Faked reality

Faked reality

Digital Cultures analyst, Mark Pesce, believes we’ve reached a tipping point: The systems we’ve developed to enhance our lives are now impairing our ability to distinguish between reality and falsity.

Others see echoes of the problem in our obsession with authenticity and a nostalgia for past times that seemed more real.

But are such fears overstated? And can a greater emphasis on the teaching of ethics and critical thinking help lead us out of the shadowlands?

Original broadcast on 15 April 2018.


Dr Laura D’Olimpio – Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Notre Dame Australia

Andrew Potter – Associate Professor, Institute for the Study of Canada, McGill University; author of The Authenticity Hoax

Hany Farid – Professor of Computer Science, Dartmouth College, USA

Mark Pesce – Honorary Associate, Digital Cultures Programme, University of Sydney

Robert Thompson – Professor of Media and Culture, Syracuse University


Mark Pesce: Where the real world begins and where this fantasy world that’s created because of what the world thinks we want to see begins is getting harder and harder to find.

Robert Thompson: So we are sitting here and we are talking about reality versus authenticity and so on and I think all of those terms, we have trouble even getting a purchase on them any more. I think we don’t know how to confront the brave new world we are facing, so it’s a problem.

Hany Farid: Look, there’s no doubt that we are living through the equivalent of the Industrial Revolution. This is the technology revolution, this is the information revolution, and it is phenomenal. But boy, you are seeing the dark side of it in a way that I don’t think people who were there at the birth of the internet would have predicted.

Antony Funnell: If it sometimes feels like a strange and confusing world, that’s because it is!

Welcome to Future Tense, Antony Funnell here.

What is reality? That used to be the sort of question only poets and philosophers asked, but not anymore. The toys and gadgets that fill our lives are so complex and their workings so opaque that, according to Mark Pesce, we’re now beginning to lose a sense of what’s real and what is not. We’ve reached a tipping point.

Mark Pesce: I think what we’ve seen probably over the last decade is that we are starting to use systems, machine learning systems that are so good at profiling us that they can really start to feed back what they know about us to us. And the really interesting thing about this is they can actually start to then almost steer us very gently off of course. And you think about Facebook’s newsfeed being the best example of this and maybe a billion people a day are finding out about the world from Facebook’s newsfeed, but what most of them don’t know is that Facebook’s newsfeed is very carefully tuned to give you exactly the things that will continue to keep you engaged with Facebook’s newsfeed. So if there are things that would maybe anger you or turn you upset or just make you put the phone down again, those things aren’t going to end up in your Facebook feed.

So what you are getting now in terms of your view of the real world is no longer necessarily the world as it is or the world without any particular filter on it but it’s now the world that is personally curated to specifically fit your own needs and your own worldview. That is already the case for billions of people around the world every day, and where this is starting to go is that first that’s now being used as a mechanism to target us for propaganda, and Cambridge Analytica is the most recent example of how that might work. But we are also now starting to see that there are new technologies, augmented reality technologies, you can think of those as a sophisticated set of sunglasses that you might put on that will map new things into the world over your view, basically almost invisibly, so you can’t really tell the difference, as if in a way you are hallucinating but there has been a lot of machine help behind it, and that these things are being coupled into these machine learning systems to help us to deliver more or less the world that we want to see all of the time. And where the real world begins and where this fantasy world that’s created because of what the world thinks we want to see begins is getting harder and harder to find.

Antony Funnell: And the seductive side of all of this, it only works because what is being fed to us, as you say, is stuff that we want to see, that we already are in tune with, in a sense.

Mark Pesce: Yes, I guess the curse of the information age…and we 20 years ago had very, very high hopes about an age where everyone would have access to all information, and the downside of this, which is really only being revealed in full now, is that it has become possible for us to literally feed ourselves diets of what we would think of as a mental junk food, where we are really only getting the sweet bits and the bits that are very flavourful but perhaps aren’t nutritious. And when you feed your mind on a diet of things that are not nutritious, you’re basically going to starve your brain, you’re going to starve your ability to be able to make sense of the world, and in some ways all of us are going around with a kind of mental malnutrition now because it’s so hard to actually even get a view into something that is not effectively a reflection of ourselves.

Antony Funnell: Mark Pesce, Honorary Associate in the Digital Cultures Program at the University of Sydney. And ‘The Last Days of Reality’ is the title of an essay he recently published in the journal Meanjin.

Hany Farid: We have been hearing from very serious minds—Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking—that AI unleashed on the public at this pace is going to create problems. And I think we are just at the tip of that iceberg, seeing how these artificial intelligence systems have the potential to wreak havoc on our core democracies. My name is Hany Farid, I am a Professor of Computer Science at Dartmouth College.

We’ll look back on the time of people creating fake images with sharks swimming down the streets as quaint, compared to the types of content that we will see being developed by individuals, by governments, trying to disrupt national elections. These are serious threats to our democracy, they are threats to our society, they are threats to our well-being as a society and in terms of the infrastructure and the fibre. And we have to really start getting very serious not just about this fake news phenomenon but about how we are unleashing artificial intelligence on the public, and start really thinking about what are the implications of this technology as it starts to unfold. And honestly I don’t think we’ve done that very well over the last two decades with the rise of the internet. We have rushed headfirst into all of these technologies and only years later do we start thinking about the implications. I think we have to start getting ahead of that a little bit and start getting serious about what the good, the bad and the ugly ramifications are before we get too far into it.

Antony Funnell: Hany Farid’s over-riding concern at the moment involves what are called Deep Fakes. Deep Fakes are videos that have begun to pop up on the internet that take a person’s face and superimpose it onto another person’s body. They first started to appear in the porn industry, but now they’re becoming more mainstream. They look convincing. I mean, really convincing. Some of the ones that I’ve seen are so good, you’d swear they were real. Hany Farid again:

Hany Farid: When you think about faking an image or faking a video you typically think of something like Adobe Photoshop, you think about somebody takes an image or the frames of a video and manually pastes somebody’s face into an image or removes something from an image or adds something to a video, that’s how we tend to think about digital fakery. And what Deep Fakes is, where that word comes from, by the way, is there has been this revolution in machine learning called deep learning which has to do with the structure of what are called neural networks that are used to learn patterns in data.

And what Deep Fakes are is a very simple idea. You hand this machine learning algorithm two things; a video, let’s say it’s a video of somebody speaking, and then a couple of hundred, maybe a couple of thousand images of a person’s face that you would like to superimpose onto the video. And then the machine learning algorithm takes over. On every frame of the input video it finds automatically the face. It estimates the position of the face; is it looking to the left, to the right, up, down, is the mouth open, is the mouth closed, are the eyes open, are the eyes closed, are they winking, whatever the facial expression is.

It then goes into the sea of images of this new person that you have provided, either finds a face with a similar pose and facial expression or synthesises one automatically, and then replaces the face with that new face. It does that frame after frame after frame for the whole video. And in that way I can take a video of, for example, me talking and superimpose another person’s face over it.

And what’s really fascinating about this technology, although it is still arguably in its infancy, is that it has democratised access to creating fairly sophisticated and compelling things. What used to require a lot of talent and time-consuming process now is done…all the hard steps are done by a machine learning algorithm, and that’s why this is a real threat. It’s not that, oh, we can alter video, it’s that the machine now can alter it in a way that is extremely easy and extremely efficient, and so everybody can do it. And if you haven’t seen some of these…you know, they are not perfect but they keep getting better. Every few months we see new examples coming out.

There was one just recently of Alec Baldwin, who of course impersonates Donald Trump on Saturday Night Alive, and they superimposed Trump’s face onto his, and it looks like Donald Trump. There’s almost no way of distinguishing the two, and that is where things get very scary, when you see video of people talking, world leaders, saying things that they did not say, and that is going to be a game changer in world politics, in election, in fake news and with the real news.

Antony Funnell: A game changer, as Professor Farid says, because authentication is in no way a straightforward process.

Hany Farid: When you find evidence of tampering, you can be fairly sure something is fake. But when you don’t find evidence of tampering, that doesn’t mean it’s real, it just means it’s real or it’s a very good fake. And so the authentication game is asymmetric in this way, and that is very tricky because in some ways the threat is in both directions, it’s that there are going to be sophisticated fakes out there that are designed for nefarious purposes, but also all of the real things are now suddenly going to be called into question.

Imagine a world leader who is caught in a private setting saying something offensive, illegal, controversial, they now have plausible deniability, despite the fact that the content is completely legitimate. And you can imagine this really fascinating information war that could evolve. So imagine a world leader gets in trouble for a video that is leaked. What would be the first thing I would do is I would say, okay, I’m going to create 10 versions of this video, I’m going to get them out on the internet and nobody is going to know what to believe any more.

So it’s going to be a very interesting space, and as we come up here in the United States on the mid-term elections, national elections are two and a half years away, there are elections all over the world happening over the next few years, we are seeing huge impacts of fake news. That will look like the good old days compared to what happens when we start to unleash this type of content on the public, and how journalists, politicians, law enforcement and the public contends with this is going to be very tricky. We are going to have to change many, many different ways about how we consume digital content if we are going to get a handle on this.

Antony Funnell: If you look at, say, bank notes, one of the measures to try and deal with the counterfeiting of banknotes was to provide very sophisticated watermarks and other security measures or security features. Technically is that possible with videos, to develop a kind of system that would mean that this is an authentic video?

Hany Farid: It’s a great question and you’re absolutely right and it’s a terrific analogy, that with banknotes we have gotten pretty good. We have actually made it very difficult and very time-consuming and very risky to create counterfeit currency because what are called watermarks are quite sophisticated. So a couple of things. One is we have tried to create digital watermarks to prevent copyright infringement. So the movie industry, the music industry has tried for years to create what are called non-reversible watermarks. That is, be able to insert a digital watermark into content such that you can prove that this is Sony’s, Pixar’s, whatever company’s content and then trace that over the internet and find and remove it.

The problem of course is that the digital world is different than the physical, and those…we have not found a watermark that is not reversible. Despite years of trying to build watermarks that are resilient to attack, we have not been able to do it. So the problem with the watermarks is as soon as somebody figures out how to take the watermark out, now you have a problem, you have this huge vulnerability, because now what they’re going to do is take the watermark out, manipulate the content, put in the watermark back in, and now it looks like it’s authentic. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t try, but there are weaknesses with that type of technology right now.

Antony Funnell: Hany Farid, Professor of Computer Science at Dartmouth College in the United States. This is Future Tense. I’m Antony Funnell.

Andrew Potter: Where we are, we are in a very curious position and I think in a lot of ways we are like indigenous cultures in the early years of contact with European settlers. That was a time marked by huge cultural dislocation and also the poisoning of the indigenous cultures by not just new technologies and new ideas but frankly by microbes and the various diseases the Europeans brought with them. That’s a familiar story. And I almost feel like we are in that position with respect to, say, social media. We are almost like indigenous peoples who…our former forms of social organisation, our cultures, our politics, are being completely wiped out in the face of these new pathogens, and we simply don’t have the antibodies for them. And part of not having the antibodies, to play off that metaphor a bit, is we don’t have the vocabulary for even understanding it. And so we are sitting here and we are talking about reality versus authenticity and so on, and I think all of those terms, we have trouble even getting a purchase on them anymore.

Antony Funnell: Andrew Potter is the author of a book called The Authenticity Hoax. He’s also an associate professor at McGill University in Canada.

Andrew Potter: So where does that leave us? It leaves us in a very weird spot. We are in a strange position where you go on something like Instagram where people are portraying a very false authentic version of themselves where you actually set about using filters to portray either the most amplified, buffed up, clean face of yourself to the world on the one hand, while wallowing around in the nostalgia products, from Atari computers to Pokémon Go to whatever of our youth. And I think we don’t know how to confront the brave new world we are facing.

Antony Funnell: And that, according to Professor Potter, explains the modern obsession with authenticity.

Andrew Potter: What I find is that we have entered an age where two things seem to be the case. We have entered an age where we seem to have a much more tenuous hold on reality as we used to understand it, yet our nostalgia for a more authentic, more real world is higher than ever. And there are some extremely interesting ways in which that nostalgia is playing off against an increasing constructed notion of authenticity where we are now nostalgic for things that either never existed or never existed in the forms in which we believe they did, which just seems to be pulling the legs out from everything, that our connection to anything real seems increasingly tenuous and problematic.

Antony Funnell: So why are we attracted to that idea of nostalgia, why do we look for authenticity in that way, what does it give us?

Andrew Potter: The concept of authenticity that I use in my book The Authenticity Hoax, one of the ideas I played with is that when we talk about the authentic we are relating it to three pillars of modernity. We are relating the authentic to the development of technology, the development of capitalism and the development of liberal democracy. And we see the authentic as somehow in tension or in opposition to all of those things. So as the world gets more consumerist, as the world gets more individualistic and as technology continues to encroach upon increasing aspects of our lives, we look for the authentic in things that are anti-technological, anti-individualistic, more communitarian and anti-consumerist. That is, that are a more barter economy or more a hipster do-it-yourself type economy of craft brewing and so on that we are living in. And so I think we increasingly find a lot of attraction in that kind of life, and it’s almost like a lot of us are playing at being old-fashioned or old-timey.

It reaches back to the set of social circumstances and economic circumstances and cultural circumstances that we tend to dimly think were if not better, at least a more innocent time or naive time and so on, and we react against the cynicism and the manufactured aspect of our existence and we move back to the authentic. But it’s problematic in two ways. One, what we are thinking back to, what we are looking back to, what we are harking back to probably never existed or at least didn’t exist in the form that we imagine it did. And we don’t realise the extent to which a lot of our authenticity seeking takes the form of a disguised form of status seeking.

So to take an example that is familiar to Canadians, a lot of us like to get away from it all by going canoeing, in a way that avoids other canoeists, and so you get this steady ratchet of what constitutes an authentic wilderness experience for instance, and where the simple existence of other people as you go canoeing undermines the authenticity of the experience. That’s familiar to anyone who has ever done canoeing, that tension between the existence of other people and the authenticity of the experience, and you see that in a whole lot of other aspects of our culture, everything from the pursuit of ever more local forms of dining, the farm-to-table movement in the dining that began with the organic movement about 15 years ago and has now become such a rarefied type of culinary experience that it’s available only to the most socially connected or frankly wealthy people. And so once we understand authenticity seeking as a disguised form of status seeking, you can see how we get further and further alienated from our own authenticity seeking as the ratchet of culture progresses.

Antony Funnell: So that authenticity seeking, as you call it, that actually leads to a greater dilemma about what is real and what is fake in the world. It doesn’t actually give us a more real experience or a greater understanding of what is real.

Andrew Potter: No, just the opposite, it ends up creating the conditions for its own disappointment. That is, the very act of looking for authenticity, looking for the real under a certain kind of definition or understanding of it only makes you thirstier for what you thought you desired in the first place.

Robert Thompson: There is certainly nothing categorically wrong with artificiality. Art is artificial by definition. Watching a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III is completely artificial, it’s historically inaccurate, but it’s one of the most extraordinary experiences one can have in the theatre.

Antony Funnell: Robert Thompson is an expert in television and popular culture at Syracuse University.

Robert Thompson: I guess the problem with artificiality becomes when we take what is artificial and begin to think that it’s real. Have all the phone you want watching ER or Grey’s Anatomy but you don’t use ER or Grey’s Anatomy to learn how to do surgery or emergency medicine.

I think most viewers of reality TV are perfectly cognisant of the fact that a lot of this stuff is set up and is bogus, manipulated and all the rest of it. We’ve seen documentaries about this, there is currently a television show called Unreal which is all about the fakeness of shows like The Bachelor and all that, people do know that. But if the show is produced well, they are still able to get into it, to suspend that disbelief, even though they know a lot of it is fake. And there’s also a difference between…as contrived as a lot of reality TV is, as most reality TV is, it is one step away from a completely scripted program.

Take some of these dating shows, for example, The Bachelor being the one that has been running the longest, compared to a beautiful, cinematic, romantic comedy, as fake as it might be, the dating reality show does actually get closer to I think what the experience of courtship really is. The Bachelor is filled with people behaving inarticulately, stupidly, insecurely, but when you think about it, courtship in the 21st century is filled with insecurity, stupidity and inarticulate communication.

Antony Funnell: So is the reason we are able to suspend our disbelief in those kind of scenarios, is the reason because we see some kind of kernel of truth, if you like, in what is being presented, even though we know it is highly manufactured?

Robert Thompson: I think that is really a big part of it, is that when we watch reality TV, we know this isn’t documentary, and for that matter even when we watch a documentary we are not seeing reality, we are seeing things that happen differently because of the presence of cameras. But just because we know the limitations of these things, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we can’t get insight and pleasure out of it. Just like when we read a novel or a poem or watching a fictional movie or television show, that stuff is all contrived, it’s all fictional, but sometimes out of that fictional created stuff you can get more focused insights into the things that are being talked about than you could if you were getting just the facts about any given thing. And we not only accept the contrived part, we demand it. If you were to watch a documentary that really made every effort to totally record what went on in the subject matter being shot and did it without editing and tried to completely not affect anything that was happening, very few people would watch that.

Antony Funnell: Is it a serious worry that we could get to a stage where we start not to be able to tell the difference between the artificial and the real?

Robert Thompson: Well, I am worried about the fact that there seems to be an eroding basis of things that everybody agrees upon that is close to the truth. So this centre of things that we could have a debate about because there was a certain body of knowledge that everybody agreed we could call true and then we could do our debate accordingly. Now you’ve got people arguing that the world is only 6,000 years old, and when someone says, well, all the science points to the facts that it’s a lot older than that, they simply say, well, science is part of a vast liberal conspiracy. That kind of argument worries me because there is no way you can proceed rationally in any kind of conversation when you can completely shut down entire bodies of knowledge on absolutely no evidence whatsoever. But I’m not sure if we’re going further down that path now than we were before.

What we call now fake news used to be called disinformation, and we have plenty of really important examples of it. Certainly the information we were getting during the Vietnam War was filled with fake news. The weapons of mass destruction, more recently. I think the difference now is there are just so many more venues of information. So in the end I think what we need to deal with is to educate people as to how they can responsibly, as citizens, consume all this information and make sense of it, and that is a really tall order. Media literacy courses may in the end be harder than courses in calculus.

Antony Funnell: Robert Thompson from Syracuse University.

Philosopher Laura D’Olimpio goes one step further. In her new book Media and Moral Education she argues for a greater emphasis on the teaching of ethics and of critical thinking.

Laura D’Olimpio: The technology itself is value neutral, in a sense, it’s what people do with technology that can make it either constructive and supportive or destructive and negative. So when we start to look at the different social media platforms we can ask these questions, we can ask, well, what are their aims and intentions and whether or not we agree with them. So some might say, well, we think that transparency and lack of privacy is a good thing. And we should pause and ask, well, is that really the case, are those default settings things that we agree with, and then how much responsibility do we have to go in and change them and understand what we are agreeing to when we put our information and use such websites or social media apps and things like that.

But then on the other side you do want I think…with this idea of ethical consumerism you want your companies to be trying to promote ethical practices as well, and so they should pause and say, well, is this not just going to gain us good brand recognition, good following, lots of people using our product, but is it also going to be helpful or more constructive for the world, because due to that technology it is now a global world that we are operating within.

Antony Funnell: That assumes though that they have that thought in the first place, that they have that kind of concern for the world or for the people who are using the material from their platforms.

Laura D’Olimpio: Absolutely, and this is why in the end I return to educational concerns because I think that for the personal responsibility as well as if you’re a businessperson, those ethical concerns, that compassion, that care, and even just the critical thinking skills involved in working out the impact of your product on the world and how people use it, the impact on their lives, that is something that we need to practice and habituate our thinking to pause and reflect and actually ask that question so that it’s not just a matter of, well, this is possible so I’ll go and do it, but you pause and you say, well, should I? What are the pros and cons of it?

Antony Funnell: Such an emphasis on the teaching of critical thinking, of philosophical thinking, needs to begin in the very early years of a person’s education, says Dr D’Olimpio. And where it has already been introduced into the classroom, the results have been encouraging.

Laura D’Olimpio: It’s a fairly new discipline in the school level in that it has only been starting since the ’70s and the ’80s, it started in America, and so they had children in primary schools take one hour per week of philosophy classes and they found a remarkable difference by the end of the school year. And so on the initial reports, children improved between 1 to 3 and 4 months in their ability of literacy, numerously, their ethical consideration. And these things are difficult to measure, so all of these studies you can pick them apart and analyse them, but the biggest difference was with kids who were from the lower socio-economic areas, they actually improved greatly. And when follow-up studies were done a few years later, you can see that those differences in the skill sets and in their test results were retained. And so compared to students who didn’t undertake this philosophy class, these students who had done the philosophy were still improved in their test results years later.

Philosophical thinking skills or critical thinking skills, they are not just the domain of philosophers obviously, they are the domain of people who want to pause and be reasonable and think about what they are doing.

Antony Funnell: Philosopher Laura D’Olimpio from the University of Notre Dame in Australia bringing this week’s Future Tense to a close.

We also heard from Mark Pesce at the University of Sydney, Hany Farid from Dartmouth College, Robert Thompson at Syracuse University, and Andrew Potter, author of The Authenticity Hoax, at McGill University in Canada.

Karin Zsivanovits is my co-producer. The sound engineer Dave White. I’m Antony Funnell.