediately to prove he was a “thug,” digging up Facebook pictures (of other people) that looked kind of mean (because awkward selfies apparently deserve death) and helpfully pointing out that his convenience store purchases turn into drugs, when you add drugs to them. Following the Mike Brown incident, much of the talk immediately turned to his petty theft (rather than, for instance, his impending Christian baptism). Even in the case of Eric Garner, when we had actual video of the incident, many insisted on trying to turn it into a debate about unjust taxation.

Then the Emanuel AME bomb dropped. Here we had an act of terrorism carried out by a man who was enough of a racist cartoon to make Yosemite Sam look like Laurence Olivier doing Hamlet. We even had his racist manifesto (which I can confirm is the least interesting thing you’ll read all week) and photos of him waving the Confederate flag above his mom’s gardening implements. And yet, so many of us still wanted to make it about anything other than racism. I saw countless comments on the Web trying to blame Obama for “dividing the nation” (because apparently Obama invented racism), heard commentators on Fox News insisting this was an attack on Christianity (and perhaps in a sense it was, but only black Christianity, with the “Christianity” part being a very distant second), and even saw a leader in the NRA (remember them? the “don’t politicize tragedy” guys?) insisting it was about the need for pastors to concealed-carry.

We see what we want to see. And usually, what we want to see is whatever implicates someone other than us.

The only obvious exception to this in recent memory is the family members of the shooter’s victims, who stood up at his preliminary court hearing and, one by one, publicly forgave him. Staring a monster in the face, they chose to see not his guilt, but rather the guilt of all and the blood of the Lamb that covers it. If some of the Twitter blowups that followed are any indication, such a clear display of the impossible grace of the Gospel is still a stumbling block to the world. To many, there’s nothing more bewildering than people who, by the grace of God, seek not vengeance but reconciliation, who raise up the cross instead of a battle cry.

I honestly don’t know if I could do the same. While it may sound like it, I’m not exempting myself from this cultural myopia at all. I’m just as likely as anyone to adopt whatever narrative acquits me, and odds are that I’ll never be in their position anyway. I’ll never be in that hot seat, tempted to cry out for justice even as the Gospel demands a superhuman grace.

The best I can hope for is to stand someday before the throne with these saints, martyrs and heroes of the faith. They’ll probably be much closer to the front row than I will, but with any luck I’ll at least catch some of the brilliance shining off of the jewels in their crowns.

Image of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church by Howard Arnoff via Flickr.

1 Comment

  1. I wonder if those tests don’t show us just what we notice naturally, but what we notice when we are specifically told to look for something(I.e. What those in the media we consume, Fox News, cnn, msnbc, nyt, tell us to look for in a situation). What if we see the severity of racism only because we are told to look for it(not that it’s not an issue, but perhaps we’re missing the gorilla in the room; things such as certain types of pride or classism that go even deeper than racism). Just a thought…

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