You may have seen the video. On a TV screen in the background, we see former US president George W. Bush talking and making faces. A guy sits with his back to the screen, making the same faces. However, the guy isn’t aping Bush – Bush is aping the guy. This is the result of a computer program developed by the Max Planck Institute in Germany and the universities of Stanford and Erlangen-Nuremberg. The program takes a video with a person speaking and transfers the facial movements of an actor to this person in a new video. This happens in real time, so in principle, the program could intercept a live broadcast of a politician and remake it to make the viewers see the politician do something entirely different from what he or she is actually doing. So, far only facial movements are recreated, but we will soon have the technology to put words into the mouth of Bush, in his own characteristic voice – also in real time.
This means that in the future, we will not be able to trust what we see or hear in a direct transmission. Different TV channels may transmit the same political debate and have the viewers see and hear different things. You can make a candidate say the most horrible things and stick their tongue out at the audience – and it will be impossible for viewers to know if it is true or not. If the viewers later are confronted with an accurate, unmanipulated recording of the debate, they will have no way of determining which recording is true. It might as well be the new one that is manipulated. Only the people that were physically present at the debate know what really happened – and can you trust them? If you yourself were present, can you trust your own recall of what happened? Our memories are not perfect, and psychologists have shown that it is possible to make people believe they have experienced something very different from what they in fact witnessed.
The dividing line between reality and unreality is disappearing. The past only exists in our common memory and in the physical traces left by events – and if both can be manipulated, the lie can become more real than the actual reality, and we have no way to determine which is which. The past is gone, and we are left with nothing more than our interpretation of what happened – and that becomes the real past. The same thing will soon also be true for the present.
The best weapon against fake news, the experts say, is to find a credible, original source. The question is whether or not such a thing will exist in the future.
In George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the protagonist Winston Smith works with editing old newspapers to make them consistent with the regime’s current narrative of the past. If you go back in the archives, you will only find articles and photographs that confirm the official story. In Orwell’s novel, this sort of manipulation of the past required total control of new and old media, but this is no longer necessary. A sufficiently skilful hacker, or ‘cyber-warrior’, as it is now called, could develop a virus or worm that trawls through the internet and invades citizens’ computers, replacing all information about an event with new information that, once all the original information is gone, becomes the unequivocal reality – until another cyber-warrior changes everything again. Even the video you recorded on your phone the day you were present at a political debate has been changed – and you can trust your own recording, can’t you? Reality becomes the new battlefield. Reality can be shaped, and he who shapes reality, owns reality.
In fact, you don’t even have to edit old information. It is easier to place new ‘old’ articles on the internet, which allegedly are from credible sources and respected media. Then, when you, as the critical media user you are, try to find the original source for a story, you must admit that, incredible as it seems, it is true. There has been a Bowling Green massacre. We have in fact seen this sort of manipulation in recent times. When Sarah Palin in 2011 told a nonsensical story about the American freedom fighter Paul Revere, her supporters went in and edited Wikipedia to make the internet encyclopaedia’s article about Revere conform with Palin’s version. This led to a lengthy ‘edit war’, where the article shifted back and forth between the two versions, and readers weak on history had no chance of determining what really happened.
Some will likely see this dissolution of reality as a problem, but others will joyously embrace it. Before, if reality conflicted with your personal political, religious, or cultural worldview, you had to try to ignore it. Now, you can reshape reality to fit with your views! Never mind that others do the same thing – they will be unable to prove that their reality is truer than yours. Nor do you have to expose yourself or your family to these different, uncomfortable realities. In fact, your search history on the internet ensures that you will only be exposed to stories that confirm your worldview – and if some stories get through that gainsay it, you can easily find sources that deny them. The truth is out there – in fact, all truths are.
With advances in media technology, it becomes even easier to establish your own reality. If you constantly wear glasses – or contact lenses, in the future – with built-in augmented reality, you can in real time edit your surroundings to conform to your worldview. Out with beggars, the homeless, and worn-out people – they don’t exist. Instead, you only see nice people in nice clothes. You don’t have to shut your eyes against poverty and inequality; they don’t even exist in your reality.
With virtual reality, you can choose to leave your sad and grey false reality entirely behind and step into another, better reality, which of course is more real. Or so it feels, for here, you are your true self, surrounded by real friends and tangible enemies that you can fight with a sword or raygun. Here, life is meaningful – and what is more real than having a meaningful life? People who tell you differently are just trying to make you believe that the real world is the drab one out there, just like the psychologist in the movie Total Recall, who tries to persuade Arnold Schwarzenegger that he isn’t really on Mars.
The advantage of creating your own reality is that there are so many things you avoid having to think about. Is the polar ice melting? Are children in Africa starving? Is the ozone layer disappearing? Is economic polarisation getting out of hand? Are the world’s resources running out? Not in my world. There are no consequences for me or my reality, so why worry?
Answer honestly – don’t you already shut many problems of that sort out of your world while you worry more about what will happen to the heroes of your favourite TV show, or to the participants in the talent or reality show you follow? Large and important parts of your everyday life already take place in another reality than the one others call real.
Maybe you even work in another reality. A growing number of people make a living building characters or fortunes in online games and selling them for ‘real’ money. Malicious rumour even has it that many who work in the banking industry are dealing with values that are just as fictive as a magical sword in World of Warcraft. Things are worth what people will pay for them, and if they want to pay money for a magical sword in an online game, well, then the value is real. If payment is made in a digital currency that only can be used in the game world, the value is still real if you take pleasure in using money there.
The barrier between real and unreal worlds is breaking down. Reality is what we want it to be and what we make it to be. Reality is malleable; past and present. You can’t trust anything you see, hear, or read – and it doesn’t matter, since there is no unambiguous reality, anyway. Even the things you experience are changed as you experience them. Maybe this article isn’t the same as the one you started reading. You could try starting over and see if something is different from what you remember. If you dare.
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