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It seems like every week there’s a new minor panic about advancements in deepfake tech, like we’re all anticipating a not-too-distant future when it becomes so good that the dumb proles can’t distinguish it from reality and our perfect facts-based order instantly collapses.
The recent one was the technically impressive Bill Hader / Tom Cruise mashup everyone shared:
Actual examples where people have genuinely been fooled en masse in a politically relevant way by a deepfake are pretty scant on the ground, though.
There was that video of Nancy Pelosi where her voice was pitch-shifted down and slowed so it made it seem like she was drunk — not really a deepfake, but whatever — but even that was spoken about in a weirdly detached, meta way. Everyone was saying “Look how terrifying this could be if people really bought it!” rather than identifying meaningful ways it might have actually influenced the discourse. As VICE said about that video, people who don’t like Pelosi would be inclined to believe lies about her anyway. What’s actually changed?
I think the deepfake panic is more representative of a generalised fear among liberals that we can’t ever return to a coherent, monolithic media narrative which a broad swathe of the population accepts. People tend to pin this on Facebook (and to a lesser extent other social media) but the seeds of this semiotic disintegration were planted a long time ago — almost certainly pre-internet, to be honest.
The pretense that it was Facebook and the algorithm which sorted everyone into their ‘filter bubbles’ is plainly absurd. What social media does is expose those fault-lines in ways that could be papered over by a mass media which generally agreed on a certain set of facts. The fact these drastically different narratives are now exposed could feasibly have some kind of instrumental effect in the end, I guess. I remember reading something which said that Twitter is basically every forum from the 2000s slammed together and only lightly moderated. Facebook is basically the same, but your mum is there. This makes disagreements which were already present in the general population much starker.
The point I’m making, possibly circuitously, is that the growing deepfake panic is less about the technology itself, and more a generalised fear that we’ve lost the ball on this whole ‘truth’ caper anyway.
If someone spends hours meticulously cleaning up a deepfaked video of, say, Hillary Clinton admitting she killed Jeffrey Epstein, then I don’t see how it won’t just follow the current procedure. It gets posted, people who already believe that will share it with varying degrees of ironic intent, people who don’t believe it will debunk it, someone like Vox or Slate or whoever will do a definitive debunking, then we’re back to square one. No one’s mind is changed.
Do deepfakes have more nefarious utility beyond shaping opinion; perhaps in the darkened hallways of the security and espionage state? Probably. But that’s more of a reflection on those structures and systems themselves, rather than a revolutionary product of the technology itself.
What I’m reading…
A favourite sub-genre of sportswriting is people attempting (in vain) to intellectualise Shane Warne, and this bit in the London Review of Books is an amusing entry in the canon:
Warne’s career is a succession of what in hindsight look like foolishly reckless acts, any one of which could have ruined him. He took these risks because he believed he could always talk his way out of them. ‘I’ve made a number of mistakes in my own life,’ he writes, ‘and I will continue to make them. This is what it means to be human.’
I liked this bit, about how the interplay of the internet and culture, mediated by the algorithm, makes everything into a grey slurry of sameness:
Within the algorithm, an uncanny valley presents itself: like the android which looks too much – but still not quite – like a human being, a restaurant ad looks almost identical to my friend’s documentation of their dinner. Users create content which gets fed back into the algorithm, providing a template for brands and companies to determine what works and what doesn’t. Menus are designed around what will look best on Instagram.
This is very long (and, at times, dense) so maybe set it aside for a later date, but I revisited Lee Sandlin’s essay ‘Losing the War’, which remains one of the weirdest things written about WWII — or any war — maybe ever.
Children still play on beaches strewn with rotting barbed wire, gardeners still unearth snake's nests of rusted bullets, and construction crews now and then dig into unexploded bombs. The immense earthworks the war left in Europe and Asia will endure long after the official monuments have been carted off to make room for new subdivisions. But here in America the war was ephemeral.
The Troop – Nick Cutter. I picked this up because I saw James Wan is producing a film adaptation. It’s a decent, fast, unpleasant body horror read. The plot is a thin artifice to move you between various vivid descriptions of the human body undergoing gruesome transformation and disfigurement. I have no reason to believe the film will be any different. Three and a half distended stomachs out of five.
What I’m watching…
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. I liked this movie and found it to be a weirdly pleasant viewing experience. Just a movie to sit there and absorb, as if through osmosis. I think it’s the first time I’ve really bought Tarantino’s claim that he intends to stop making films altogether after his tenth. It feels a little bitter, like he’s fully aware that the era of Hollywood in which someone would invest $90 million in a Tarantino movie (instead of, say, a comic book adaptation) is now passed.
The ending, which I will not spoil, seems to be Tarantino imagining a blissful alternate reality in which the things he loves — TV westerns, pulp fiction, European trash cinema etc — became part of the Hollywood mainstream instead of being consigned to the dustbin and, ultimately, sublimated into Tarantino movies.
The Boys [Amazon Prime]. Watchmen for absolute meatheads. This isn’t necessarily an insult. I respect this series because everything about it, from its screenplay to its sense of humour to its politics, seems like it was yanked straight from the year 2005. It’s a commentary on Bush’s America fifteen years too late. There’s even a whole subplot about blackmailing a homophobic Southern senator with a gay sex scandal. Back then, that was the wildest shit anyone could think of. Fantastic.
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