Introduction: When All News is Fake
Deepfakes are everywhere, and no one is panicking. But perhaps they should. With enough practice and computing power, anyone can learn software like Deepfacelab and create their very own fake news.
Deepfake technology, powerful as it is, is in its infancy. Within a few years, especially with text to video, realistic, entirely false narratives might be conjured up via carefully worded prompts.
Soon, no fact will be verifiable.
This has immense implications for the concept of the end of history—an idea central to the Western worldview, which has been interpreted in both spiritual and political terms.
Soon, we’ll be overtaken by catastrophe. And we are not prepared.
It is impossible, really, to estimate the scope of this disaster. But if we get a sense of the end of history, of how this idea has been interpreted throughout time, we may better understand that we are at a point of crisis.
The Christian End of History
Christianity sees history as a process beginning with the Fall. Before Adam sinned, he was not subject to death. The consequences of sin and death are the rise and fall of civilizations, the expansion of peoples across the globe, and the wars and rumors of wars that have determined national boundaries.
We find in Genesis a profound example of the human condition. God, in pronouncing his sentence on Adam, states:
Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
and have eaten of the tree
about which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.
It is this struggle that characterizes the forward march of events. For Christians, the Incarnation initiated a new and final stage of history.
God becoming man, Christ’s death and resurrection, effected a reconciliation of the Creator with His fallen offspring. In rising from the dead, Christ healed the disordered state of the human body. He offers believers his body and blood, so that, in consuming their Lord, we can attain this same salvation.
Of course, all are still subject to death, but this end is only apparently final. Upon Christ’s return, the dead shall rise, and all who have ever lived will be subject to judgment. Those who are saved will be granted glorified bodies, just like Christ’s, and will inhabit the New Jerusalem, where human existence will take on a different character. In Revelation 21, we read:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The first heaven and the first earth had disappeared, and there was no sea anymore. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It was prepared like a bride dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Now God’s presence is with people, and he will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them and will be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death, sadness, crying, or pain, because all the old ways are gone.”
“The old ways are gone,” and, with them, history. The cosmos itself remade and death done away with, the march of events, having led to this insuperable pinnacle, comes to a standstill.
The Marxist End of History
Marx, taking a materialistic view of Hegel, saw profound forces shaping history as well. His model can be viewed as a kind of secularization of the Judeo-Christian template seen above.
Civilization, for Marx, had undergone a process of development in highly industrialized societies that brought it to a point of crisis. The first chapter of The Communist Manifesto opens as follows:
The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.
Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.
It is not spiritual, but economic circumstances that have defined the course of human development. Civilizations rise and fall due to the ways in which class struggle resolves itself.
Earlier eras had “a complicated arrangement of society into various orders, a manifold gradation of social rank.” The “feudal lords, vassals, guild-masters, journeymen, apprentices, serfs” of the Middle Ages replaced the “patricians, knights, plebeians, slaves” of ancient Rome.
Marx, writing in the nineteenth century, observed a new feature in the antagonism between classes. Unlike previous eras, he wrote, industrial society “is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.”
This simplification represents a momentous turn in the historical process. The bourgeoisie, owners of capital, are far outnumbered by the proletarians under their control.
Once the workers, whose labor is exploited by the bourgeoisie, become conscious of their exploitation, they will recognize their power and seize the means of production that their oppressors have illegitimately taken for themselves.
This will lead, ultimately, to an eradication of all class. Class distinctions having vanished, and production “concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character.” Politics, for Marx, is merely the oppression of one class by another.
While Marx, an atheist, could not promise immortality to believers, he could offer, “in place of the old bourgeois society, […] an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”
If the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles, history would come to an end with the end of class.
The Fukuyaman End of History
“The end of history,” as a term, was popularized by Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, itself based on an earlier essay. In it, he argues that capitalism and liberal democracy represent the final stage in human political evolution.
Fukuyama’s argument, on its face, may seem preposterous, and has been subjected to criticism, even outright ridicule. However, his case is more nuanced, and more thoughtful, than it might initially appear.
In his essay, “The End of History?”, in which this thesis was first put forth, he states that the “triumph of the west, of the Western idea, is evident first of all in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.”
Writing in 1989, Fukuyama highlights “unmistakable changes in the intellectual climate of the world’s two largest communist countries, and the beginnings of significant reform movements in both.” This is not, he qualifies, merely a movement toward greater political freedom. It is visible “in such diverse contexts as the peasants’ markets and color television sets now omnipresent throughout China, the cooperative restaurants and clothing stores opened in the past year in Moscow, the Beethoven piped into Japanese department stores, and the rock music enjoyed alike in Prague, Rangoon, and Tehran.”
We are not, then, witnessing merely “the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Does this mean that a new era of peace and prosperity will dawn, and that journalists will no longer have headlines to publish?
Not exactly. For Fukuyama, the victory of liberalism is as yet incomplete in “the real or material world.” “The idea of the West” has outpaced its material conquest, but “there are powerful reasons for believing that this is the ideal that will govern the material world in the long run.”
The Manufactured West
Deepfakes present a new way of conceiving the end of history. While Marx’s historical materialism is generally acknowledged as dated and inaccurate, an argument could still be made for Fukuyama’s vision—especially given the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the increasing pace of democratization across the world. With all its hiccups and false starts, it does, at least for now, appear that liberal democracy and western consumerism possess a conquering power.
Essential to democratic values, and perhaps even more to consumer culture, are media of mass communication. A brief examination of media as catalysts both for democracy and consumerism will illuminate the landscape that deepfake technology will soon annihilate.
Media and Democracy
For any sort of mass mobilization to occur, a mass has to be aware of the reason for which they are mobilizing. Video and text have been essential in engaging popular support for causes, and in shaping public opinion about events which, in centuries past, would have been considered too remote to justify our involvement.
It has often been observed (and hardly in jest) that, before Putin’s invasion, most Americans couldn’t tell you where Ukraine is on a map. The footage of Zelensky remaining bravely with his troops, telling his western allies that this might be the last time they see him alive, was essential in stirring up sympathy for this eastern European nation.
What we don’t see, of course, is as important as what we do—and nowhere moreso than when curating narratives. In order to ensure the triumph of Western liberal democracy, Google found it necessary to ban all Russian state-funded media from YouTube.
Media and Consumer Culture
Historian Stuart Ewen, in Captains of Consciousness, offers a remarkable account of the way that mass media gave birth to the consumer mindset.
In the early decades of the 20th century, the capacity to produce exceeded the available buyers. There were new products, and profits, to be made, but, in order to achieve these ends, a much wider segment of the population had to be programmed to buy. In Ewen’s words:
The transcendence of traditional consumer markets and buying habits required people to buy, not to satisfy their own fundamental needs, but rather to satisfy the real, historic needs of capitalist productive machinery.
Workers were on the job for fewer hours, and earning higher wages. They experienced a newfound liberty, one which was channeled into the market: they were to be engaged, in their free time, in consumption of the products that they helped create.
But these workers weren’t born consumers. A need had to be created in them, and advertising made them realize their hunger. We see, in this deodorant ad, a powerful technique to encourage the adoption of this relatively new product.
The text in the ad above generates in readers a self-consciousness about body odor. According to Smithsonian Magazine, most Americans would simply “wash regularly and then […] overwhelm any emerging stink with perfume. Those concerned about sweat percolating through clothing wore dress shields, cotton or rubber pads placed in armpit areas which protected fabric from the floods of perspiration on a hot day.”
In this ad, however, readers are warned that these old methods will lead to public shaming. For a woman to be appealing to the opposite sex, she must use Mum.
Here we find, in microcosm, the mechanisms employed (advertising, mass communication) to forge a new consumer culture. Now deodorants and antiperspirants are multibillion dollar industry, and no one would dream of telling their date, and much less their coworkers, that they don’t use these products daily. Ewen writes:
Man, traditionally seen as exemplary of God’s perfect product, was now hardly viable in comparison with the man-made products of industrial expertise. […] It was felt that capitalism, through an appeal to instincts — ultimately feelings of social insecurity — could habituate men and women to consumptive life. Such social production of consumers represented a shift in social and political priorities which has since characterized much of the “life” of American industrial capitalism. The functional goal of national advertising was the creation of desires and habits. In tune with the need for mass distribution that accompanied the development of mass production capabilities, advertising was trying to produce in readers personal needs which would dependently fluctuate with the expanding marketplace.
New Media and the Breakup of Narratives
Culture becomes homogeneous, as we see above, through the shaping of a shared narrative. Mass media are essential to achieve this task, and, while there isn’t a need for total centralization (as, for example, in totalitarian governments, who only permit state-sponsored media), some measure of coordination is required.
Indeed, as figures like Noam Chomsky have pointed out, an apparent diversity of media companies, debating rigorously within narrow parameters, may be more effective than a single propaganda outlet peddling party orthodoxy. Under the latter model, citizens are more likely to suspect they’re being lied to. Before podcasts and other new media began to rival their legacy competitors, relatively few suspected that Fox News and MSNBC were mouthpieces for many of the same interests.
Whatever the political content of the news program we watch, they’re all supported by ads. These ads, like the ideology of the programs on which they appear, form us culturally, teaching us how to be citizens, consumers, and cogs in the machine of Western culture.
The rise in popularity of new media has threatened the coherence of our shared narrative. One cannot help but wonder if the accusations against Alex Jones as a peddler in misinformation are made in bad faith—these criticisms, after all, are voiced by those whose uncritical reporting of intelligence sources have led to fiascos like the Iraq War, which have left countless dead across the globe. Whatever Jones’s flaws, he has far less blood on his hands than CNN.
But figures like Jones (and Whitney Webb, and Maajid Nawaz, and countless others) do represent a real threat to the establishment, as they are its most vocal critics. As their visibility rises, the scope of popular discourse widens. One could imagine, should this state of affairs continue and the conflict between new and old media amplify, a truly democratic press emerging.
In order, of course, for an era of truth to dawn, it’s necessary for there to be some source in which to put our trust. If we can’t believe anything, it doesn’t matter who is telling the truth and who’s lying.
Deepfakes and the Demolition of the Historical Record
With the emergence of deepfakes, we have entered an era in which histroy, at least as we understand it, must come to a close. Political interpretations of the end of history, like Marx’s and Fukuyama’s, will no longer be tenable.
The implosion will be epistemological, not metaphysical. It operates on a much lower level, then, than the Christian conception, and thus will cannot undermine it. Perhaps, though, it could make its reality more visible to a secular world.
We understand events, especially in the last few decades, by seeing them on video. Reality is filtered through a camera lens, and the recorded event has become more real, in our historical consciousness, than lived experience.
Our discussion above of the conflict in Ukraine provides a fitting example. Our sentiments, our funding, our popular support are directly influenced by the images we see on television, by the headlines that pop up as notifications on our smartphones, and by the interviews with veterans of the conflict and victims of Russian aggression. The number of Americans who have actually spoken to a Ukrainian witness of events is far smaller, surely, than those tweeting that nation’s flag.
With deepfakes, however, we will be able to manufacture footage in any way we like. While the technology is still in its early stages, the day is coming, and soon, when we will be incapable of determining a forgery from the genuine article.
The consequence, inevitably, is a widespread collapse in our ways of understanding. Unless deepfake technology is criminalized, its use utterly abolished and its memory forgotten, we face the greatest epistemological crisis the world has seen.
This looming disaster, about which too little has been written, is difficult to conceptualize. The difficulty comes, I think, because our concepts are so often visual—in order to imagine, an image must be conjured in the mind, one which the thinker trusts. After deepfakes wreak havoc on the veracity of images, our thinking about the state, our community, and ourselves will shift radically, in ways that we cannot yet foresee.
The following analysis, then, will be speculative. This exercise, while it doesn’t pretend to prophecy, will, I hope, give a sense of the disaster before us.
Deepfakes and Democracy
Public trust in our institutions, always unstable, is deeply compromised. There is an exhausting amount of talk about political polarization and ideological bubbles, and we have endured scandal after scandal to a degree that even the most egregious corruption seems rote.
We are already skeptical of the media. The reaction, for example, to the Hunter Biden laptop story was largely determined by political affiliation. Although dozens of intelligence officials signed their names to a document indicating that the story was Russian disinformation, the laptop was, in fact, real—at least as far as we can tell.
But imagine a new laptop, one which compromises a public figure far more important than Hunter Biden. Then imagine that this public figure, in a press conference, claims everything on there has been manufactured with deepfakes.
And let’s say it has. Perhaps one side will still maintain that it’s authentic, and another will dismiss it as a hoax. Each side will not merely have their own opinion—they will truly have their own facts. And, if the technology is sufficiently advanced to convince a large segment of the population, we have to assume that this deepfaked laptop won’t be an isolated incident.
False scandals will erupt at every level of power, everyone from school board officials to presidents will be subject to the scourge of false footage. Those who are truly guilty of corruption (and there are plenty) will have recourse to the excuse that the evidence implicating them has been doctored.
At this point, no important story will emerge without being subject to scrutiny. There will be no way to verify the truth of any claim. The consequences for Western democracy will be nothing short of catastrophic.
Deepfakes and Consumerism
Recently, a deepfake of Elon Musk pushing a crypto scam made its appearance on YouTube. Plenty of people, undoubtedly, were hoodwinked—and it wasn’t a particularly sophisticated use of the technology.
This is a foretaste of things to come. Soon, text-to-video will make it possible to have any public figure endorsing the most unscrupulous enterprise. Even now, it would be a fairly simple operation to create a deepfake of Anthony Fauci peddling snake oil.
Moreover, these advertisements don’t need to represent an actual product. If there’s a means to accept payment, a con artist could make away with quite a haul before being shut down.
The culture of consumerism, for all the criticism it has rightly received, has raised the standard of living to the highest level humankind has known. This comfort has come at a spiritual cost. From Ireland to China, the Golden Arches stand as a monument to the slow, apparently inevitable, subordination of tradition and culture to a homogenized model of production and consumption.
But this model, like the liberal democracy that functions as its ideology, is dependent on a shared narrative, on a belief in the images that shape our sense of self. The deodorant ad above is effective in large part because it possesses an aura of authority—the reader believes, because the ad is printed in a paper they trust, that deodorant is the culturally acceptable way to address body odor. If they cease to trust the source, the ad is powerless.
The End of History
At the point when our shared narratives break down, when no fact is verifiable and no event except those we witness can be known to have happened, we will no longer be able to speak of the future in linear terms, as events which will follow upon those that came before.
There will be, yes, no “future,” but the past is equally unsafe. Any artifact, whether it’s a grocery receipt from last month or an ancient Etruscan vase, might reasonably be assumed a counterfeit. After all, I could show you a video of Bertrand Russel saying that the first man was born in 1852. Of course it’s false, but you won’t have any means of rebutting him.
This, you’ll say, is preposterous. You’ll be able to point to reams of texts, plaques in museums, documentaries, all predating the deepfake catastrophe, that prove past events—or you’ll be able to at first. AI-generated text, also in its infancy, will soon, no doubt, be able to produce reams of text, whole bodies of scholarship, employing any tongue in which man has ever written.
These texts can be reproduced, placed in libraries and on bookshelves, published in online libraries, and cited (by human or non-human authors) extensively enough to throw doubt on all apparently “older” sources. We can, at present, determine the provenance of many documents, but these records will themselves be subject to falsification by AI, as many of these archives exist online.
The spell of mass communication—it’s capacity to alter the fate of nations, to mobilize citizens to war or protest or purchase—will be broken. If we’re still using these technologies once history is buried, and there’s no reason to assume we won’t be, their application, and their power, will be irreparably altered.
We will, to echo a popular phrase, be compelled to “go out and touch grass.” Perhaps we’ll be just as tied to our smartphones and social media as before, but we won’t be able to trust what they’re telling us.
The consequence of such a development could be that we are far more reliant, maybe exclusively so, on local communities. This may foster a greater sense of civic duty, and a greater closeness to our neighbors, but it could also lead to a degree of isolation we haven’t seen since the dawn of the telegraph. If anyone we speak to via phone or online could be a bot, and if these bots have proliferated such that they’re a genuine menace, any message relayed from a distance will have to be taken with a grain of salt.
Conclusion: Return of the Mythic
The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. […] Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?”
Literate No Longer
For Marshall McLuhan, the dawn of the printing press initiated a new age in human experience. As the printed word became the central means of mass communication, our culture began to emphasize the sense of sight. The industrial revolution, the empirical sciences, and enlightenment thought could all be seen as results of this shift.
In “Myth and Mass Media,” he notes how printing “evoked both individualism and nationalism in the sixteenth century” because it “demands habits of solitary initiative and attention to exactly repeatable commodities, which are the habits inseparable from industry, and enterprise, production, and marketing.” An “attention to exactly repeatable commodities” is necessary, too, for the employment of the scientific method.
The widespread use of electricity in the last century, and the media that developed therefrom, began to alter our experience once more. McLuhan writes that “electronic culture accepts the simultaneous as a reconquest of auditory space.” Unlike the eye, the ear cannot focus on one sound exclusively, but “picks up sound from all directions at once, thus creating a spherical field of experience.” Beginning with the telegraph, “the forms of Western culture have been strongly shaped by the spherelike pattern that belongs to a field of awareness in which all the elements are practically simultaneous.”
McLuhan uses the newspaper page as an example. He observes that it has “a formally auditory character and only incidentally a lineal, literary form.” There are a mass of headlines and articles, often connected only by their date, imposing their presence on the reader at once. “Each item,” he writes, “makes its own world,” and this “assembly of items constitutes a kind of global image in which there is much overlay and montage but little pictorial space or perspective.”
McLuhan’s observation about the newspaper page could be applied to our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter feeds. Indeed, many of these apps feature autoplay for videos, and the sounds that greet us as we scroll enhance the sense that we’re operating in auditory space. “For electronically moved information, in being simultaneous, assumes the total-field pattern, as in auditory space,” McLuhan writes.
The decline of literacy among American students, much lamented and complex in its causes, could be seen as a natural consequence of our cultural move into auditory space. Podcasts and online video, which traffic in oral communication—indeed, so many online shows are simply people talking—are suited to our present ways of navigating experience.
McLuhan points out that “preliterate societies […] live largely in the auditory or simultaneous mode with an inclusiveness of awareness that increasingly characterizes our electronic age.” Even before the impending deepfake catastrophe, we have renewed the practice of sitting around a campfire, electronic though it may be, and swapping stories. When our trust in mass media is sufficiently eroded, verbal communication, it is reasonable to suppose, may regain a power that it hasn’t possessed since the invention of writing.
Toward the New Jerusalem
As in preliterate societies, the spiritual element of life may, we can hope, again predominate. In Understanding Media, McLuhan saw that the barrage of information to which the young were subject was incompatible with the archaic way they were being educated.
Now, however, in the electronic age, data classification yields to pattern recognition, the key phrase at IBM. When data move instantly, classification is too fragmentary. In order to cope with data at electric speed in typical situations of “information overload,” men resort to the study of configurations […] The drop-out situation in our schools at present has only begun to develop. The young student today grows up in an electrically configured world. It is a world not of wheels but of circuits, not of fragments but of integral patterns. The student today lives mythically and in depth. At school, however, he encounters a situation organized by means of classified information. The subjects are unrelated. They are visually conceived in terms of a blueprint. The student can find no possible means of involvement for himself, nor can he discover how the educational scene relates to the “mythic” world of electronically processed data and experience that he takes for granted. As one IBM executive puts it, “My children had lived several lifetimes compared to their grandparents when they began grade one.”
Already, we see a host of competing narratives, a great many governments (and the media serving them) decrying the rise of “misinformation,” and a barrage of stimulation exponentially more intense than any McLuhan had witnessed. Our reliance on modes of mass communication is bound to shift after the deepfake catastrophe, and, with it, our sense of what is true.
If we’re no longer able to rely on text or video, if we’re forced only to trust those we know, we can hope, in the midst of this crisis, that we return to old verities—to the unchanging, spiritual truths which, as their source is truly transcendent, no disaster can harm.
Liturgy and sacraments are a corporate activity. They cannot be experienced on video. One must be in the presence of others to participate. While the text of the scriptures is printed, it also exists in the memory of many clergy who could, if the need arose, serve as a living record, and a bulwark against AI’s corrosion of print media.
Proverbs tells us not to rely on our own understanding, but to trust in God. This truth has been obscured by centuries of dazzling innovation. We might interpret our modern comforts as a miracle performed by our own hands.
The deepfake catastrophe will show that this golden calf, like every other, is mounted on sand.