Radioactive Deepfakes

In Drew Harwell’s article on deepfakes in the Washington Post, he quotes Hany Farid, a Dartmouth computer science professor, on the problem with deepfakes: “If a biologist said, ‘Here’s a really cool virus; let’s see what happens when the public gets their hands on it,’ that would not be acceptable. And yet it’s what Silicon Valley does all the time… It’s indicative of a very immature industry. We have to understand the harm and slow down on how we deploy technology like this.”

Farid’s point (an unintentionally 2020 comparison) speaks to the way that new technology can be harnessed for malicious purposes. Technology initially designed for snapchat or the movie industry can and will be weaponized for everything from non-consensual porn to political manipulation. Just because a new software is revolutionary doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s benevolent. So, since I’m a history major, I want to talk about another discovery that was revolutionary, but dangerous: radioactivity. 

When Marie and Pierre Curie won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903, they had no idea how uranium, their fascinating discovery, would be utilized. Marie used a small jar of it as a nightlight, and Pierre carried some around so he could show everyone its miraculous properties. Both of the Curie’s eventually died of radiation poisoning, and, to this day, their personal papers are too radioactive to be handled safely. As others built on the Curies’ discovery, they used it for everything from cancer treatment to the atomic bomb. 

Deepfake technology is a modern uranium. Software developers started carrying it around in their pockets and showing it off before its potential for misuse could be fully understood. We’re already seeing both the positive and, overwhelmingly, negative effects of this nascent technology. We can’t blame the Curies for their ignorance of radiation poisoning when they had only just discovery radioactivity. However, I do think the tech industry should probably know by now that people will use any technology they can get their hands on for malicious purposes. 

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Am I a Footagehead Yet?

So, it’s been a couple months, but it looks like I’m still thinking about Pattern Recognition, or at least, Ferguson’s article got me thinking about it again.

In the book, Cayce’s journey revolves around the origins and meaning of the mysterious footage. The portions of the footage that Gibson describes are short, but evocative. Segment #135 for example, only shows a kiss between two ambiguously dressed individuals, and yet, from Cayce’s reaction, it’s clear that the clip is something significant; she literally shivers when she first sees it, partially because of its importance to her personally, but also because of its own inherent beauty (pg. 23). When Cayce finally meets Nora and sees her at work, she is brought to tears and describes the experience as like seeing “the headwaters of the digital Nile” (pg. 305). 

That’s a pretty dramatic way of putting it, but I kind of understood what she meant when I saw Kevin L. Ferguson visual “sums” of Disney movies. Even though they were just blurry composites of color and light, there was something really beautiful about them. Treasure Planet’s sum was my personal favorite, and I agreed with Ferguson when he called it an accurate representation of the movie’s “dazzling, dense, and vibrant” animation. Seeing the way that Ferguson broke down a film into some of its essential components felt, in some ways, like seeing the headwaters of the animated Nile. Disney’s artistry originates in the colors, shapes, and patterns that Ferguson’s images portray. 

In Pattern Recognition, Nora’s damaged but brilliant brain serves as a substitute for Ferguson’s software, breaking down found footage into its essential parts to create something beautiful. When Cayce first enters Nora’s workspace, she observes Nora working on a single frame featuring the two characters from the footage. Even that one frame is meaningful, partially because of Cayce’s connection to the footage, but also because of the frame’s inherent characteristics. Similarly, Ferguson’s sums are meaningful because they represent a broader work, but they also are beautiful on their own. I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand how the footage in Pattern Recognition gained a cult following, but Ferguson’s images helped me to see that even small pieces of digital media can be significant, whether they’re mysterious footage, or summed frame z-projections.