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The Era of Fake Video Begins
The digital manipulation of video may make the current era of “fake news” seem quaint.
In a dank corner of the internet, it is possible to find actresses from Game of Thrones or Harry Potter engaged in all manner of sex acts. Or at least to the world the carnal figures look like those actresses, and the faces in the videos are indeed their own. Everything south of the neck, however, belongs to different women. An artificial intelligence has almost seamlessly stitched the familiar visages into pornographic scenes, one face swapped for another. The genre is one of the cruelest, most invasive forms of identity theft invented in the internet era. At the core of the cruelty is the acuity of the technology: A casual observer can’t easily detect the hoax.
This development, which has been the subject of much hand-wringing in the tech press, is the work of a programmer who goes by the nom de hack “deepfakes.” And it is merely a beta version of a much more ambitious project. One of deepfakes’s compatriots told Vice’s Motherboard site in January that he intends to democratize this work. He wants to refine the process, further automating it, which would allow anyone to transpose the disembodied head of a crush or an ex or a co-worker into an extant pornographic clip with just a few simple steps. No technical knowledge would be required. And because academic and commercial labs are developing even more-sophisticated tools for non-pornographic purposes—algorithms that map facial expressions and mimic voices with precision—the sordid fakes will soon acquire even greater verisimilitude.
The internet has always contained the seeds of postmodern hell. Mass manipulation, from clickbait to Russian bots to the addictive trickery that governs Facebook’s News Feed, is the currency of the medium. It has always been a place where identity is terrifyingly slippery, where anonymity breeds coarseness and confusion, where crooks can filch the very contours of selfhood. In this respect, the rise of deepfakes is the culmination of the internet’s history to date—and probably only a low-grade version of what’s to come.
Vladimir Nabokov once wrote that reality is one of the few words that means nothing without quotation marks. He was sardonically making a basic point about relative perceptions: When you and I look at the same object, how do you really know that we see the same thing? Still, institutions (media, government, academia) have helped people coalesce around a consensus—rooted in a faith in reason and empiricism—about how to describe the world, albeit a fragile consensus that has been unraveling in recent years. Social media have helped bring on a new era, enabling individuated encounters with the news that confirm biases and sieve out contravening facts. The current president has further hastened the arrival of a world beyond truth, providing the imprimatur of the highest office to falsehood and conspiracy.
We cling to reality today, crave it even. We still very much live in Abraham Zapruder’s world. That is, we venerate the sort of raw footage exemplified by the 8 mm home movie of John F. Kennedy’s assassination that the Dallas clothier captured by happenstance. Unedited video has acquired an outsize authority in our culture. That’s because the public has developed a blinding, irrational cynicism toward reporting and other material that the media have handled and processed—an overreaction to a century of advertising, propaganda, and hyperbolic TV news. The essayist David Shields calls our voraciousness for the unvarnished “reality hunger.”
Scandalous behavior stirs mass outrage most reliably when it is “caught on tape.” Such video has played a decisive role in shaping the past two U.S. presidential elections. In 2012, a bartender at a Florida fund-raiser for Mitt Romney surreptitiously hit record on his camera while the candidate denounced “47 percent” of Americans—Obama supporters all—as enfeebled dependents of the federal government. A strong case can be made that this furtively captured clip doomed his chance of becoming president. The remarks almost certainly would not have registered with such force if they’d merely been scribbled down and written up by a reporter. The video—with its indirect camera angle and clink of ambient cutlery and waiters passing by with folded napkins—was far more potent. All of its trappings testified to its unassailable origins.
That all takes us to the nub of the problem. It’s natural to trust one’s own senses, to believe what one sees—a hardwired tendency that the coming age of manipulated video will exploit. Consider recent flash points in what the University of Michigan’s Aviv Ovadya calls the “infopocalypse”—and imagine just how much worse they would have been with manipulated video. Take Pizzagate, and then add concocted footage of John Podesta leering at a child, or worse. Falsehoods will suddenly acquire a whole new, explosive emotional intensity.
But the problem isn’t just the proliferation of falsehoods. Fabricated videos will create new and understandable suspicions about everything we watch. Politicians and publicists will exploit those doubts. When captured in a moment of wrongdoing, a culprit will simply declare the visual evidence a malicious concoction. The president, reportedly, has already pioneered this tactic: Even though he initially conceded the authenticity of the Access Hollywood video, he now privately casts doubt on whether the voice on the tape is his own.
The collapse of reality isn’t an unintended consequence of artificial intelligence. It’s long been an objective—or at least a dalliance—of some of technology’s most storied architects. In many ways, Silicon Valley’s narrative begins in the early 1960s with the International Foundation for Advanced Study, not far from the legendary engineering labs clumped around Stanford. The foundation specialized in experiments with LSD. Some of the techies working in the neighborhood couldn’t resist taking a mind-bending trip themselves, undoubtedly in the name of science. These developers wanted to create machines that could transform consciousness in much the same way that drugs did. Computers would also rip a hole in reality, leading humanity away from the quotidian, gray-flannel banality of Leave It to Beaver America and toward a far groovier, more holistic state of mind. Steve Jobs described LSD as “one of the two or three most important” experiences of his life.
Fake-but-realistic video clips are not the end point of the flight from reality that technologists would have us take. The apotheosis of this vision is virtual reality. VR’s fundamental purpose is to create a comprehensive illusion of being in another place. With its goggles and gloves, it sets out to trick our senses and subvert our perceptions. Video games began the process of transporting players into an alternate world, injecting them into another narrative. But while games can be quite addictive, they aren’t yet fully immersive. VR has the potential to more completely transport—we will see what our avatars see and feel what they feel. Several decades ago, after giving the nascent technology a try, the psychedelic pamphleteer Timothy Leary reportedly called it “the new LSD.”
The ability to manipulate consumers will grow because VR definitionally creates confusion about what is real. Designers of VR have described some consumers as having such strong emotional responses to a terrifying experience that they rip off those chunky goggles to escape. Studies have already shown how VR can be used to influence the behavior of users after they return to the physical world, making them either more or less inclined to altruistic behaviors.
Researchers in Germany who have attempted to codify ethics for VR have warned that its “comprehensive character” introduces “opportunities for new and especially powerful forms of both mental and behavioral manipulation, especially when commercial, political, religious, or governmental interests are behind the creation and maintenance of the virtual worlds.” As the VR pioneer Jaron Lanier writes in his recently published memoir, “Never has a medium been so potent for beauty and so vulnerable to creepiness. Virtual reality will test us. It will amplify our character more than other media ever have.”
Perhaps society will find ways to cope with these changes. Maybe we’ll learn the skepticism required to navigate them. Thus far, however, human beings have displayed a near-infinite susceptibility to getting duped and conned—falling easily into worlds congenial to their own beliefs or self-image, regardless of how eccentric or flat-out wrong those beliefs may be. Governments have been slow to respond to the social challenges that new technologies create, and might rather avoid this one. The question of deciding what constitutes reality isn’t just epistemological; it is political and would involve declaring certain deeply held beliefs specious.
Few individuals will have the time or perhaps the capacity to sort elaborate fabulation from truth. Our best hope may be outsourcing the problem, restoring cultural authority to trusted validators with training and knowledge: newspapers, universities. Perhaps big technology companies will understand this crisis and assume this role, too. Since they control the most-important access points to news and information, they could most easily squash manipulated videos, for instance. But to play this role, they would have to accept certain responsibilities that they have so far largely resisted.
In 2016, as Russia used Facebook to influence the American presidential election, Elon Musk confessed his understanding of human life. He talked about a theory, derived from an Oxford philosopher, that is fashionable in his milieu. The idea holds that we’re actually living in a computer simulation, as if we’re already characters in a science-fiction movie or a video game. He told a conference, “The odds that we’re in ‘base reality’ is one in billions.” If the leaders of the industry that presides over our information and hopes to shape our future can’t even concede the existence of reality, then we have little hope of salvaging it.
This article appears in the May 2018 print edition with the headline “Reality’s End.”
The Measure of Trump’s Devotion
Memorial Day is for the living: for those who mourn, for those who remember, for those who carry upon their bodies and souls the scars of war. It is the opportunity for society to express gratitude. That is not only a duty to the past. It’s a commitment to the future—because Memorial Day speaks not only to those who have sacrificed in the past, but to those who may be called on to sacrifice in years to come.
“To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan” is a promise not denominated only in dollars and cents. We commit spiritually, too, to do our limited human best to understand and appreciate the losses and suffering imposed by the defense of the nation.
The 9.9 Percent Is the New American Aristocracy
1. The Aristocracy Is Dead …
For about a week every year in my childhood, I was a member of one of America’s fading aristocracies. Sometimes around Christmas, more often on the Fourth of July, my family would take up residence at one of my grandparents’ country clubs in Chicago, Palm Beach, or Asheville, North Carolina. The breakfast buffets were magnificent, and Grandfather was a jovial host, always ready with a familiar story, rarely missing an opportunity for gentle instruction on proper club etiquette. At the age of 11 or 12, I gathered from him, between his puffs of cigar smoke, that we owed our weeks of plenty to Great-Grandfather, Colonel Robert W. Stewart, a Rough Rider with Teddy Roosevelt who made his fortune as the chairman of Standard Oil of Indiana in the 1920s. I was also given to understand that, for reasons traceable to some ancient and incomprehensible dispute, the Rockefellers were the mortal enemies of our clan.
The Fading Battlefields of World War I
This year will mark the passing of a full century since the end of World War I—a hundred years since the “War to End All Wars.” In that time, much of the battle-ravaged landscape along the Western Front has been reclaimed by nature, or returned to farmland, and the scars of the war are disappearing. Some zones remain toxic a century later, and others are still littered with unexploded ordnance, closed off to the public. But across France and Belgium, significant battlefields and ruins were preserved as monuments, and farm fields that became battlegrounds ended up as vast cemeteries. In these places, the visible physical damage to the landscape remains as evidence of the phenomenal violence and destruction that took so many lives so long ago.
America Is Fumbling Its Most Important Relationship
China is an increasing problem for the United States. But the latest reactions and assumptions about China among America’s political-media leadership class hold every prospect of making China-related problems much worse. How can this be? It involves the familiar tension between short-term political shrewdness and longer-term strategic wisdom. Here’s the pattern I see:
Back in the 1980s, when Japan was on its path of industrial ascent, I was based there for The Atlantic. In those days the longtime U.S. ambassador in Tokyo, former Senator and Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, said in virtually every speech that U.S.-Japanese interactions were “the most important bilateral relationship in the world, bar none.” Mansfield, a great politician and patriot, used this phrase so reliably and relentlessly that “bar none” became among the Japan crowd an air-quote shorthand. “We had a great time at that sushi place last night. The unagi was the tastiest—bar none!”
The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous
J.G. is a lawyer in his early 30s. He’s a fast talker and has the lean, sinewy build of a distance runner. His choice of profession seems preordained, as he speaks in fully formed paragraphs, his thoughts organized by topic sentences. He’s also a worrier—a big one—who for years used alcohol to soothe his anxiety.
J.G. started drinking at 15, when he and a friend experimented in his parents’ liquor cabinet. He favored gin and whiskey but drank whatever he thought his parents would miss the least. He discovered beer, too, and loved the earthy, bitter taste on his tongue when he took his first cold sip.
His drinking increased through college and into law school. He could, and occasionally did, pull back, going cold turkey for weeks at a time. But nothing quieted his anxious mind like booze, and when he didn’t drink, he didn’t sleep. After four or six weeks dry, he’d be back at the liquor store.
The 60-Year Downfall of Nuclear Power in the U.S. Has Left a Huge Mess
It was just another day in the life of the defunct Hanford nuclear site, a remote part of Washington State that made most of the plutonium in America’s Cold War arsenal. On the morning of May 9, 2017, alarms sounded. Around 2,000 site workers were told to take cover indoors, and aircraft were banned from flying over the site for several hours. The roof of a tunnel had collapsed, exposing railcars that had been loaded with radioactive waste from plutonium production and then shunted underground and sealed in decades before.
There was other stuff down there too. Nobody quite knew what. Record keeping was poor, but the contents of the tunnels certainly included carcasses from animal radiation experiments, including a reported 18 alligators. The emergency lasted only a few hours. The integrity of the waste was restored. But it was a chilling reminder of the site’s perilous radioactive legacy.
The Benefits of Optimism Are Real
One of the most memorable scenes of the Oscar-nominated film Silver Linings Playbook revolves around Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, a novel that does not end well, to put it mildly.
Patrizio Solitano Jr. (Bradley Cooper) has come home after an eight-month stint being treated for bipolar disorder at a psychiatric hospital, where he was sentenced to go after he nearly beat his wife’s lover to death. Home from the hospital, living under his parents’ charge, Pat has lost his wife, his job, and his house. But he tries to put the pieces of his life back together. He exercises, maintains an upbeat lifestyle, and tries to better his mind by reading through the novels that his estranged wife Nikki, a high school English teacher, assigns her students.
Spitting in Europe’s Face Won’t Help Italy
PARIS—It’s time to retire the famous line by the Italian writer Ennio Flaiano, that in Italian politics, the situation is “always grave but never serious.” Today, it’s fair to say the situation is both grave and serious. The implosion on Sunday of a populist governing coalition—after Italy’s president vetoed the coalition’s choice of a euroskeptical economist as finance minister—has achieved three results, none of them good for the stability of Italy or Europe. It’s set Italy on the path to new elections. It’s strengthened the hand of the right-wing, anti-immigrant League party. And it’s turned Italy into a de facto referendum on the euro—an unprecedented development in a core member of the European Union and single currency.
I’m Not Black, I’m Kanye
I could only have seen it there, on the waxed hardwood floor of my elementary-school auditorium, because I was young then, barely 7 years old, and cable had not yet come to the city, and if it had, my father would not have believed in it. Yes, it had to have happened like this, like folk wisdom, because when I think of that era, I do not think of MTV, but of the futile attempt to stay awake and navigate the yawning whiteness of Friday Night Videos, and I remember that there were no VCRs among us then, and so it would have had to have been there that I saw it, in the auditorium that adjoined the cafeteria, where after the daily serving of tater tots and chocolate milk, a curtain divider was pulled back and all the kids stormed the stage. And I would have been there among them, awkwardly uprocking, or worming in place, or stiffly snaking, or back-spinning like a broken rotor, and I would have looked up and seen a kid, slightly older, facing me, smiling to himself, then moving across the floor by popping up alternating heels, gliding in reverse, walking on the moon.
How Watermelons Became a Racist Trope
It seems as if every few weeks there’s another watermelon controversy. The Boston Herald got in trouble for publishing a cartoon of the White House fence-jumper, having made his way into Obama’s bathroom, recommending watermelon-flavored toothpaste to the president. A high-school football coach in Charleston, South Carolina, was briefly fired for a bizarre post-game celebration ritual in which his team smashed a watermelon while making ape-like noises. While hosting the National Book Awards, author Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket) joked about how his friend Jacqueline Woodson, who had won the young people’s literature award for her memoir Brown Girl Dreaming, was allergic to watermelon. And most recently, activists protesting the killing of Michael Brown were greeted with an ugly display while marching through Rosebud, Missouri, on their way from Ferguson to Jefferson City: malt liquor, fried chicken, a Confederate flag, and, of course, a watermelon.
Your Collapsing Bridge
A cinematic poem about black identity, featuring footage of a catastrophic bridge failure
‘We Don’t Know Ourselves From Within’
A widower finds new meaning in a dove—and, perhaps, a message from the other side.
The 99% Is a Myth—Here’s How It Breaks Down
There is a new American aristocracy, and it’s bigger than previously thought.
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