Imagine all the people deepfaked

Via Kottke.

This ‘deepfake’ video of lots of current and former world leaders and other famous people is interesting and provokes all sorts of questions. Some suggest legislation against them, which is what the US seems to be pursuing, but that of course asks further questions about how to ‘police’ them and who has agency. There are, perhaps, some interesting resonances with the increasing use of performance holograms to re-animate dead performers – but there, of course, the legal issues are different. Nevertheless, all sorts of ideas, aesthetic, ethical and otherwise, about ‘authenticity’ crop up (e.g. this from New Scientist, or this on trust in ‘evidence’ re ‘deepfakes’), which we will increasingly be provoked into discussing.

It is interesting, I think, that while those of us in what we call ‘critical’ social sciences or humanities have been developing fairly nuanced articulations of identity and subjectivity, arguing they are not necessarily essential and acknowledging how they are performed (for example), contemporary digital/ social media, and our uses of them, have forged new norms of ‘authenticity’ in relation to identity. Facebook wants ‘true’ names, for instance. “Finsta” (‘f’ denoting ‘fake’), the phenomenon of setting up hidden, often pseudonymous, Instagram accounts – only for selected friends (as opposed to your curated “rinsta” account (‘r’ denoting ‘real’)) shows how these two understandings of the performative nature of identity and the construction of a normative insistence on ‘authenticity’ collide. We might reasonably ask, for instance, why the ‘finsta’/’rinsta’ labels don’t actually mean the reverse if the more public of the two accounts is heavily curated and the ‘secret’ one is in some senses then more ‘authentic’.

‘Deepfakes’ are, amongst other things, a sensory ‘trick’, an attempt to somehow fool the conscious and sub-conscious habitual discernment of what feels whatever it is we mean by ‘authentic’, ‘genuine’ or ‘real’. In some senses, ‘deepfakes’ reveal back to us the extent to which digital media may have shifted how we pay attention and how we feel (about ourselves, others and the world around us) with and through them. Digital media cultivate attention in different ways, many of them perhaps oriented towards a capitalist imperative, also, perhaps, with them we cultivate forms of paying attention. If this is the case then, as was argued in terms of the potency of TV advertising, we may begin to ‘see through’ the ‘tricks’ precisely because we are bombarded with them (for example, the Putin bits in the video above are not very convincing to my eye). Or, to be pessimistic, we may simply begin to assume nothing can be trusted, that all media is created in bad faith, which of course prompts discussions of a crisis of democracy because how can a population make informed decisions without ‘trustworthy’ sources.

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