On the night of Thursday, September 3, 1998, a middle-aged college professor with a history of heart attacks passed out while driving his car on a busy US highway. The car skidded through the lanes and in the rush of oncoming traffic. The collision was so powerful that it pushed the engine of the professor’s car into the front seats. Miraculously, he survived and no one else was seriously injured. He recovered from a broken ankle and wrist and was discharged from the hospital. A month later, he was back there with pain in his leg – a clot that may or may not have been triggered by the accident. Then his body inflated to twice its size with liquid, so it looked like a balloon that you could prick with a needle and pop. His wife and young children saw his miraculous survival turn into a sudden worsening of his underlying heart disease. In April 1999, he was dead.
Just over two decades later, her son, Michael Grothaus, was sitting at his computer watching a video of his father, healthy and wearing a yellow T-shirt, playing with a smartphone invented many years after his death. . He was having fun recording the sunny park around him. Then he turned to the screen and smiled kindly at his son behind his bushy eyebrows.
Grothaus had redeemed his father to life as a “deepfake”. It only costs a few hundred dollars. There are entire communities of anonymous deepfakers that you can easily reach in the best layers of the internet. Usually they specialize in creating custom porn: let’s say you want a video of you having sex with Scarlett Johansson or the girl next door. All you have to do is provide a video clip and they do the rest. To create the video of his father in the park, Grothaus uploaded over 60 seconds of VHS footage from the mid-1990s. “Brad” then broke it down into 1,800 images of his father’s face and passed those images through. through a program called DeepFaceLab, which grafted them onto a video of another man.
His father’s digital resurrection sparked conflicting feelings at Grothaus. He watched the video several times – relishing the reunion. Then he deleted it – horrified at the break he had made in reality, and the consequences that entailed for our sense of truth and trust.
This shared reaction runs through Grothaus’s book on deepfakes. On the one hand, they offer the prospect of overcoming death, of envisioning utopia, of satisfying sexual desire. On the other hand, they bring fear of total chaos. Even a short, dummy video of, say, the resignation of the CEO of a large corporation, could panic the markets just long enough for the people who created it to kill. Deepfakes of candidates saying something untoward in the dying moments of a close election could change the fate of geopolitics.
But while such scenarios are dizzying in their destructive potential, they are, for the most part, still moot. The real financial scam described by Grothaus involves fraudsters who used a CEO’s voice recording to call his accountant and get him fired $ 243.00. Embarrassing – but also possible only thanks to a rather gullible interlocutor. The political case study he describes is an amateur montage of a video that gives the impression that Hollywood star Dwayne Johnson is humiliating Hillary Clinton in the run-up to the 2016 election. The video has gone viral in Magaland, but not because its authenticity was particularly compelling. It just corresponded to the existing prejudices of the people.
This is characteristic of “disinformation”: it is not really intended to change minds. It’s about giving them what they want to consume anyway. The quality of the deception is not necessarily the crucial factor. Will deepfakes change that? Will their mere existence destroy any vestige of trust in a shared reality? Potentially. But one thing we do know is that the discourse that has developed around this issue, rather than being something radically new, is part of a much older dynamic.
In a previous life, I was making documentaries for television. I always wondered why someone agreed to participate. Most were ordinary people who had no interest in fame. Slowly, I realized that there was something about the filming process that appealed to them. The camera seemed to promise that their experiences made sense and ultimately offered some sort of immortality. That said, every time our contributors saw the movies they were in, they hated them. The way we edited them in our scenarios made them less powerful, more vulnerable. Instead of immortality, we brought the opposite: a complete loss of self-control.
Our relationship to visual representations of ourselves is always part of this axis of narcissism and dread: both promising a defeat of death, but arousing this desire only to disappoint it, by overwhelmingly strengthening its inevitability. Our fascination with deepfakes feels like the latest iteration of this emotional roller coaster, and it’s one that Grothaus captures very well.