Monday, April 9, 2018

Untruth on Demand

I was listening to RadioLab in my car on Sunday, and they were talking about the ability to make fake videos by combining a couple of different methods: The first being the ability to synthesize someone's voice if you have enough recorded audio of them, and the second being the ability to create convincing video of someone by effectively manipulating their digital image as if they were a puppet. Perhaps not by coincidence, The Atlantic also has a piece on the same technology.

What both stories have in common is an open concern about people's ability to discern truth from fiction, and the possible negative consequences of this. But something occurred to me when I was listening to the RadioLab story, and it came up in the piece from The Atlantic, as well.

As Ian Goodfellow, a scientist at Google, told MIT Technology Review, “It’s been a little bit of a fluke, historically, that we’re able to rely on videos as evidence that something really happened.”
Given that politics has existed for much longer than ubiquitous video, one suspect that people will survive the loss of the ability to believe anything they see. All it will take is a reliance on the skills that people relied on in the past. Both stories pointed out a basic problem - when people can't readily discern the difference between a forgery and a genuine article, an inconvenient reality can easily be denounced as a forgery. But this has always been true. The idea that technology could offer a form of telepresense, and in doing so, offer something between a reliable and ironclad understanding what transpired is, as Mr. Goodfellow pointed out, a fluke. Self-corroborating evidence of an event is a very recent innovation, if we can even claim to have it today. (And it's reasonable to say that we don't have it today, given that conspiracy theorists routinely challenge everything that pushes back against their understanding of the world as having been forged.)

Perhaps the real problem is our understanding of progress, and the role of technology in it. If we view the society and politics of all of history before "unimpeachable" video evidence of events as being necessarily broken, being forced to return to that would seem like a catastrophe. But maybe, as in a lot of things, our understanding of the present is an overly harsh judge of the past.

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