The internet has always contained the seeds of postmodern hell. Mass manipulation, from clickbait to Russian bots to the addictive trickery that governs Facebook’s News Feed, is the currency of the medium. It has always been a place where identity is terrifyingly slippery, where anonymity breeds coarseness and confusion, where crooks can filch the very contours of selfhood. In this respect, the rise of deepfakes is the culmination of the internet’s history to date—and probably only a low-grade version of what’s to come.
Vladimir Nabokov once wrote that reality is one of the few words that means nothing without quotation marks. He was sardonically making a basic point about relative perceptions: When you and I look at the same object, how do you really know that we see the same thing? Still, institutions (media, government, academia) have helped people coalesce around a consensus—rooted in a faith in reason and empiricism—about how to describe the world, albeit a fragile consensus that has been unraveling in recent years. Social media have helped bring on a new era, enabling individuated encounters with the news that confirm biases and sieve out contravening facts. The current president has further hastened the arrival of a world beyond truth, providing the imprimatur of the highest office to falsehood and conspiracy.
But soon this may seem an age of innocence. We’ll shortly live in a world where our eyes routinely deceive us. Put differently, we’re not so far from the collapse of reality.