One booth at the secrets of Aging exhibition, which has been touring around the United States since 2000 under the auspices of Boston's Museum of Science, has attracted long lines of children: "Face Aging." Access was forbidden to people over 15 when I visited the exhibition, so I watched from outside. After standing patiently, the youngsters sat down inside under bright light, trustingly positioned their faces in a metal frame and had their portrait photographed. Soon their digitized bust appeared on a video monitor. Then, tapping a button on a video remote, each child rapidly called up simulations of what she or he would look like at one-year intervals up to their imagined 6os. Flipped fast, the stills became a "movie." In seconds the computer added grotesque pouches, roughed skin and blotches to the children's familiar features. Their faces became elongated, then wider, then saggy; lines became heavier year by year. Boys lost hair. Hair turned gray. The heads of both boys and girls grew and then shrank.
The children were almost uniformly shaken. A Boston Globe reporter wrote that an eight-year-old girl moaned, "I don't want to get old!" Gerontologist and writer Richard Griffin heard a boy remark about another child, "He's disgusting at 42." The children came out preoccupied and distracted, some giggling recklessly, most edging away fast, not wanting to talk, not knowing what had happened to them. Afterwards they fled.
Everything about "Face Aging" promised children scientific truth-their location in a museum of science, as well as the prestigious technologies involved, including a robot eye with no human behind it, computer-driven graphics and an "interactive" button that produced the aging effect. But there was next to nothing scientific about this exhibit. "It was only an entertainment," said Ron Estey, who developed the software. His company, Core Digital, does TV animation-typically deployed for making cartoons, doctoring fashion photos so models look yet more emaciated and fabricating pseudohistorical documents. "We streamed together six or seven different ideas. We're a special-effects studio," he told me.
What exactly is going wrong in the "Face Aging" exhibit? (Examples can be seen on the museum's website at www.se cretsofaging.org.) The software engineers did not ask, "What's the algorithm for making people look more beautiful, expressive or individual as they grow up?" Instead, they worked from U.S. culture's preexisting notions of decline. There were gerontologists on the collaborative panel of experts assembled for Secrets of Aging-people I admire-but they hadn't deliberately asked one another, as age critics should from now on, "What future does this exhibit project for children? What story of aging does it tell?" I'm not saying that these experts believe decline should be the acceptable life-course narrative for the young. But had they been warier about American age culture, the mere taunt of the title- "Face Aging" -might have raised an alarm.
Why weren't the distinguished authorities in aging more cautious? People don't realize that aging is a narrative. Before anything that gets called aging happens in the body, aging is a set of stories about the future, the body, the life course. Stories that children hear and see create expectations, lay the ground rules of life. Prospective age narrative in a normal American childhood is supposed to be about "progress," not about decline.
In the narrative of progress, the implicit meanings of aging run from development to survival, resilience, recovery, and on to collective resistance to the forces of decline. The video monitor in the "Face Aging" booth is a startling example of decline forecasting: a wreck foretold about each and every tender body. …