Welcome to season two of Flash Forward! We kicked off this season with a pretty unlikely future: the entire world goes face blind.
In the episode we discuss what causes face blindness — also known as prosopagnosia — and the tricks that people use to remember their friends. We also go through all the things that would be easier (spying, hiding) and harder (police lineups, cocktail parties) in a world where we were all faceblind.
Today, about two percent of the population has some form of face blindness, or prosopagnosia. Some people with prosopagnosia have a hard time with acquaintances, while others struggle to recognize their own family members, and sometimes even themselves. If after this you’re thinking “hm, I wonder if I’m face blind,” you can take an unofficial online test here.
To figure out what this world might be like, I called up Dr. Jason Barton, a neurologist at the University of British Columbia who treats and studies people with face blindness. He told me that face blindness can happen for a lot of reasons: some people are born with it, and others acquire the trouble after a stroke, infection, tumor, or other kind of brain injury. You’ll have to listen to the episode to learn how it happens to all of us at once.
I also talked to two people who are face blind, since they have the best sense for what this might be like for the rest of us. Lisa Huang, a science fiction writer, and Jaydeep Bardhan, a mechanical engineering professor at Northeastern University, told me all sorts of really interesting things about how they do, or don’t remember people. Movies and TV shows? Tough for people with face blindness, especially when all the actors look the same.
We also talked about things like hair and makeup, how people might try to visually distinguish themselves when they can’t rely on their face to do it for them. And Barton suggested a whole other way to recognize people that has nothing to do with faces.
There’s a great Ted Chiang short story called “Liking What You See: A Documentary” about facial recognition. The story focuses not on face-blindness, but instead, the piece talks about a world in which people can elect to have their perception of beauty turned off. So nobody has an advantage for being prettier than anybody else. But according to Dr. Jason Barton, some people with prosopagnosia also struggle to tell things like age, sex, mood and even beauty of another face in front of them.
And in case you didn’t think this episode was dark enough, here’s another take on face blindness: a short film in which someone locks eyes with the perpetrator of a horrible crime, but can’t remember his face because he’s face blind.
What do you think? How might we get around face blindness? Would we just give up? Would we all wear go-pros and google glasses around? Would name tags come back into style?
Flash Forward is produced by me, Rose Eveleth, and is part of the Boing Boing podcast family. The (awesome) art for this episode is by Matt Lubchansky. The intro music is by Asura and the Outtro music is by Broke for Free. The music for your drive time radio host was The Zombie Dandies. The voice of your drive time radio host was Mike Pesca, who is also the host of the not-fictional daily Slate podcast The Gist. The voice of our trusty scientist was Bethany Brookshire, you can follow her on Twitter at @scicurious. And the voice of our lovely public radio reporter was Tamara Krinsky, you can find her at @tamarakrinsky.
If you want to suggest a future we should take on, send us a note on Twitter, Facebook or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We love hearing your ideas! This week's episode was suggested by Charlie Loyd.
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