Posted March 26, 2021
“If a nuclear bomb exploded in the United States today,” British colleague Nick O’ Connor asks, “how would you know?”
It’s a strange question. But, as you’ll see, it’s an important one in our age of deepfakes.
Over the years, I’ve been equal parts excited and terrified about technology’s unstoppable rise in our lives.
Decentralization of centralized systems makes me excited.
Deepfakes, however, are one thing that tickles my terrified side.
While technology can certainly help level the playing field…
It’s also, in ways both obvious and subtle, disrupted our sensemaking abilities.
From QAnon to Russiagate, and everything in between…
For many of us, very little is as it seems. And very little makes sense.
Take the hot new thing: NFTs.
NFTs, though they’re useless (in their current form), are being sold for millions of dollars.
Why? You could boil it down to the Ethereum blockchain (where most of the NFTs are housed) begging for something to do. You could say this is a reflection of the funny money economy. You could say it’s a speculation bubble. You could say this is disrupting the $370 billion collectibles market. You could say that humans are just glorified raccoons:
1. See shiny thing.
2. Collect shiny thing.
Maybe it’s all of these things. But that still doesn’t mean it makes sense.
(I do think NFTs will be useful in the future, but there’s no “there there” yet.)
Nothing is more concerning, however, than the rise of the deepfake.
With deepfakes, not only can you not believe your eyes -- you can’t trust them, either.
This becomes even more dangerous because our biggest virtual grottos have created “flood the zone”-style narrative control.
Today, to dig deeper into this quandary, we invite Nick O’ Connor to talk about the rise of our “deepfake society”...
And how decentralization -- and freedom of information -- can help recenter our sensemaking capacities.
The Moabification of Everything
By Nick O’ Connor
If a nuclear bomb exploded in the United States today, how would you know?
Let’s assume — for the purposes of this thought experiment — that it doesn’t detonate close enough to your home for you to be able to see or hear it. Lucky you. But now you have a problem: if you weren’t there to witness it, how do you know that it happened?
Most people would turn to the media, either old or new: they’d put the TV on, go on the internet, maybe even turn on the radio. There’d be a million ways to verify what was going on.
But that’s where our thought experiment turns strange. Imagine parts of the media – in particular social media – report that there’d been a nuclear explosion in the USA… and then change their mind, correct the story and claim there wasn’t. What then?
You know there must be some faulty reporting somewhere in the mix. But where? Was there really a nuke – and it was covered up? Or did it never happen to begin with? In which case – why did the media report it as having happened?
It might be a thought experiment. But it cuts to the core of one of the biggest challenges we all face. How do we know what is true in a world where the media is hackable and much of the population believes what it wants to believe, rather than what’s true?
As in so many things, this idea was preempted by the work of the novelist and futurist Neal Stephenson in his most recent novel, Fall. In Life After Google, George refers to Stephenson as “the twenty-first century’s greatest writer and demiurge”. I agree. In fact I wonder if even that could be downplaying it a little.
Though works of fiction, Stephenson’s work prophesied everything from the emergence of electronic cryptocurrencies to gene engineering. Parts of his 1994 novel Snow Crash take place in what’s called the “multiverse” – a kind of three dimensional, virtual-reality internet. In Silicon Valley VR circles, the book is incredibly influential.
But back to our fictional nuclear blast.
(Note: I’m about to give away one very small part of the plot of Fall. Nothing that’ll ruin your enjoyment when you read it. But consider this a polite spoiler alert nonetheless.)
An Embarrassment of Moabs
At one point in the novel Moab, Utah, is destroyed by a nuclear blast. Or it appears to be destroyed. It is reported as having been destroyed. And the hoax fools even parts of the government and military. It’s what you might call a real-world-deepfake. But the real damage is done on social media, which goes into overdrive.
Within the life of the novel, the event becomes a kind of cultural touchstone. Though it becomes clear that no nuclear blast ever occurred, millions of people go on believing it happened.
Moab “truthers” hold rallies protesting against the government cover up. T-Shirts branded “Remember Moab” have become common. In real life Moab exists. But in the nightmarish world of weaponised misinformation and precision deep faking… it has been destroyed in a nuclear blast. People believe what they want to believe.
Stephenson doesn’t offer a solution to the problem. This is unfortunate. Why? Because the fictional world he imagines and the real world we’re living day today are on a collision course. Perhaps that collision has already happened. Or perhaps we’re living through that very collision as we speak.
Don’t scoff. The parallels are closer than you might think. Take three major issues we hear about a lot: COVID, climate change and the 2020 election. All come perilously close to “going Moab.”
They’re all highly politicised issues. People’s views on them tend to align with their political persuasion. There is little consensus or agreement on what’s happening (or in the case of the election, what happened). And yet all three issues are characterised by the fact the authorities — the digital-industrial-state — attempt to present an unchallenged narrative about them.
(The irony is that in silencing debate and competing narratives, the authorities actually make each issue more fertile for disinformation and deepfakes. I would suggest this is because on some fundamental level, people hate being told what to think, and therefore seek out alternative ideas, whether rightly or wrongly. But that subject is beyond the scope of this essay.)
Let me give you an example. As an Englishman who has — sadly — been unable to visit the USA for more than a year, I won’t comment on the election. So, let me take a subject that has likely affected us both in similar ways: COVID.
I’d suggest COVID is the world’s Moab. Not in the sense that it’s a hoax — which it clearly isn’t. But in the way that no one can quite agree what it is: how dangerous it is, what the correct response is or what should be done about it. I predict that in twenty years’ time, people still won’t quite be able to agree on what happened. It’ll divide people forever. “Oh dad, don’t mention COVID, it’s Christmas Day…”
And a big part of that is because of the way the authorities attempted to silence competing narratives around it. Here’s a great example. Have you ever heard of The Great Barrington Declaration?
I hope you have. But I fear many people haven’t.
A Battle Royale Filled with Hypocrisy
It is a worldwide petition against the way the COVID-19 pandemic has been dealt with. It was created by scientists at Oxford, Harvard and Stanford. In other words: highly credibly experts. And it’s been signed — as I write — by nearly 55,000 public health scientists and medical practitioners globally.
That doesn’t mean it’s right. But it does suggest it’s an idea that was worth hearing about.
And yet, that was surprisingly hard to do. As The Spectator put it back in October:
Since its launch, the declaration has been signed by tens of thousands of epidemiologists and public health scientists, including a Nobel Prize winner. So why haven’t you heard of it?
The short answer is there’s been a well-orchestrated attempt to suppress and discredit it. I searched for it on Google last Saturday and the top link was to an article in an obscure left-wing magazine claiming the petition was the work of a ‘climate science denial network’ funded by a right-wing billionaire.
We’re told to listen to “the” science and “the” experts. But that sort of finger-wagging use of the definite article — “the” — is rank with hypocrisy. What it really means is, listen to “some” science, and listen to “some” experts. That science and those experts being the ones that happen to agree with the authorities. Anything else is heresy.
It’s a dangerous situation. It creates fertile ground for disinformation and deepfakes and that don’t just unfold virtually but in real life too. It is no longer the means of production that are most valuable — but the means of information. It’s a battle for the soul of the Information Age.
There are answers. The trend away from a centralised, siloed internet and towards a decentralised network built on the blockchain is one. As a Laissez Faire Today reader you’re in the right place to hear more about that.
But there’s a more personal solution, too. It goes back to the question I asked you at the start of this essay. How do we know if something is true?
According to Nietzsche, there’s one important distinction to understand when valuing knowledge. There’s “Erfahrung” — what we know based on experience — and “Wissen,” what we know based on secondary information, such as books, the internet, and television.
We know the oven is hot based on experience. We know the Earth revolves around the Sun based on secondary information.
That’s one way of assigning a value to what we know. Erfahrung or Wissen. Primary and secondary. Where did we learn it? Is it based on direct experience or is it reported via someone else? And if the latter, do we trust the source?
That’s just one way of looking at things. And since directly experiencing everything is all but impossible (not without incredible contacts and infinite time), we can’t purely rely on direct information.
But we can use this informational hierarchy to figure out who to listen to. Listening to people with direct experience on a subject — like 55,000 medical practitioners for instance — might be more valuable than relying on a journalist or a news-aggregating algorithm, both of which are likely to be part of the centralised legacy media.
Put another way: don’t let Google do your thinking for you.
And remember Moab.
Until next time,
Contributor, Lassiez Faire Today