Guess Who

“I can’t get over the thought that it’s like an odd version of that old board game. Do you know the one I mean?”

“Director Mulligan, I appreciate that the Face Off project doesn’t compare with some of your most recent… work… but The Council have invested a huge amount of resources here to see what the experiment might achieve.”

“I understand that, Lu. I apologise for my brevity. Seriously though, drop the ‘Director Mulligan’ schtick, will you? I feel like I’m back in front of an Enquiry. Talk me through it again, as if you’re explaining to a Doberman.”

The Project Manager winked at the Director and moved the presentation cube onto the next slide. “So, two of the issues we had during the last few Recruitment drives were the Watering Hole Bias and the Mirror Effect, which for our purposes amount to the same thing; people are attracted to the familiar. The Mirror Effect is easy to see in any organisational structure; people recruit and reward those who remind them most of themselves and whose skill-sets and attributes they recognise easily because they’re similar to their own. It’s why organisations started by young geeks tend toward employing – and winning business from – a similar demographic. The same thing happens with those started by the ex-military, or by middle-aged mothers, first generation immigrants, redbrick alumni etc.

“The Watering Hole Bias – which is harder for us to acknowledge consciously – provides a mechanism for assessing risk in new situations that is rooted deep in mammals and the reptilian, to the extent that most people don’t even register the ‘instinctive’ assessment going on. The common-sense part of the process is that animals -particularly young animals – are innately wary of anything new in case it is a predator or some other danger; First Assessment of anything new is that it is Probable Foe and evidential proof is needed to be categorised as Friend. However, we see plenty of creatures at the watering hole each day with whom we have no direct interaction, and – over time – the fact that we share space without incident means we categorise them in a Non-Foe category. Watering Hole Bias says that as our System One (instinctive) brain only really deals with binary categories, Non-Foe actually becomes marked as Friend. Familiarity in this case breeds not contempt, but trust. It’s why corporations in the twentieth century spent so much energy having their brands seen in films and on the sides of race cars and referenced by celebrity; it’s not so much the direct endorsement, but the familiarity element that generates trust.

“And so, how does this impact on Recruitment? Well, essentially, any ‘Type’ that is less familiar to us stays marked as Probable Foe and we’ll lean more toward an identical (or inferior) Candidate who looks more familiar. This is even more pronounced with regard to the things that were familiar (or unfamiliar) in our youth. So we see a difference in how men without sisters or who attended single-sex schools relate to women, or how women raised by single-mothers relate to men, and also in how people who grew up in ethnically non-diverse regions judge trustworthiness in those with different skin colour. You can imagine how that’s been compounded with our most recent arrivals! So we started looking for ways to help our Recruiters who want to be fair, but more importantly to help them identify the right Candidate for each position.”

Mulligan looked unconvinced. “OK. I’m with you so far. So why not just make all the applications anonymous? Surely that achieves the same goal and doesn’t require all of this tech resource? Why go to all this trouble with Face Off to strip the head from the face or whatever?”

Lu passed a plate of biscuits to the Director. “You are keeping up! Does Doggie want a treat?!”

“Research over the past few decades found that Recruiters were uncomfortable making decisions through the forced-medium of paper-résumés and Instant Messenger interviews, without being able to “see someone’s face”. And nobody was happy with handing the whole process over to computer to manage assessments. The first version of the Face Off protocol stripped out hair, face-shape and skin colour during video calls, leaving the Candidate’s expressions and facial-responses intact. The results were really, really good, and outperformed both manual and computer Assessment. It was a simple step to also apply the process to the other side of the conversation so that Candidates couldn’t see Recruiters background features, either. Then we played around with holo-tech, which got us to Face Off 3.1 and which integrated really easily with FaceTime Holo and improved Assessment even further. But this was all a removal process – effectively applying blinkers to someone so they can’t be distracted by what we consider unimportant.

“After feedback from some users about the disembodied faces, Face Off 4 re-integrated the stripped-out elements from our Candidates in a random way so that what each Recruiter on a Panel saw was Candidate A’s face but with different skin tone, accent, race-identifiers and so on.

“But we were still left with some issues after Recruitment; people still maintained their biases towards their colleagues’ gender, breed or origin-planet based on their own familiarity. Leveraging the successes we’d already had, we convinced The Council to give us the go-ahead to see whether the latest wearable-tech could be used to roll this out in a real-time manner. And now we’re ready to show you what we’ve got.”

The Director’s body language was far less ambiguous now. “So wait… you’re saying that we have tech that will overlay a hologram, in real time, over a person’s body, so that nobody can tell where they’re from? You can only see their face?”

“Oh dear, I thought you’d been keeping up!” scolded the Project Manager, “Face Off NG doesn’t just show a face and blinker you to a person’s – or a Stellar’s – features, it replaces the features with someone else’s. And it rotates through a selection of different features randomly through the day. Working and commuting with every Type (and seeing a different one each time you look in the mirror) provides regular exposure, steadily moving every Type into the generally-trusted Friend category. And it trains us all to begin to discount a swathe of someone’s physicalities when making assessments. That’s what we’re proposing in Phase 1, for all our Employees once they walk through the building gates. Phase 2 would go-live in our crèche and then our schools. Phase 3 would go nationwide.”

“Well, colour me impressed! But it still feels like the same concept as putting blinkers on us and forcing us to make an assessment by examining only one element… Why am I reminded of the parable of the elephant in the darkened room?”


This piece inspired by an Elephant Words image originally posted at

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Often musician, sometime projectbloke, occasional table, sporadic writer, serial traveler, irregular designer, internet addict with OCLD.

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