…or, The Slow Death of Meaning
“The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.”
–John Berger, Ways of Seeing
Last week, a video made the viral rounds. Using an old David Letterman interview of comedian Bill Hader, the programmers behind YouTube channel “Ctrl Shift Face” seamlessly transformed Hader’s face into that of Tom Cruise, and other celebrities he impersonated during the clip. It was at once both remarkable and mere clickbait: the latest demonstration of technology’s ability to deceive the human eye.
However, such a capability in the age of fake news is sobering. Time was, it was good sport to find digital manipulation and photoshop errors. There was a certain satisfaction in spotting an imitation, a game-like quality to identifying how and when the mask had slipped. Human triumph over clumsy tech.
That time is over. The technology is now superior to our discernment. Welcome to the age of the deepfake.
Techopedia defines deepfake as “a term for videos and presentations enhanced by artificial intelligence and other modern technology to present falsified results.” The video and others like it are based on the work of Matthias Niessner, who, among others, uses computer imaging to create manipulable images based on existing video. Nearly as frightening as the implications of this technology is the fact that it isn’t new: Niessner developed it five years ago. In other words, we may have already been fooled, and we wouldn’t have had the slightest inkling.
In Ways of Seeing, John Berger’s classic treatise on human perception of the image, the reader is challenged to comprehend the sanctity of classic works of art before they became commodified, reproduced on postcards, turned into memes. Humorous embellishments on Munch’s The Scream and da Vinci’s Mona Lisa are arguably as popular as the works themselves, but it wasn’t that long ago that the ability to render any exquisite work was the artist’s alone. The image itself was honored, held up as an expression of human achievement, sacrosanct.
Photography at once democratized and cheapened the image: anyone with the means could create still photos. In time, near-instant reproduction became possible. The number of photographic images, born of reality, superseded those created by hand and imagination. Image-as-evidence changed the legal landscape. “Photo finishes” began to resolve disputes in sport, and now fans expect high-resolution, slow-motion replays for any halfway remarkable play, and referees crouch under replay hoods, looking not unlike wet plate camera photographers of the 1800s.
Anyone over 50 has seen once-expensive cameras become cheap and even disposable. Polaroid turned the lengthy process of photo development into a near-instantaneous event. The advent of handheld videocameras and homemade movies has given way to an era in which almost every adult in civilized society carries a miniaturized supercomputer (that can access virtually any image ever created) which is equipped with a videocamera (to capture anything he sees) in his back pocket. Images are so abundant, we rarely bother to print them on glossy photo paper anymore.
The image is everything, and nothing.
Implications of Deepfake Videos for Politics
The frightening thing is that this technology has arrived at the same moment society bears witness to an explosion of politically motivated false flag events. Disgraced actor Jussie Smollett was relying on a CCTV camera that happened to be aimed the wrong way, otherwise we might well be embroiled in the stirrings of a new civil war. Consider that a good director using AI can create the same video in a studio and claim it was shot on the smartphone camera of “a source who wishes to remain anonymous.”
Imagine the consequences if a politically-motivated party (or AI gone rogue) distributed a deepfake video of a political candidate saying something deeply offensive on the day before an election. Or if a national Chinese television broadcast was hacked with a video of the American president saying that ICBMs have been launched. Or a sex tape of a politician involving minors. And so on. The only limit to the potentially destructive act is the imagination of the criminal behind it.
After all, seeing is still believing for the vast majority of the voting population.
The Impossibility of Epstein
And now we are asked to believe that in a federal prison under close supervision, the most notorious criminal in recent memory, whose secrets could likely sink the careers of cadres of the rich and powerful, worth hundreds of millions and who had walked basically free a decade ago, committed suicide. It is standard operating procedure in the Metropolitan Correctional Center that cameras do not point into the cells, we are told. Of course there is a laundry list of irregularities about the event, but focus for a moment on the stunning lack of photographic images of Epstein’s dead body.
The sole photo of the pedophile’s body, featured above, was taken by one Larry Celona, a journalist at the New York Post who also has IMDB credits to his name. As 4chan users pointed out on Wednesday, Celona has no Wikipedia page, and there are no images of him to be found online, but he broke the story on the Epstein suicide an hour before anyone else, and captured the only photo of Epstein’s (mostly obscured) dead body. Nice scoop, Larry. It’s almost as if you knew when it was going to happen.
The irony is incredible: in the age of ubiquitous video and ever-present cameras, the public receives one still image of the allegedly deceased Epstein, taken by a career journalist of whom no photos are available. Is “Larry Celona” real? (Go ahead, do an internet search for him–there’s virtually nothing, and he has supposedly been a journalist for decades). Did Epstein actually die, or was he whisked away to witness protection?
As questions mount, the answers are as impossible to discern as the moment Hader’s face morphs into that of Cruise. Much like a deepfake video, recent political events feel utterly manipulated. Intelligence agencies and mainstream media as heedless trolls, running naked, streaking the public.
The result is Russian-esque cynicism, an exhausted populace. As lies stack up, spirits sag. Never-ending collusion nonsense, fake swastikas, racebaiting, Rachel Dolezal, fake rapes, no attention to black-on-black violence, curiously-timed shootings, paid protesters, fake Native American Liz Warren, fake Mexican “Beto,” the erosion of free speech through fake ideas such as “hate speech,” never-solved crimes like the Stephen Paddock massacre in Las Vegas, the Seth Rich murder, and the Clinton body count, lethal-to-the-touch drugs pouring across our southern border, Google searches manipulating voters, the new fake politician “Squad”, etc. etc.
By the time a wrong is righted, as in the Rolling Stone/UVa case, and hopefully with Smollett as well (a new prosecutor has been assigned), the damage has been done. Phrases like “clown world” get tossed around online boards by jaded commentators. Of course, not all of them choose apathy. Some grow deeply angry and write manifestos, and some of those manifestos are acted upon. There is a very real toll to be paid.
When the ultra-rich and usually leftist crowd is given pass after pass, the increasingly popular reply is to throw up one’s hands. An entire generation is watching crimes go unpunished while narratives are formed out of thin air to further their causes. So in that way, Andrew Breitbart’s famous notion, that “politics is downstream from culture,” is for the time being, wrong. In our ill-fated present course, it is politics that is steering us, and the effect on our culture is profound.
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