The Deepfake Decades

An executive I know told a room of junior officers:

all communication is manipulation

It was a mentoring session and its retelling made my hair stand up. It sounded like a thing Patrick Bateman would say to someone just before disappearing them into the walls of a 5th Avenue penthouse.
American Psycho

I thought of it when I saw Bill Hader transmorph yesterday. For a second, on an old Letterman reel, he laughed like Tom Cruise. But not like Tom Cruise. He was Tom Cruise. For a sorcerous blink, Tom Cruise bubbled up like a gollum made staccato in Hader's giggling. More than Hader's usual Merlinic voice throws, this was straight black magic.

Well, it was neural nets. It was neural nets that gobbled pictures of Cruise and Hader and performed the mapping digestion of democratized artificial intelligence that can digitally stitch one face on top of another. Can learn and impose a gait. Can make a still photo smile. The video is still lighting up the internet.

Hader Cruise Rogen
The gollum-maker in this case works under the YouTube handle ctrl shift face (SUCH a bad ass handle) and doesn't even study neural nets, but uses open-source code paired with turn-key AI software and takes recommendations from blog followers on who to mash up next. No knock on him. It's awesome. It's just that, that matters. Deepfake software is a commodity now. Commercially available. Most people learned it existed at current caliber, yesterday. Watching Bill Hader. The future is now, as they say.

Ours is the era of the deepfake. And it turns out we've been here awhile. A place, perhaps, where all communication is manipulation.

When I sit to write, what comes most readily are the sprinting indictments of the world. They are the easiest sludge to let drip from me. The Twitterfication of my literary guts. And from time to time, they manage charm.

Before I was a user of Twitter (and I still am), I thought its sewer of wreckage would be brevity-by-edict. Now I know that's a bit of its brilliance.

No, the trespass at which it puts me at constant liberty is an unclosing sluice gate of shit speech. For some reason, you get in the cockpit of that thing, news feeds dialed up, the regular monsters in their thrones, and its all open-throttle, hammer-down outrage war.

The invention is surgical in decoupling the asserting vector of argument, from the considering vector. It's all kamikaze exchanges. We only ever end in flames.

Unless we're careful. Unless we remember how to be revealing instead of warring, from time to time.

Make up a story. For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul.
- Toni Morrison

It seems plausible that all communications are, at least, derivative of influence. We are not so ambivalent as to utter things apathetically; we'd rather they get up and move people, I suppose.

But believing that all communication is manipulation is believing that our unbridled rage avatars attendant to social media are a right evolution of that manipulative self. Such an axiom implies that pounding our views into virtual strangers, while maybe unsophisticated, is just what happens when we let our hair down. But it's not. It's what happens when we abdicate choice. When we clip our wings and prop open the shit speech sluice gates.

Deepfakes pair well with social media as bannermen for this moment not because either of them need be bad, but because they're coincident results of an upstream force: a penchant for bending wills.

We order the world according to our preference. Compliments we give thing B are usually pounds of flesh we took from thing A. We struggle to compliment in one direction without demeaning in another. We create a spectacle so astonishing and delightful that we call out to one another to come see what's been done, and then we use it to implode democracies.

It's not because we're garbage, as my cohort is keen to wager.

No, if the future world is some informatic hellscape of deepfakes, it will be for the same reason that we cannot have smartphones and ignore smartphones.We live in a time where beautiful tools enable the dissolution of republics because we have yet to wrestle back our power of abstention from a vortex of availability.

The coming decades are now set for a path of deepfake ubiquity.  I've already watched Barack Obama give speeches, convincingly, that he never gave. There's no putting that back in the box. Hawking's teacup shatters on the floor; the arrow of time remains undefeated. A technology arrives that forces a new decision set on us, that I don't think we saw coming.

But we've been in the low-tech deepfake universe for years, where messaging reduces to a battle of loosest moral stricture. Offer 300 million people a delectable lie, no matter how baldfaced or disprovable, and your boy-scout opponents will exhaust themselves imploring the masses to purge. But how many shards of that teacup unshatter back up to the table top?

Social media's principal lesson is that always, always when unthinking we call on the first kid in our brain class to raise his hand. And that kid is always, always the bit of our brain ready to hellfire rocket our opinion in the direction of that other idiot, saying something different.

Consequential, then, when that same voice - hair trigger by nature - proves most susceptible to the decades of deepfakes now ahead of us. And it's that voice, dumbly imbued with our values, that will be most willing to enlist himself in the deepfake wars surely now ahead of us too.

ctrl shift face


  1. Yah this is so scary. Especially since some people (elderly for example) will never know that it is possible to be lied to this way