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In 1983’s Videodrome, David Cronenberg introduces the character of Dr. Brian O’Blivion, who is an obvious, exaggerated stand-in for media theorist Marshall McLuhan. Throughout the film, the protagonist Max Renn’s anatomy becomes undifferentiable from a television’s mechanisms due to a brain tumor that develops from exposure to a perverse, malignant broadcast emanating from Pittsburg. Though this perceived body modification begins as hallucination, the fact of it being hallucination becomes meaningless as the barrier between the visual and actual breaks down inside his skull. The resultant nature of Max, a being of veins and cathode rays alike, is referred to, triumphantly, as “the new flesh.”
Oddly enough, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory had already explored this concept ten years earlier through the character of Mike Teavee- whose body is destroyed, rasterized on a television screen into a living image, then allegedly made human again with a taffy puller. The change in his nature is not communicated in such a graphic manner as a VHS interface where his stomach ought to be, but rather, as a family-friendly reduction of his body’s resolution that allows him to fit in the palm of his mother’s hand. While of course not intentionally, the film highlights something that Videodrome does not: that identity is conserved in the transference of information between the material and virtual planes.
McLuhan discussed such feedback mechanisms in a less fantastical light, noting that all communication technologies are extensions of the human body, and that, to support them, the rest of the anatomy must adapt to accommodate for their presence. The result is a state of being where presented media is just as much part of the experience of reality as everything that lies outside the screen. His work focused on the impact of television on humanity, and remained relatively obscure until the rise of the internet ignited new interest. The world of social media- of personal brands, like buttons, and instant feedback for the endocrine system available in one’s pocket at all times- is perhaps an even better model of McLuhan’s theories than were available to him during his own period of writing.
Switching narrative modes for a moment- in December of 2017, just before interest in the topic boomed, I spoke with a defense contractor at a hotel bar, who was involved in a sensitive discussion on the topic of what is now known as a “deep fake.” According to him, not only had neural networks been produced that could create convincing fabricated video, but also, others that could learn to identify these fakes from video artifacts. These defensive measures could then be integrated into the production process to increase the difficulty of detection, increasing the verisimilitude ad infinitum. When I asked him whether or not this process was already ongoing, he became uncomfortable with my understanding and began to speak fluent GLOMARic. Today, this type of self-critical forgery AI is referred to as a “generative adversarial network,” and its effectiveness can be witnessed first-hand. Once the first state-weaponized deep fakes emerge, they will be near perfect, and well beyond civilian means to confirm or deny.
In 2016, Buzzfeed News published a confidential document produced by Christopher Steele, a former British spy, who, after being contracted to collect opposition research on Donald Trump, found far more intel than he bargained for. His own raw documentation is as follows:
“According to Source D, where s/he had been present, TRUMP’s (perverted) conduct in Moscow included hiring the presidential suite of the Ritz Carlton Hotel, where he knew President and Mrs OBAMA (whom he hated) had stayed on one of their official trips to Russia, and defiling the bed where they had slept by employing a number of prostitutes to perform a ‘golden showers’ (urination) show in front of him. The hotel was known to be under FSB control with microphones and concealed cameras in all the main rooms to record anything they wanted…
…TRUMP’s unorthodox behavior in Russia over the years had provided the authorities there with enough embarrassing material on the now Republican presidential candidate to be able to blackmail him if they wished.”
Though it was obvious to all knowing parties just how sensational this account would immediately become once it was made public, none could have imagined that the degree of perversion and putrefaction referenced would rot through any notion of a barrier between truth and falsehood. The so-called “pee tape” immediately became legend, beyond falsifiability, with the possibility of its release becoming a joke among online ironists, and a sincere hope among those who believe that its existence might at last be a scandal that President Teavee can’t dismiss as “fake news.”
This tape, or something resembling it, will almost certainly be released before the 2020 election- and it will immediately be declared to be a deep fake in the interest of national security. Perhaps it will be distributed on Reddit by some self-described “Guccifer 3.0” acting for a foreign power, or perhaps it will emerge via a bootleg VHF broadcast from an undisclosed warehouse in Pittsburg. The manner of distribution does not matter, nor does the content of the video itself. Its possible existence, and the collective desire for its existence, are equally plausible reasons for this result.
There will be no way for anyone but its creator to know whether or not the video released is authentic, nor any way for the general public to rationally determine this. To make matters worse, a second tape will likely emerge, different enough to guarantee that at least one is a fabrication. Which is the original, if either, will not matter, because it will mark the point at which all video, for all time, will be insufficient evidence of anything having taken place. Everything experienced in any medium will be as good as authentic, and the body will be able to autonomously exist and operate in “fake” digital spaces without its operator.
Not only is the screen now on par with reality (television, computer, phone, or otherwise)- the screen can override reality. A complete identity can be duplicated and directed within, with or without a soul to back it. James Woods- the actor who played Max Renn- is now best known as a right wing Twitter reactionary, and will almost certainly be one of the first to deny that the released tape is real. This, on its own, will be too much of an epistemological tangle to fully outline here: he will come to disagree with himself with a second body. But it will happen. All of the reactions to the release are and will be predictable- every last pundit and figurehead and twitteratus will respond in exactly the manner that you imagine they will. Social media is as much of an organ of their experience as it is yours.
The only truth that will be reliable in what lies ahead is what is directly experienced with one’s bodily sensory organs- all else will be tantamount to advertising. All external narratives will be equivalent mythologies. When that time comes, only those who are accustomed to this manner of navigating reality will know the way forward.