Welcome to Episode 235 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.
For our podcast this week we’re going to chat a little bit about the frontiers of the digital life in terms of CGI, and digital manipulation of images and data, and how as we’re approaching a point now where it’s very difficult to tell the difference between reality and what is fabricated digitally how we should look and assess this type of information as people and as a society. So this episode was inspired by an essay by Alan Warburton who is an artist, an illustrator, an animator, and did a lovely video essay in Aeon Magazine called “Goodbye Uncanny Valley.” He takes the perspective that we’re right on the frontier of CGI where there’s a strong chance now that we’re going to have a degree of difficulty in terms of parsing whether or not the images that are put in front of us are made up images or whether they’re actual images.
The reason this is increasingly so important is we live in siloed, cordoned off areas where we choose the information that we’re consuming, and increasingly the information we consume is reflective of our standards be they political, moral, or otherwise, so while there’s a deluge of information available we are picking and choosing what information we’re exposed to. I thought we would start off this conversation by talking about this eventual march towards indistinguishability between CGI and real video, real photos. I’ve seen some pretty good CGI. I don’t know that we’re quite there yet. What do you think of that, Dirk, are we at that point yet?
I don’t think we’re quite there yet. I mean, there certainly are examples of CGI that I’ve seen and I won’t be able to remember and name of the top off my head, but that were indistinguishable from reality like it was executed so flawlessly that I didn’t comprehend that I was watching CGI, however, the much more common case is that there seems or still showing that the CGI is there and there’s something with the physics, there’s something with the representation, there’s something that’s just off. It rings the alarm, oh, okay, this isn’t real. This is fake, basically.
Yeah, I mean, so if we dial this back to something much more conventional, which is text, right? We all get lots of spam in our email inboxes and the conceit of spam is that it’s coming from a trusted source so this is from Amazon, this is from this person you know, this is from some trusted company, and then you read the email and there’s just something off about it. The way it’s constructed, the way the logo looks, the offer that it’s making to you, right?
I’m just talking about pure spam that’s a phishing attack, trying to get you to believe in something very simple, right? This is an email. This is the most basic of, you know, sort of believable information.
The set dressing of that is just people have not mastered the fake email in a way that–
Give me a day and tell me I need to fake an email from a company I’m going to nail it every part of it, so I don’t get how these people are trying to make a living on rubbish.
Sure, and the point I’m trying to make here is that the scenes that we’re talking about in CGI are going to be there for a long time because even if you can’t tell the difference between the image and reality there are going to be other scenes the way that the information is presented, the way a person is depicted. The way, you know, there’s either too much or too little detail. These are things that are going to be with us for a long time. I think one of the questions for us as a society is what is an acceptable assertation of fact like at what point are we agreeing on a common set of facts of ways of information that we can make decisions.
We never agree on a common set of facts that’s not happening now in real information let alone fake information.
Right, so in some ways I just wonder if this is going to make it worse. I mean, if you really desperately want to believe the things in a fake video, right? So I’ve seen videos of former President Obama saying things that perhaps, you know, he would never say or that have been tweaked in such a way that it makes it appear like he’s saying something. So when you’re sort of partisan enough, or you’re from either the left or the right, and you want to believe what’s presented to you does this make our information hidey-holes? Are silos all that much worse because now we can’t be shaken out of our conceits, our almost religious beliefs that the facts are going to line up the way we want them to. Does this make this worse?
I don’t know, I think it’s just the same shit different day, right? The problem is like we’re all selfishly motivated. We’ll bend reality to fit our preferred version of the facts. In no way has this been more clear to me than in the recent sexual harassment stuff, right? So you have Republican we’ll use Roy Moore as the easy example who is participating in really ugly acts. In his case particularly ugly, but the people and I don’t want to paint too broad of a brush, but there’s a large chunk of Republican/Conservative voters who just don’t care. They just don’t care. They’re either going to justify it with some ridiculous logic, or they’re going to create a false equivalency and say, “Well, that Liberal is doing this and that, so we shouldn’t care about that,” or they just are going to ignore it because they want their worldview to be the one that wins, basically.
Now, it’s the same on the Liberal side, right? So the Liberal people, the social justice warriors who when it’s, you know, the Me Too movement is happening, when it’s the Republicans who are getting ensnared in some of it, you know, they want to burn them down to the ground like there is no quarter given. Then when it’s Al Franken, well now, you know, hundreds of his female comedy friends are going to sign a petition and say, “We’ve never seen that from Al Franken. We can’t believe that’s possible.” Both sides are trying to defend their side instead of having the same set of standards that they’re holding everyone to they are contorting themselves to try and force their worldview to be the winning one and protect there what matters to them and what they value at the expense of the other side.
So I think that that’s getting to things that are deep in human nature in our sort of immaturity, our lack of evolution at this point from a sort of logical emotional standpoint, so these details of CGI or alternate reality it’s just going to fall into that same crucible of if we’re seeing things that bring us pleasure, if we’re seeing things that enrich us, if we’re seeing things that take the things that we believe in and establish them as truths, establish them as the winning side we’re going to bend our interpretation of the world. Many of us are going to bend our interpretation of the world to conform to that. We’re not interested in truth. We’re interested in self.
Yeah, that’s interesting. So for you, or I mean your thesis is we’re sort of in a post truth era, you know, just by default just because of the way that we’re wired.
I don’t know that there was ever truth, right? I mean, if you go back I don’t know what would be the era of truth? I mean, let’s for the hell of it call it the Dark Ages, right? When it’s Christianity in the West, right? We’ll focus on the West. It’s Christianity, it’s the one God, it’s the Ten Commandments. It’s these very specific set of rules. I mean, those are all rules that are layered over people to help to control their behavior, and the whole way that that structure was created was that there was the repent, so you can break the rules and do bad things, but if you repent and say you’re sorry then all is forgiven. It’s this transactional model of social manipulation basically, right? It was wrapped in the language of truth, but it had nothing to do with truth. It was reconciling how our animal instincts fit into a system where we’re all able to survive together in a relatively comfortable way.
Yeah, that’s interesting. I mean you can obviously go through each era of history and point to, hey, what was perceived as being real versus, you know, what was actually happening, right? So if you look at the era of sort of, you know, the limited number of media companies that we had during the ’80s, right? We had three channels, a few newspapers, et cetera.
More in the ’80s than three. Go back to the ’60s for three.
So at least on my television growing up there was, yeah, more than three, but so were the big three, right?
Where we consumed our information ABC, CBS, NBC, and then later on Fox, of course, so I mean, there were a set of rules that, you know, the reporting followed, right? They didn’t report on certain things because it was unseemly, or they didn’t, you know, reveal certain kinds of information because they were asked not to, right? There are plenty of examples of this, so at least from a young child’s perspective I was viewing that news as being, you know, factual and accurate while, you know, it was filtered in a certain way based on whatever that rule set was for those news corporations of the time.
Now, of course, we have infinitely more choices, so we can choose to consume these things, which I think we’re probably aware that there is a slant to the news that we consume, and as we approach this next age where it’s very possible to sort of create the hyper realistic news that could be completely and utterly fake, but is going to look like the real thing. For me it feels like dangerous territory, but it may just be a reinterpretation of like the political cartoon, right? You have the political cartoonist who has, you know, the president in some scenario that’s exaggerated or unbelievable, and no one looks at the political cartoon and says you’re stating this as fact, but there’s an element of truth in there, so I just wonder where we’re going and what the rules are if there are anymore rules in terms of how we interact with this information.
I mean, right now it might be an overstatement to say there are no rules, but we’re certainly down that path, you know, the rules of decorum have been melted away over a long period of time. I mean, it’s easy to point to President Trump who is sort of the ultimate killer of decorum as the moment, but no, I mean, things like Breitbart came long before President Trump along with other poor media outlets not to just focus on the one, so I think this has been happening for a long time. As to the question why I’m not sure. I haven’t thought about it. I’m sure it’s a solvable answerable question, but yeah, I mean, the whole thing where JFK the press knew he had all these affairs going on, women coming in and out, and they just didn’t report on it. There was a belief, an agreement that it was best for the country, it was best for some things to be hidden from view, not for everything to be known.
The sort of philosophy of openness and freedom, access to information it sounds good on paper, but in reality I don’t think it’s necessarily a good thing, and the reason is A, the selfishness of the people getting the information. They’re not looking at it as interpreters of truth. They’re looking at is as selfish people are going to twist facts to match what matters most to them and the fact we don’t have a shared context. We don’t have a shared set of rules or lens to look at these things so that the information we get is just being spun into all these different directions few of which are relevant to the things that really matter. What are the things that really matter? We haven’t agreed on those as a society. I have my sense of what I think those things would be, but I’m in a very small group of people that would agree on that at this point.
The big question, of course, is when our interpretation of the facts how we’re approaching important things like policy and laws and the way we’re governing ourselves and what our expectations are for our society and civil discourse, right? And citizenship, and all those good things, so I think it’s probably safe to say that we’re not at the point yet with the digital life where fact and fabrication are completely interchangeable, but as we approach the point where it’s more and more hard to tell where the distortions are I think there’s going to need to be some level of filtering for lack of a better descriptor that sort of rises up above all the noise.
In the past it’s always been like I said the media outlets or the newspapers, or what have you, and maybe it could still be the trusted resources, but if we thought that it was going to get less complicated that’s clearly not the case. We are in for another level of sort of distortion and manipulation and judging from the hubbub about our recent elections I can only imagine what the next cycle is going to look like as this continues to develop.
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You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer, that’s @ D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R, and thanks so much for listening.
So that’s it for Episode 235 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.