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Uploaded:2019-02-05
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In which John and Hank get Deepfake mustaches, which makes John think about the history of forged, shopped, cropped, and airbrushed images. Can humans learn not to trust their senses? Or are we doomed to be duped by images even when we know they're unreliable?

The incredible deepfake mustache content in this video was made by
Ryan Georgi, who wrote a post to explain the work. https://ryan.georgi.cc/2019/02/04/deepfakes-and-public-data/
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Hank: Good Morning John. 

John: Good Morning! It's a reunion video.

John Voice Over: Wait, What is happening? Okay, so you're looking at something right now called a "deep-fake", which was created by a professor at the University of Washington named Ryan, who trained a model to learn how to map our faces so that he could super-impose a mustache I had once onto both Hank and me. Thereby giving us a glimpse of just how bad Hank would look with a mustache, as well as a reminder that I myself am no Tom Selleck. Sorry, I'm not as good as Ryan at deep-fakes. 

John: Hi, Good morning Hank it's Tuesday. It's real me, or is it? Right, so this technology has been used to make Donald Trump, and Barack Obama, and many other people, say things that they haven't actually said. And you might be thinking, "ah the tech isn't that good, I can still tell that it's fake", and fair enough, but I'll remind you that in 2007, Youtube looked like this. Like, 2019 deep-fakes look better than 2007 reality. It's not going to take deep-fakes long to catch up. 


In a famous 1938 essay, Virginia Wolf wrote that "Photographs are simply a crude statement of fact, addressed to the eye." To which Susan Sontag would reply, decades later, "The truth is, photographs are not simply anything". 

Photography's crude statements of facts have long contained fictions. Like, way back in the US civil war, Mathew Brady's celebrated battlefield photographs were often staged, with corpses moved this way or that, to make them more photogenic. 

This widely distributed World War I photo, totally fake! That's not even a person, it's a figurine! The London milkman on his delivery route during the blitz in World War II, was not a milkman. He was the photographers assistant wearing a costume. 

And the deep-fakes of the past have long been spreading disinformation and even changing history, like Mussolini didn't want you to know he needed a horse trainer to look like Napoleon. Joseph Stalin frequently ordered erstwhile allies airbrushed out of photos when they became enemies, like here's Stalin, with his head of the Secret Police, Nikolai Yezhov, and here's the picture after Stalin had Yezhov executed. Hitler did it to Goebbels, Lenin did it to Trotsky, and the same thing happened all the time in China. Most famously in this picture from Mao's funeral, now without the Gang of Four. And lest you think democracies are immune from this kind of stuff, this photo purporting to show John Kerry with Jane Fonda at an anti-war rally, was widely distributed in 2004 during the Presidential election, even though it is completely fake. 

In 1939, the Canadian Prime Minister had poor King George the VI cut out of photo because he thought he would look more powerful talking to only the Queen Mum. And in 1950, Maryland senator Millard Tydings probably lost reelection because of this forged photo, which purported to show Tydings talking to the leader of the American Communist Party. 

People who have, or want power, devote lots of resources to these forgeries, because they work. It's really difficult to develop a distrust of our sensory inputs. Like, I might know, intellectually, that juicy pear jellybeans don't contain any actual pears, but they still taste like pears. And I understand I'm witnessing a cropped, and posed, and filtered moment when I see a photograph of someone looking absurdly happy, lounging in idyllic surroundings, but even so, their lives feel vivid and thrilling in a way that my own does not. 

On some level, Stalin's images worked even if people knew they were cropped, because we trust our eyes. 

Back in 1977, Susan Sontag wrote, "Reality has come to seem more and more like what we are shown by cameras. It is common now for people to insist upon their experience of a violent event in which they were caught up - a plane crash, a shoot-out, a terrorist bombing - that it 'seemed like a movie'. This is said, other descriptions seeming insufficient, in order to explain how real it was."

I don't think humans will ever transcend their senses enough to decouple the visible from the real. But we better learn how to live in a world where we truly cannot believe our eyes. 

Hank. I'll see you on Friday. Or, images of you, anyway.