Digital video, the index, and your own eyes

Perhaps you have seen recent stories about the developing technical ability to map one person’s face onto another person’s body in video. This article details the unsurprising result of people mapping celebrity faces onto porn videos. Apparently the capital of the porn industry is moving from San Fernando valley to the uncanny valley. I’m hoping you don’t need me to tell you that it’s wrong to do that to women–actresses, ex-girlfriends, anyone–without their consent, but that’s the world we live in right now. These technologies also constitute an emerging format of fake news video. That’s another obvious nasty application. You might remember this related story from last year detailing the technical ability to put words into someone else’s mouth on video.

Maybe there are appropriate artistic and political purposes for creating videos of this type, things that would be something like SNL impersonations, with public figures as along as the product is clearly marked as fake. And there could be other consensual uses. I just finished reading The Circle, which I’m teaching this semester, and there’s a brief scene in the novel about a technology that maps your face onto that of a movie protagonist. Maybe you’d like to see that, or play as yourself in a video game. I don’t know.

As the linked article discusses, and you can see in the definitely NSFW subreddit it mentions if you care to, the current technology, at least as its available to the average user is not so seamless that you can’t tell it’s faked. Yet. Of course, you look at Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One as this NY Times article details. In the case of the film, a body double similar in size/shape to Peter Cushing imitated Tarkin while wearing motion capture materials. In the fake porn scenarios, there are similar technical demands if one is seeking verisimilitude (though I suppose that isn’t necessary and all kinds of desires might be addressed with this technology). Certainly an enemy state intelligence agency would have access to the technologies capable of making very convincing fake videos. 01ROGUE1-superJumbo-v4.jpg

My interests in this begin with our strong faith in the indexical character of video, that is that video is an objective record of real events. You can think of security cameras or the role of video replay in sports. But film and video have never quite been that reliable. Since the early days of film we’ve had special effects, including faking people. A scene was shot with half the lens covered, then the film rewound and the cover switched before the same scene was shot again thus creating the appearance of the actor encountering himself/herself. Those are obvious examples. And I suppose this new faking technology is part of this tradition of special effects that goes from slow motion and montage through the “bullet-time photography” of The Matrix and onto the the virtual world of Avatar and beyond. However, we should equally keep in mind that even documentary and recording/surveillance video produced with the best possible intentions of recording “what really happened” always has technological limits. If nothing else video is always limited by what the lens is able to see and the machine is able to process or capture. What happens before or next? or behind the door or behind the camera lens?

The knee-jerk reaction is to once again throw up our hands in the face of another source of unreliability turned out by digital media. But if you’re paying attention then you know that film/video have always been problematic presenters of the truth, as have audio recordings, as have writing and speech. No rhetorical act can be taken as unvarnished truth. This fake porn is deplorable. But equally deplorable things have been accomplished in any media you might pick. It’s entirely likely that this composing technology could lead to the composition of valuable knowledge, just as you can also find in any media you might pick.

The question has always been how do we evaluate the value of a composition. Those standards shift from genre to genre and community to community. That relativism does not mean that there is no truth. It doesn’t mean that one group gets to call a video evidence of a real event and another to say that it is faked and that both claims get to be equally true. It seems that it has become increasingly difficult for Americans to discern the difference between recognizing that different audiences/people will be more or less persuaded by any given argument (and that’s ok) and disagreeing over the basic establishment of facts and information. That is, there’s a difference between disagreeing over the beauty of a sunset and disagreeing over whether or not the sun set at all.

Many times, of course, we rely on others to convey those facts and we need to ask them how they came to know such things. Researchers describe their methods and results and cite sources. Journalists and other nonfiction writers cite their sources too. Both are reviewed and fact-checked by their own professional systems. To function as a society we need to be able to rely on these institutional processes and we live in a political moment when powerful people (primarily on the political right I have to say) have enacted years of attacks against institutions in furtherance of their political goals–science, schools, universities, news media, and lately the FBI. Each has been accused of being nothing more than political actors, as having no other basis or purpose for knowledge production than the pursuit of personal ideology. I’m not suggesting we need to swing to some other extreme and give these institutions blind faith; we know there are humans working there too. Instead it means developing our own understanding, our own literacy if you like, about how such knowledge and media are composed and tested, and putting such works to our tests.

As we all know, these tests are most important when it comes to knowledge (whether research or current events) that confirms our existing beliefs and biases. Given the current political climate surrounding US immigration policy, we’re likely to encounter all kinds of media. Media, including video, that is entirely fake. Ideologically curated news that is designed to appeal to one’s existing biases. News stories with some factual basis that is spun one way or another by pundits and politicians appearing online, on TV, in newspapers and so on. The underlying question always has to be–how has this been composed? How can I test the strength of this composition?

To go back to the Marx brothers, today you can believe neither me nor your own eyes. Instead one must understand the available affordances of knowledge and media composition, recognize the institutional processes, genres and expectations by which those compositions are produced, and then test them against that knowledge. Whew! What a lot of work. Who knew being in a democracy meant having such responsibilities?!?

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