The art world needs a revolution! A revolution fueled by randomness. Forget predictable brush strokes and perfect technique. Let’s just throw some words into the grinder, add the element of danger and see what happens. Why not? It’s Friday, it’s been a long week, and I needed a laugh, so I give you this gem.
Since the olden days, I’ve got a chuckle from doing something like catting /etc/shadow and piping it to your sound driver. It’s not like it makes beautiful music. It’s, well, kinda stupid. I wanted my own stupid thing. Well, it only took a couple of decades, the invention of cryptocurrency, and advancements in generative AI, but I finally have it. Welcome to the world of Crypto Wallet Pneumonic Generated Art. It’s cultured, refined, and, don’t forget, incredibly stupid. Yes, now you can risk it all to generate art from your wallet seed phrase. Behold! The beauty!
The image was generated with the following seed phrase.
This is all fun and games, but what if you did it with a real wallet? Hmm, let’s do that.
Here are 5 images generated from the 12-word seed phrase of a real Phantom wallet. How much SOL is in there??? Hmmm. You’ll have to recover the seed phrase and find out. At the time of this writing, the crypto market is crashing, so far less value then you’d hope.
Two of the Twelve words should be painfully obvious. Interestingly enough, from a few of the experiments I did, it seems to latch on to just one or two of the words that it’s most familiar with and discards most of the others on every subsequent run. It also seems to make some relations between words that explain how the model is constructing the image. I may run some further experiments using DALL-E as well and compare them to Stable Diffusion, but I’ll leave that for another day.
Time To Make Millions $$$
Now, for the business plan. What if NFTs were created based on pneumonic phrases from cryptocurrency wallets with balances in them? I mean, because why not? Since NFTs aren’t actually about art, this could be a way of superficially pumping their value. Will this be the next art revolution? Will people walk around galleries sipping wine and marveling at these masterpieces? Just asking questions 🤣
Try it yourself! Throw caution to the wind and join the artistic revolution.
Disclaimer: Not responsible for loss of funds due to complete stupidity!
The utopian promise of AI and automation was to free humanity up for more enjoyable pursuits, such as hobbies, but it seems AI is coming for these more enjoyable pursuits first. We’ve seen an explosion in machine learning models focused on creative activities that we normally associate with humans, such as writing a story, creating a visual work of art, or creating music. So, how will humans find value when both work and leisure activities are gone? What will we do instead? It’s a journey we’ll all embark upon very soon.
You’d have to live under a rock if you hadn’t heard of terms such as DALL-E or stable diffusion. Even Meta has their own generative model called Make-a-scene. These models create artwork based on a text prompt. For example, I used stable diffusion to generate the image below with the prompt “an artistic rendering of a robot caught in a bad dream.”
Not the greatest prompt, but you see what the model created. With more time and tweaking, you can get very good results. AI models aren’t limited to generating images. Large language models (LLMs) have generative text capabilities, including the ability to write stories and movie scripts. An example of one of these models is GPT-3. There are also models generating music as well. That’s the three largest human artistic pursuits.
Sometimes the output from these models is rather comical or not good or not as good as a human, but it’s foolish to think it won’t get better.
It’s not hard to see where we’re headed. At some point, you’ll be able to specify by a text prompt for a video scene, and a model will generate a video of that scene for you.
This is legitimately cool technology. I’m not downplaying the technological aspects or accomplishments of the teams working on these projects. I’m pointing out there are some large unintended consequences for humanity that aren’t part of the discussion.
You might not think this is a big deal. Stick with me.
Let’s take a non-AI use case that had a large impact. What’s the real impact of everyone having a high-quality camera and a bunch of photo filters on their phone? Is it that you can take great pictures of your family? Or pets? Is it that camera companies have taken a sales hit? These may all be true, but not quite. The real impact is that people devalue the skills of photographers as well as the output.
People feel there’s a minimal difference between them and a professional photographer. Photographer and even working in photography used to be a legit career. A career that’s mostly been relegated to a hobby or side hustle.
We also devalue the output, the photo itself. I’ve heard people discussing photographers for their wedding say, “Can’t someone just snap a few photos on their phone for us?”
Technology made the quality of the capture better, but it didn’t make the photos better. The eye for a photo is something truly spectacular, but it’s a skill many people will never know. We are drowning in a world of high-quality and mediocre photos. There’s no friction, skill, or need to be selective.
I’m not saying I’d like to go back to a time before I could take a great picture with my phone. I wouldn’t. My point is that we devalue not only the skills of the people that technology replaces but also the output. But, it can get worse.
They Took Our Jobs, Second
For both jobs and hobbies, we don’t need Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). It can be done with the narrow AI we have today. So no human-level or superhuman intelligence is necessary.
The cost of failure for an artistic endeavor is much lower than for work activity. If a model generates a bad piece of art, you can just generate another one. If a self-driving semi-truck turns at full speed into a bus, that’s a different story. I still wouldn’t recommend truck driver as a career choice to any high school students, but it will be some time before we let trucks drive independently without human supervision.
The Big Picture
I’m not being an alarmist, but I am raising the alarm. Artistic endeavors are uniquely human and the resulting art is just a small piece of the larger puzzle.
What we really have is a satisfaction mismatch. Creating a piece of art, both good and bad, brings a certain satisfaction. Prompting a machine to do something creative on your behalf isn’t satisfying, and the novelty wears off quickly.
The effort and friction involved in creating art is part of the process. You discover what works and what doesn’t, and you even develop a personal style. You learn from your failures. When you use a generative model, you’ve invested nothing into the process, and as a human living the human experience, you get nothing in return.
We should start thinking of these models as something David Krakauer would call Competitive Cognitive Artifacts. It’s not like these models make artists better. Not unless you want to consider humanity as nothing more than a cover band for AI. We’re mentally outsourcing this creativity to a model which doesn’t understand what it’s doing. It’s “seen” a bunch of things and does its best to produce what it’s asked for. The more things we outsource, the less capable we are as humans in the area being outsourced.
An area where this outsourcing is more obvious is in driving. There are some born today that will never have to manually drive a car. Imagine driving down the highway in bad weather, and suddenly, the car asks you to take over. How capable would you be of navigating this situation without manual driving skills?
The brain is an incredibly connected device, and we often find that performing an activity may have a direct effect on some other part of the brain. Even if this effect is just reducing stress. So, it’s important to ask, What are we really losing when we outsource creative activities?
Creative endeavors also have a recharging effect. I always feel far more effective and solve problems better after I’ve worked on something creative. I form new connections and think of solutions I wouldn’t have otherwise. You don’t get the same effect from saying, “Generate me a picture of a dog on the moon.” However, it seems there’s a market for putting in even less thought by outsourcing the prompts too.
Missing The Journey
Here’s the question and my biggest concern, will younger generations avoid these artistic endeavors altogether? Why pick up painting or a musical instrument if it’s going to take you a decade to master the skill? Humans are already losing art contests to algorithms. Children not picking up art is a shame because only a very small part of creating art is the output. I doubt any artist will want to reflect on their life and say, “I wrote the best prompts!”
It’s also possible but highly unlikely that the opposite happens, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. When you first take up art, you only think about the output. You want to write a song or paint a picture. Your goal is only the finish line. No child is insightful enough to foresee and understand the larger journey and act of self-discovery art provides or have some vision about how working on art will better other parts of their life. It takes a while to understand you are getting something far more valuable out of the process other than the output. Adults also tend to stumble into these insights.
Compounding the issue is the fact that we’ve completely lost our ability to delay gratification, directly impacting the investment of time in art. Why spend days or weeks working on a song or mixing paints and working on layers when you can just create a prompt and get something in seconds?
Loss of Value
Where does humanity find meaningful value when both work and creative activities are outsourced to machines? This is something that’s often lost in the debate. It typically turns to responses like new jobs will emerge, or we’ll have a universal basic income, but it’s not often you hear about the topic of value. Value is a far more important topic.
I haven’t had many conversations on this topic because we are still pretty early, but I feel that people will tell us the metaverse will come to the rescue. Rather than writing music, you can pass your time viewing ads and playing games with bots and other humans. We’ll evolve!
You don’t really learn about yourself by playing video games, wandering a metaverse, or even spending more time on social media. These are activities where you spend time avoiding being yourself, not discovering who you are. These activities also don’t provide meaning and purpose. It’s a hollow and superficial sense of accomplishment when something arises. Not to mention, social and psychological evolution doesn’t happen at the pace of technological evolution.
My Dystopian Prediction
Driving more people online will lead to greater divides with more manipulation and surveillance. What happens when you seek knowledge in a world where facts and reality are debatable, and history is rewritten? You won’t find the truth. You find whatever it is you’re looking for. We’re getting a taste of that today. No matter what you believe, you’ll find evidence of it and with barely any effort.
In general, we’ll become much more tribal, more detached from what makes us human, more detached from reality, more encased in our bubbles and far more overconfident in our knowledge of the world having experienced far less of it.
We’ll put more value into our beliefs and create new religions, even though we won’t refer to them as such. Religions provide a set of rules and structure and the promise of a future payoff. We’ll enjoy the status and recognition that being a good member of this new religion affords us.
We still have religions today, even though technology, science, and society have changed. Unfortunately, belief systems have proven robust against these changes. This is partly due to their intolerance of scrutiny and criticism. It’s this intolerance and lack of self-reflection that we carry with us into the digital domain.
What Can We Do
I have one suggestion to start with, keep school art programs.
I always get mad when people say, “Why do we teach art in school? It’s not like these kids will become Picasso or something.” Unfortunately, this sentiment isn’t uncommon, and many school art programs get cut. This isn’t the point of art programs. We shouldn’t replace art class with a programming class because it “seems” more practical.
One of the best things we can do is keep art classes and programs in school. It’s time set aside dedicated to art. Not playing with a phone or a video game. It’s an opportunity for kids to potentially stumble into some of the insights they wouldn’t discover otherwise. They can then use this insight in their programming class.
What would be great is if some of the tech companies creating technology solutions funded art programs in schools.
This isn’t a one-for-one trade, but it’s something. It’s a start.
Genies don’t fit back in bottles. The time to start thinking about this is now. We have kids in school today that will never have an art class and may never manually drive a car. We need to start thinking about how we fill the value gaps that technology creates before humanity careens off the road.
This technology is moving faster than many realize. We are nearing a world where instead of someone in a local band saying, “Check out my song.” You have millions of people saying, “Check out my feature film.” I bet you wish YouTube displayed the number of dislikes now.
As I return from Las Vegas, I’ve been reflecting on some spirited debates I had around the topic of regulation and sanctions related to the Web3 space. This is a highly contentious topic, especially around decentralized finance. So, I thought I’d jot down a quick note of my thoughts on the subject.
I delivered a talk on Web3 security at Black Hat USA. A couple of days earlier, the US government imposed sanctions against Tornado Cash. Tornado Cash is a cryptocurrency mixer on the Ethereum blockchain that anonymizes transactions to avoid tracking. It’s become a favorite among criminals to launder ill-gotten gains, including nation-states like the DPRK. It’s been estimated that at least $1.54 billion resulting from crimes such as thefts and hacks have been laundered through Tornado Cash. Being relevant, I briefly mentioned it in my talk since one of the first things you must do before attacking a project is to plan your exit strategy. After all, money laundering 101 is to move fast to confuse tracking attempts.
To people not involved in the space, it may be confusing why anyone needs to be private or anonymous while sending or receiving cryptocurrency. The reality is that people are acting as their own bank. If you identify a specific individual and you know that person has a certain number of assets, then you can just show up at their house and force them to hand over their money. It’s a legitimate concern.
Also, with the public nature of these technologies, it could make it far easier to analyze purchase histories and patterns to learn deeper insights about individuals. The same kind of privacy violations we are concerned about today outside of the Web3 space. This becomes much worse for people living under oppressive regimes.
Most of all, it’s just not anyone’s business what people spend their money on. Certainly not so they can create algorithms to learn more about our spending habits and try to convince us to buy things we don’t need.
I mean, it’s not like traditional organizations have a great track record of protecting people’s privacy. There are countless breaches and disclosures that prove otherwise. So, that leaves us with a bit of a conundrum.
Typically, when this topic is brought up, two major talking points bubble to the surface. Let me do a bit of debunking about why these two points don’t mean that we shouldn’t do anything about illicit activities.
One of the arguments I hear is that cash is anonymous. This may be true in theory, but there are some significant challenges. Probably the biggest point is that cash isn’t frictionless. If you don’t believe me, try to move 100 million dollars across an international border or trade one currency for another. In small amounts, sure, but when you are trying to launder large amounts of money, it isn’t.
There are other choke points as well, where you have an opportunity to catch someone who’s stolen a large amount of money. Video cameras at establishments, border checks, scanners at airports, and on and on. Not to mention there’s also the time factor. It takes a lot more time to move physical cash than it does an electronic transaction creating more opportunities for detection.
In reality, cash is only anonymous in small amounts and under the right conditions.
There’s been a surprising lack of effort on behalf of the community to address issues like money laundering and theft. In fact, the attitude of the community has been pretty much the opposite. Many proponents say that this is the purpose of decentralization in the first place. To resist efforts to regulate and sanction.
Decentralization means a lack of ownership. Unfortunately, this lack of ownership also extends to the issues created by decentralization as well. Whenever issues of money laundering arise, the resounding response is, “that’s just how the system works.” Just because something is decentralized doesn’t mean there is nothing that can be done.
Another comment I hear is that illicit transactions make up a small amount of the total transactions, so why is anyone concerned about it? It’s true that money laundering and illicit transactions make up a small number of the total number of transactions per year, but we are still talking about billions of dollars. Not to mention, some of these networks have become the primary vehicle for criminals. This is also not an excuse to do nothing about it.
More Regulation and Sanctions
If there’s one thing that’s for sure, it’s that we’ll see more regulation and sanctions coming soon. Tornado Cash isn’t the only game in town. More regulations and sanctions are coming because the community is completely unwilling to address these concerns in any meaningful way.
Sanctions and regulations often create more friction than directly addressing an issue. This is because they are rarely implanted well and are part of a knee-jerk reaction. For example, someone sent Crypto Influencers small amounts of ETH from sanctioned Tornado Cash wallets, getting them banned from using Defi projects, which is kind of funny. Ironically, it’s the same lack of friction that these influencers tout that allows this to happen.
Another side effect of the sanctions is that legitimate users doing nothing wrong may have had their assets frozen.
Given all of this trouble, you’d think that the community would be looking for ways to avoid these situations in the future, but mostly what’s happening is complaining about how things aren’t “decentralized” enough.
If you are in full schadenfreude around what’s happening, you should take a pause. Even if you don’t care about Defi and web3, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care about what’s happening. There’s the potential here for blowback onto other privacy controls outside of the web3 space. The more of these sanctions we see, the more comfortable the government gets with creeping into other areas, such as weakening the encryption we use on a daily basis and take for granted. There are also issues concerning code and free speech in the blast radius of these sanctions.
Prevention is the Best Cure
The best way around sanctions and regulations is not to incur them in the first place. So, what could the community do? Projects could band together and create something like a Defi Standards body. This group could define standards that address security and privacy as well as curtailing illicit transactions. The adoption of these standards would mean that projects that don’t follow them have a low reputation and legitimate Defi projects can refuse to work with them. Certainly not perfect, but it would have a positive impact.
Unfortunately, using controls to curtail illicit transactions requires the introduction of friction. Controls such as delays, additional verification, transaction limiting, and many others are considered unpalatable and anti-freedom.
So, don’t hold your breath that something like this will happen without being forced. Creating standards is something that traditional organizations do and it doesn’t apply. Rules are for squares man!!! You’d think an attempt to stop the movement of funds stolen from other Defi projects would at least be a start and directly applicable to the space, but there aren’t any real efforts here.
There’s too many chains, too many projects, making too many problems, and not enough love to go around. (Sorry for the music reference, once I saw it, I couldn’t unsee it. Bravo if you know the song.)
As long as the Web3 space continues to do nothing to curtail harm, we’ll see more regulation and sanctions. The community seems to think these are a result of some sort of threat to traditional institutions. As long as this mindset persists, instead of the fact that ill-gotten gains are helping fund nation-state nuclear ambitions, we won’t see meaningful solutions from the Web3 side. The community seems content to duke it out with various countries around the world instead of addressing the issues.
What if I told you there was an investment opportunity where you were almost guaranteed to lose money? What if I told you that this technology allows for someone to airdrop you unsolicited d**k picks, and instead of burning them or being upset, you end up hanging on to them in the hopes that someday they are worth money? (Yes, this actually happens) Welcome to the wonderful world of Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs).
Amara’s Law: We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.
Even though I have a bit of fun in this post, it would be foolish to underestimate the effect of NFTs in the long run. Misconceptions, hype, and complete denial of reality are stifling something which could be a cool technology experiment. That’s what gets lost; NFTs are just a technology experiment. Whenever money is involved, people tend to forget that things are an experiment.
By now, you’ve probably heard of NFTs but aren’t quite sure what you get when you buy one. Don’t worry, you aren’t alone. Many people buying them don’t know what they’ve bought either. There’s plenty of information out there on what they are, so I won’t go into that here, but I would like to talk about is their value because that is a hotly debated topic.
NFTs have become the slow news day punchline for many, some for a good reason. Not a day goes by where there isn’t some NFT scam. Fakes, frauds, and scammers are all cashing in on the craze. The victims aren’t gullible rubes either; some are large corporations like Kia.
Even though I take a few of my own jabs for entertainment purposes, this isn’t a post beating up on NFTs. Just a look at where the technology is today, from the perspective of novelty and individual ownership.
What You Get
For many, it seems silly to spend money for a receipt because that’s essentially what you get when you buy an NFT today. You don’t get the copyright. You can’t reproduce the image and create new NFTs from it. The receipt is verifiable to someone curious enough to check the specific blockchain on which the NFT is minted. This is summed up in the following cartoon from the New Yorker.
Side note: Props to whoever came up with the “Non-Fungible Tolkien” joke.
If the copyright holder wants to mint another identical NFT on a different chain, they can do that. If they want to print posters of the image you bought and sell them, they can do that too; you can’t. As a matter of fact, if you wanted a poster to hang on your wall, you’d have to pay for the image again.
In non-technical terms, from the buyer’s perspective, what You’ve bought is bragging rights. Bragging rights are what people find valuable about them.
The Value of an NFT
NFTs aren’t about the artwork or artists, no matter how much someone tries to tell you otherwise. The current value of NFTs is about signaling to others that you are part of a group. There’s a hierarchy, so the “cooler” the NFT project, the “cooler” group you belong to. NFT ownership is like being in a fraternity, only in this case, the hazing comes from outsiders.
NFT ownership is like being in a fraternity, only in this case, the hazing comes from outsiders.
Determining which projects will be popular can be tricky since NFTs have a closer relationship to memes than art. You aren’t always sure why one takes off, and the other fails.
The market is fueled by two things, FOMO and sunken cost fallacy. This is accelerated through artificially built-up hype created through traditional social media platforms.
Pumping and Artificial Hype
Let’s look at a simple example NFT launch. An “artist” creates an NFT collection. Now they have 10,000 images that nobody will buy because nobody knows about them or cares. They need to create a buzz, so they make an announcement on a platform like Reddit or Discord offering to airdrop free NFTs to users, but there’s a catch.
To get free NFTs, you have to take a series of steps that involve amplifying the announcement and spreading the word on various social media channels. To others, it looks like “everyone” is talking about this NFT collection, and they buy an NFT when the project launches because they don’t want to miss out. FOMO hits both the person getting the free NFT and the buyer. Neither care about the artwork but don’t want to miss out on an investment.
Of course, the previous scenario is only if everything goes as planned. If it’s a scam, you just helped a thief steal people’s money, and of course, these scams happen all the time.
There are also PR stunts to try and draw more attention to NFTs, like the guy who took out a loan for half a billion dollars to buy an NFT from himself.
Look at the example below of a fake sale from Twitter.
These stunts are a daily occurrence and actually hurt the community instead of help.
Almost all NFTs and NFT projects lose value after the initial hype dies down. Anyone who paid an astronomically high price for an NFT will feel pretty stupid or just has so much money they won’t miss it anyway. Of course, there’s always the scenario where you may just love collecting NFT farts.
Now, that said, some people have made money on NFTs, but they typically sell them shortly after buying or receiving them. To take this a step further, a recent study published in Nature found that the top 10% of traders account for 85% of the transactions and trade at least once 97% of all assets. This is a shell game, not a vibrant community of collectors.
Scams and Illegal Activities
Criminals find the NFT craze lucrative, and not a day goes by where someone isn’t ripped off. The current market is full of scams and illegal activities. Wash trading, rug pulls, money laundering and many scams are a daily occurrence and will continue into the foreseeable future.
Not About Artists
Everyone likes to say NFTs are about art and artists, but this evidence doesn’t line up. You create a couple of templates and then let some code create 10,000 permutations. People then buy them with the hopes of flipping them. I’m not saying that an 8bit image or even a computer-generated image can’t be art, but what I am saying is there isn’t any appreciation for art or the artist in the current ecosystem. Refer back to the previous Nature article about the ecosystem.
People buying NFTs think of themselves as investors, not collectors or people who appreciate art. Investors are showing off that they bought something, not showing off the artwork.
On the flip side, most people consuming art, buy it for a purpose. They want to show it on their wall and don’t want to be their own art dealer.
New Promises, Same Problems
In the old days, artists hated the gatekeepers. The gatekeepers were the obstacle holding them back from the masses and success. Today, the gatekeepers have mostly disappeared, and musicians can freely publish their music on platforms such as Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, and a whole host of others alongside famous artists. The same platforms exist for other types of artists as well. The barriers between artists and consumers have all but disappeared. Success still hasn’t come, now comes the promise of NFTs. New platform, same problems.
The unspoken reality is the vast majority of user-generated content, both creative and non-creative falls in the range from not good to pure garbage. This is an astronomical uphill battle if you are a diamond in the rough. The fact that the content is poor won’t stop people from giving you a platform and making money from it. Dreams rarely turn a profit, but selling people on their dreams has always been profitable. The chain and marketplace always make money, the artist, not so much. Artists still have a lot of heavy lifting to do.
Dreams rarely turn a profit, but selling people on their dreams has always been profitable.
NFTs don’t solve the most significant challenge for most artists. If you are a well-known artist with a following, getting a larger share of proceeds from streams and sales is attractive, but you’ve already passed the most significant hurdle. Most artists would rather have exposure than money. In the case of musicians, they freely give away their music in the hopes that people will listen. These artists are in the “trying to build a following” stage, not the “maximize profits” stage.
As an outside observer, one of the biggest things irking people about NFTs is the complete denial of reality in the ecosystem. Fanatical collectors are willing to lose family members or even wish another pandemic upon the world, all so that their NFTs will rise in value.
It would be foolish to dismiss NFTs completely
It would be foolish to dismiss NFTs completely. NFTs are a technology experiment, and like most technology experiments, the initial iteration often doesn’t resemble the end result. I think this is what frustrates me about the current state of NFTs. It’s all hype, but the technology actually has some pretty cool use cases.
If you look at what NFTs are, it’s not hard to see how they could be a utility with additional value. So, NFTs will morph into a value add vs. a thing of value.
Companies are already experimenting with these concepts. A couple of unique examples are Nike with their CryptoKicks or something like TechStyles for the resell market. We’ll see more of this experimentation from companies in the future.
New Revenue Streams
Even though NFTs aren’t about art, NFTs do create new potential revenue streams. Companies who want to launch NFTs may commission people to create NFTs for product launches and other promotional activities. This type of work will increase, and today you can even find people on Fiver who’ll create these NFT collections for you.
If Kia wants to launch an NFT to go along with a new vehicle, they’ll need someone to help them with that, either on staff or as a contractor. Just don’t rip them off this time 🙂
Whether you are all in on NFTs or all against, it’s good to keep Amara’s Law in mind. The next couple of years will be interesting to see where NFTs head. We’ll see a transformation of the original concept into more value-added technology, so please, don’t talk your parents into converting their retirement savings into a pixelated image.
Shout out to the @CoinersTakingLs Twitter account for some of the example tweets used in this post.
I’m not going to retread what the metaverse is in this post, nor will I talk about distributed metaverse projects on the various blockchains. Most average users find blockchain technology too hard to use and certainly don’t own any NFTs. I’ll revisit this when the average user can set up a wallet without losing their recovery passphrase. Facebook has the users, the name, and the integration, so it makes sense to start here.
This post is a quick note about the dangers of a future-state, connected metaverse concept, and integrated tech such as VR and AR. Why would a company like Facebook be so interested in this concept? Let’s have a look.
It amazes me how people believe that these large platforms have their best interests in mind. Yes, this social network with a billion daily users that I pay no money for was built for me to share pictures of my dinner with the world. People are either ignorant or ignore the tradeoffs. Facebook has over 10,000 employees working on VR technology. I’m sure so you can share pictures of your dinner in augmented reality. So, if we apply the same concept of a large social network’s metaverse, then we have to assume they are monetizing their users and their data.
Completely immersive virtual reality has been a tech holy grail since the 1800s and the stereoscope. Given that large tech companies are footing the bill, you can bet that the monetization strategy involves you and your data.
Picture yourself going about your day performing activities from the most mundane to the most sensitive. Now, picture someone watching and hearing what you do. If you think that’s scary, it gets worse. All the things we don’t recognize can say the most about who we are. What exactly did you look at? Did your eyes spend a little bit too much time on that advertisement or that person? Did your heart rate rise? Are your activities conducive to a healthy lifestyle, or do they raise the risk of illness?
Micro Scale Surveillance
Now, think about all of the things you don’t tell people and what those insights hold because this is what you disclose to the platform. No matter how mundane you think your activities are, they are interesting to somebody. The connected metaverse offers micro-scale surveillance with access to seemingly innocuous signals on the surface but enriched with other signals. This data is valuable for advertising, insurance, governments, and the list goes on and on—access to this information is provided via payment or force.
There’s no doubt that Facebook knows a lot about you already, too much. Not all of that knowledge is direct; some of it is inferred knowledge. So, it may not be something the platform knows outright but based on other signals, it can infer. The metaverse will flip this around, providing direct access to connected devices.
What will make the metaverse dangerous from a privacy perspective is deep integration with devices, extended engagement and the monetization of the platform. You combine signals from multiple devices and centralize them on a platform giving direct access for analysis and enrichment.
Your first question may be, why would anyone connect all their devices to their account in the first place? Well, many people already do, but the longer answer is because of some perceived benefit. People already connect their refrigerators to the Internet. Maybe the more devices you attach, the platform promises a better experience. It could also be for gamification reasons, like competing against friends and racking up some points or virtual street cred. Maybe you attach your smart refrigerator to the metaverse to show off how many salads you have in it. But, in the virtual salad game, you lose points for your kid’s birthday cake, the unintended consequences of poor design. The reality is, the scenarios are endless.
To simplify this, let’s think of the data generated by a set of AR glasses with an always-on microphone and video feed, location services, and a fitness tracker. There’s a massive trove of information here. The camera on the glasses has access to everything in front of your face and tracks where your eyes focus. The microphone hears your voice and ambient sounds, and the location services provide your location via GPS. The fitness tracker has access to your heart rate, 02 levels, movement, and exercise routines.
For years, websites and ad agencies have tried to maximize their investments by using tech to determine how long you stay on the page and what part of the web page you spend the most time on. Eye-tracking brings this to a whole new level of accuracy.
With eye-tracking and augmented reality, the tech will know not just in the virtual world but in the real world what you look at and focus on. Since we make conscious and subconscious movements with our eyes, we may not realize the type of preferences we disclose. Which ads do you find the most appealing? Do you prefer men or women? What attire do you like? Another endless and terrifying list.
Look forward to an onslaught of unblockable ads overlaid on your world, all based on subconscious preferences you may not have even known you had. Maybe the ad changes the brunette to a blonde or the skin tone of a person in its attempt to tailor a more attractive ad. This scenario is both a privacy and social risk.
Your fitness tracker says a lot about you. The obvious thing it says is how mobile or sedentary you are. Your workout routines, number of steps you take, heart rate, all of this is valuable data. You might say, “Well, that’s what the fitness tracker is supposed to do.” Correct, but in the connected metaverse concept, you provide direct access and centralization of that data. This access and centralization allow the platform to enrich it with other signals.
Signals from a fitness tracker combined with other data such as eye-tracking and location services enrich the data to new heights. For example, when looking at a person, does your heart rate increase? That’s much more valuable (and sensitive) than just knowing when your heart rate increases.
Much has been written about the risks of location data, everything from identifying secret military bases to priests being outed for their use of dating apps. I won’t retread the dangers of location services since much has been written about it already.
In the connected metaverse scenario we’ve discussed, location data is enriched with other data to provide deeper insights than just the location alone. Where you are is combined with what you look at, your reaction, and how often.
Data Leakage and Ownership
If one sure thing in the world, it’s that data will leak. The impact from leakage of a dataset built with more complete data will be worse for individuals.
It’s not just the primary platforms like Meta. It’s also 3rd party developers writing apps to run on the platform. They may also have access to the same signals and may have more nefarious intentions or just worse security practices. Issues with 3rd party applications have been an issue for as long as social networks have allowed them.
Of course, data ownership is still an issue. Who owns the data? Probably not you, even after you exit the platform. Even if the platform deletes the raw data about you, the insights gained and your profile will persist.
If you think about the world today, there is a non-negligible number of people who’d prefer to be uploaded into their own personal utopia. Their avatar represents what they feel they are and what they want the world to see. They’d rather hashtag their way to activism than take meaningful steps to make a difference. One of the greatest cons perpetrated by social networks is convincing people that activism requires no action, even though the word “act” is literally spelled out. “Look, I changed my profile photo in solidarity” or “I posted thoughts and prayers on someone’s timeline,” shouting “look at what a great person I am” into the echo chamber. One thing is for sure, the metaverse will fill with more hollow and pointless gestures that have no effect on the real world, and that’s a problem.
The more you focus on the virtual world, the less you focus on the real world. We observed this lesson with immersive video games. The real world has immediate problems. No hard problem is ever easy to talk about or solve, and we’ve found unique ways of avoiding them.
Life is tough for many people, especially during a pandemic, so I can’t fault people for wanting an alternative, but this is kind of how you get dystopias. Food for thought, the sci-fi stories of the past that have had metaverse-like concepts have been dystopias.
Real-world experiences are valuable for health, well-being, and personal growth. No virtual experience can even come close, period. Recently, I was in Switzerland on the shores of Lake Geneva. The sun was setting, and I watched the sailboats coming in. The sun behind the clouds showed through with an orange color. I thought it was cool, so I snapped a picture.
I can tell you, the picture did not do the experience justice, not just because of my poor photo-taking skills or lack of horizontal orientation (I never meant to share the photo). Everything from the breeze on my face to the ambient sounds of birds in the background created an experience that no picture or video could recreate.
It wasn’t just about the sensations I experienced sitting on the shores of the lake. It was about personal reflection. I spent my time watching the sun go down on a park bench without staring at my phone or any other busy activity. I took time to reflect. The experience was restorative in a way I couldn’t have gotten in any virtual context.
Engagement and Immersion
Facebook’s major goals are engagement and time on the platform. The more time you spend on Facebook engaging with people (positive or negative) the better for them financially. This metric means that Facebook will do its best to create more immersive experiences and allow apps that align with this goal.
The more immersive an experience, the less time for reflection. Think about playing a video game; it’s an activity that keeps you busy with constant activities but doesn’t allow for personal reflection. This is dangerous because being more reflective in our thinking is how we avoid scams and disinformation.
The fact that social networks are an activity, like a game, could be a factor that helps misinformation spread more rapidly. When you are liking, commenting, and arguing, you aren’t spending time reflecting. You are leading with emotions and personal biases, the same things that adversaries exploit. We will see new attacks since increased engagement opens the door to enhanced manipulation, whether by advertising or adversaries.
Ultra-customization amplifies your biases. Your opinions will be shaped by the content you see, meaning you could be further isolated from reality. Many people will also choose not to participate. Your view of the world will be shaped by the content you choose to see or the platform chooses to show you for increase engagement.
The world created will be filled with the intentional and unintentional. In the previous section, I mentioned that ads might change based on your subconscious preferences. This feature means your private utopia may lack diversity by design.
The metaverse isn’t going to lift people out of poverty, change the environment, or make the world more equitable. It may, however, con people into feeling as though they are making a difference. Same social media, different wrapper.
This post only scratched the surface of the risks involved, and as I was writing this, I thought of even more. We’ll see more of these issues come to light in the future. I hope that conversations about the risks force these platforms to enforce data and privacy standards. Only time will tell.
While out for a jog the other day, I noticed an older man on a large motorcycle blasting Dubstep obnoxiously loud to the entire neighborhood. The transmission ended when he turned off the bike, but he sat there for a moment with a Sad Keanu look on his face before dismounting and disappearing into his house. Besides making me feel as though I was in a cheesy sitcom, this surreal scenario got me thinking deeper about the ways technology kills novelty.
Ever wonder what happened to Skrillix? Of course, you don’t. You didn’t even notice I spelled his name wrong. There was a year where he won like 5 Grammys, and then nobody talked about him again. If I told you he died years ago, you’d probably believe me. Didn’t you hear? He did something cool, like hiding an album inside a video game or something, and… nobody cared. Skrillex certainly didn’t create Dubstep, but he defined it for a mainstream audience. In the end, technology killed Skrillex. In an ironic twist, the same technology enabled him.
The Death Of Novelty
So, what happened to Dubstep and Skrillex? Massive numbers of people pointed to this as the future of music and how things would never be the same. The disappearance of Dubstep and Skrillex from the mainstream is pretty simple when you reflect on it. The tools used to create music that sounded like Skrillex were easily accessible to anyone, and they took no talent to use. This lead to a deluge of everyone doing the same thing. The same year he won all of those Grammys everything from Kleenex to Clorox used music that sounded exactly like a Skrillex in their commercials. You couldn’t escape those sounds. They were everywhere.
I’m not claiming Skrillex isn’t talented. What I am saying is it doesn’t take any particular talent to sound like Skrillex. The basic tools are a laptop, headphones, and some music software.
Technology removed the barrier to entry, removing the novelty allowing anyone to replicate the sounds of his success. This decrease in friction also accelerated the timeline for replication to a matter of hours. What resulted was an inevitable crash and a quick tiring by the mainstream, but apparently still popular with one particular biker.
Overall, reducing friction is a good thing. We certainly wouldn’t want to make it harder for people to get essential services when in need or take long to implement security requirements meant to protect people. But there are cases in which friction does serve a beneficial function.
What we don’t like to realize is that the gatekeepers that everyone liked to hate on so much, although flawed, did serve a purpose in some ways by adding friction. If you don’t believe me, think back to the reaction you had when someone told you that their brother’s friend has a band you should check out.
It’s important to keep these concepts in mind, because in the current world, novelty directly relates to value.
Not all friction is bad. Talent, for instance, is friction. When we look at a piece of artwork or a sculpture, we are amazed by the person’s talent. That a human equipped with the same tools as us created such a masterpiece that we couldn’t. I remember standing in front of Michelangelo’s statue of Moses in awe that any human could create such a masterpiece, by hand, out of marble.
Imagine I show you a detailed statue like that of Michelangelo and tell you I sculpted it. You’d probably be amazed, or you are terribly hard to impress. Now, imagine I tell you that I 3D printed it. You may still think it was kind of cool, especially if it’s the first one you’ve seen, but not even in the universe of what you thought when I sculpted it. Imagine I told you I downloaded the Michelangelo template set, the same template set that anyone can download. The novelty falls off a sheer cliff. Everyone’s printing Michelangelo’s, and they aren’t worth anything.
There may be a high value in being first, but there is a steep and unsustainable drop-off afterward. For example, a piece of AI artwork sold at Christie’s for $432k. Don’t expect this to be some sort of trend. It was the first. The article starts with this question, “Is artificial intelligence set to become art’s next medium?” Let me answer that, ah… no. At least not in the way the article is framing it.
Someone also created an NFT of their farts and sold it. Is the person who bought it going to show that NFT to anyone in a year? Am I to believe there will be fart markets in the future for fine purveyors of artisanal gas? Some people think so, and those people are what we call wrong 🙂 When the thing people want to collect is readily available anywhere and everywhere, it loses any value. My mom collected figurines and baby dolls that creeped me out as a kid. Although the items in her collection weren’t highly valuable either, thankfully, they also weren’t easy to get.
What amazes me is that people look at these new concepts, be they creative or technological, and always fall for them, claiming they are the new thing and that’s just how the world is going to be. It boils down to FOMO and a whole lot of wishful thinking. By applying a little thought and analysis, it doesn’t align with the real world. Whether they be creative arts or technology, things that are easy to recreate or duplicate die a pretty quick death.
In summary, any technology or trend based solely on novelty has an incredibly short shelf life if the friction to recreate it is low. This trend is because if everyone is doing something, it’s not novel. Since novelty relates to value, don’t invest your life savings into things that are easily repeatable and have no staying power. Strive to be unique, push yourself beyond the bounds of easy replication and into new areas. That’s where you’ll find success.
What do you think of when you think of companies like UPS, FedEx, and Amazon? Most likely, you think of logistics, packages, and maybe the occasional present you don’t remember ordering because of… reasons. You don’t think of mass surveillance, but that might change in the not-so-distant future.
New data sources are on the horizon that further threaten our privacy. Awareness of these issues is critical if we hope to prepare for this in the future. These data sources are becoming more available and accessible due to advances in expanded storage, processing, and edge computing.
It shouldn’t surprise you, but you don’t own the airspace above your house. This lack of ownership is how you can see an image of your home on Google Earth when nobody asked your permission. This fact usually isn’t a privacy concern due to the relative lack of regularity in updates to public satellite images, so there is a massive amount of information obscuring you as an individual. The average person isn’t important enough for a nation-state or tech company to task a satellite for more current images. Once again, what saves us in many of these cases is the concept of obscurity. Our information blends into the background along with countless others.
What got me thinking about this issue was the Nashville bomber and the associated photos of his RV from Google Street View and Google Earth. This discovery set off a firestorm of “look at the line on his RV dude, it’s not him” arguments, but that’s not the point of this post. The point is that it was pretty easy for anyone that requested the address to use this technology to identify the very RV in his driveway. Now, let’s expand this out a bit further and closer to real-time.
We have a few problems with this new perspective.
Privacy invasion due to tracking and advertisements
Near real-time surveillance of your home and property
Data sales and further misuse
Companies have gotten very good at turning their excess data into profit. If you think this untapped potential will go to waste, then you are sadly mistaken. Every company is a tech and data company now, looking to squeeze every bit of value on every bit of data at their disposal.
Tracking and Advertisements
Looks like you could use an umbrella for your picnic table. Would you like to add one to your cart?
The awning on the side of your house looks tattered. Here are three options for you.
If you think this seems far-fetched, consider the fact that Amazon is one of these companies exploring delivery drones along with UPS and FedEx. Amazon knows where you live and has extensive storage and processing capabilities. Regardless, there’s a good chance that you’ve received a package from all three of these providers and your name is attached to your address.
Think about this type of advertising. How would you opt-out? You may opt-out of seeing the result, but the data is still captured and processed. There are no Adblock shingles for the roof of your house.
Near Real-time Surveillance
Think of all the near real-time surveillance data available for learning the habits of particular houses and neighborhoods. Sure, delivery trucks are in your neighborhood today, but even if they had an array of cameras and sensors, they are typically only in your community, maybe once per day. Multiple drones might be flying over your property throughout the day, providing a far more comprehensive perspective with many more sensors and precise data.
To be clear, this isn’t about a human at one of these companies viewing images of your property. This human analysis would be a massive undertaking, but analysis at scale isn’t far-fetched. With all of this valuable data, you have to wonder how this will impact investigations and cooperation with law enforcement in the future.
Data is valuable, so what is the value of this data to other organizations? It may not be these companies making direct use of the data, but selling the data and insights gained. Your data is bought and sold on a regular basis without your knowledge.
Speaking of law enforcement, it wouldn’t be that difficult with the number of drones in the sky for law enforcement or a government agency to camouflage themselves into the busy skies, or what if they purchased the data directly?
The point is, there are many scenarios that may play out that we haven’t thought of yet.
What Do We Do?
Unfortunately, there isn’t much we can do to combat this threat when it appears. We can’t mow an opt-out symbol into our yard. We have to hope that the legal system creates controls that prohibit this type of behavior and imposes limits on this data. It’s not like we can stop using these services or that there are enough of them that you can make an effective boycott. Even though there isn’t much we can do, it’s worth remembering that hard lessons are often learned in the initial implementation of a technology. For example, the Google Street View incidents with people passed out drunk.
This type of surveillance is still on the horizon, but with today’s resources, it’s becoming more viable. With new data sources and advancements in collection and processing, we’ll find our privacy violated in more unexpected ways. The drone scenario is only one of many. We need to threat model these new technologies beyond their primary functions and consider their abuse. It’s up to us to decide what kind of future we want to live in and be proactive in identifying potential harms.
I know this isn’t related to tech, but it’s something important to me, so please forgive the quick PSA. As we approach Easter, it is the season where people get pet rabbits for their children. Don’t do it. They are a commitment you aren’t prepared for. Most people have no idea what is required of them when they have a pet rabbit. No, really, they don’t. As an animal lover and rescuer, I’m pleading with you to reconsider. A few months after Easter, rescues will overflow with new residents with no homes.
People look at rabbits and because they are small and think they are like a gerbil or hamster. This isn’t the case. They need much more space and attention than you are probably willing to give. They aren’t a kind of pet you can set and forget. Make sure this is a commitment you are prepared for, not your child. They will lose interest, but the animal will be with you for a decade.
I’ll outline a few things you probably aren’t expecting here, but there are many more.
Rabbits are considered exotic animals, which means that not all veterinarians will see them. It also means that it will cost you more money when you need to visit a vet.
Rabbits have unique exercise and dietary requirements. They need hours of exercise out of a cage per day. Lack of exercise causes health issues.
Feeding them the wrong type of food or using hard water will cause some very catastrophic health conditions such as bladder stones.
They have unique health conditions and can go downhill fast. Rabbits can die very quickly after not eating or drinking for relatively short periods of time. It requires a keen eye to know when something is wrong with them.
Typical flea treatments will kill them. You need to make sure if you have other animals in the house that fleas do not make their way onto your rabbit.
They are picky. There are countless things they are picky about, from food, to water, to the location of objects, to vet appointments with their bonded partner, etc.
Rabbits are social animals and need lots of interaction. The social aspect is why they do better in pairs, especially for busy people. And, of course, there may be a good chance two random rabbits won’t get along.
It can be hard to find a pet sitter for them, and you can’t just leave them alone for long periods at your house.
It should be obvious, but they are fragile. Yes, very fragile and unsuitable pets for young children who may want to pick them up and squeeze them constantly. Most rabbits don’t like to be picked up, and it takes quite a bit of handling for them to be comfortable with you.
I could continue the list, but you get the point, and I’m running out of time today.
If You Insist
If nothing I said deters you, then please don’t get a rabbit from a pet store. There is no shortage of rabbits in rescues who need good homes. There are many advantages to adopting from a rescue, but some of the biggest are that the pet may already be litter trained, and you’ll have a good understanding of its temperament. Also, if you get a pair, the rescue may already have a bonded pair that gets along with each other.
Look up resources online on how to care for your pet before getting it. Don’t start this process afterward. Importantly, review information on how to bond with your pet.
Get your pet fixed. Even if you only have one, it will fix odd behavior issues, and it’s more healthy for the pet.
Make sure they have plenty of space to run around and explore. They can’t be in a cage all day and need exercise. Don’t let them run around outside because they can get fleas, and more importantly, even if you are supervising them, birds of prey can come down and take them from right in front of you.
If you find you can’t handle the responsibility, don’t release them outside! They are domesticated animals and won’t be able to fend for themselves. They will be terrified and most likely die very quickly. Be responsible and take them to an animal rescue or shelter. When you release them, the very best case is that you burden other people who now need to rescue them. Don’t let your irresponsibility be someone else’s burden.
All of this said, rabbits can be amazing pets for the right owners. They have unique personalities and quirky behavior that makes them fun to observe. If you are willing to put in the work, they make rewarding companions. Although they are a ton of work, my rescued pets help me maintain my happiness and focus on what’s important.
I hope you found this post useful. Even if you’ve decided not to get a pet rabbit, please consider donating to your local rabbit rescue instead of getting a pet rabbit. A few months after Easter, these rescues will be inundated with new residents because kids lost interest or people didn’t know what they were getting into. If you don’t have a specific local rescue, the one I work with is the Gainesville Rabbit Rescue. They always appreciate donations.
Thanks for reading. I hope I’ve at least changed one person’s mind.
In case you were wondering, he jumped into the trash can himself.
I’ve written about conspiracy theories and the tech that spreads them in the past, but I feel the subject needs some revisitation after 2020. 2020 was troubling, with businesses shutting down, people out of work, and looming fear for many people. People with less to do spent more time glued to digital devices. This increased availability with nothing to do supercharged even the most ridiculous theory.
Like a Cult, Only Worse
Something I’ve been saying for the past couple of years is that conspiracy theorists are like cult members, only worse. Worse, because a cult has a leader, but conspiracy theories make you the leader. This everyone is a leader concept is incredibly empowering and addictive, mapping perfectly into our current selfie culture.
This cult-like nature is critical to keep in mind when trying to break someone away or even reason with someone who is deep into conspiracy theories. After someone launches into the conspiracy lifestyle, it’s almost impossible to get them out as you watch them plunge deeper and deeper into disconnection from reality. Since they aren’t following a leader, it is much harder to realize the hole they are in. I’m not following anyone, I’m following myself. Are you trying to tell me I’m stupid? Do your own research! These are just a few of the questions and comments you can expect and one of the reasons conspiracy theories are so sticky.
Unlike a cult leader who chooses the direction for followers, conspiracy theorists lack a general direction leading to unpredictability. This open and empty vessel fills with content from multiple purveyors building up in some cases where the theorist believes they have to take action. Action on conspiracy theories is almost always damaging and, in many cases, deadly as well.
In the past, you’d have to come into contact with a cult leader or followers to influence others. A cult leader’s sphere of influence would be limited. With modern technology and social media, toxic ideas can flow and expand at an alarming rate, infecting people who typically wouldn’t have come into contact with those ideas. This constant feed allows conspiracy theories to spread at a rate far surpassing any cult leader’s wildest dreams.
Heroes, Victims, and Empowerment
How can otherwise rational people believe things that are so blatantly irrational?
I’ve said that conspiracies persist because they make you both the hero and the victim at the same time. If we dig a little deeper, there’s another theme running through these theories that lead to their persistence, and that’s blame. At its core, people want someone or something to blame, and once blamed, they want accountability.
If there is some all-seeing, all-powerful entity behind the scenes pulling the strings, then that must explain someone’s hardships, failures, or lack of success. We shouldn’t underestimate this effect when analyzing these situations. Reality is increasingly bad for people, so we shouldn’t be surprised when they look for explanations in even the most ridiculous places.
Imagine if your profession, work, or other activities felt like it had a minimal impact on the world. With conspiracy theories, you now have access to secret knowledge, complex geopolitical revelations, and even companies trying to cause harm to people. Quite often, the harm comes to children for additional emotional hook.
Sure, there have been actual conspiracies, but they don’t scale. Every time something you can’t explain happens, it can’t be a conspiracy. Deep down inside, conspiracy theorists have to know this. But, if you continually look for someone to blame, mentally, you can justify just about anything.
The Looming Danger
A friend of mine asked me why I care so much about this issue. It was a valid question since it monopolized our conversation. What irritates me about this subject comes down to two factors, manipulation and potential danger.
People make money off of purveying this garbage. Look at the more famous personalities. They aren’t selling you secret information. They are selling you something else. Maybe it’s vitamins and supplements, or perhaps it’s contributing money to them so they can “fight” something, but that money goes directly into their pockets. It’s wrong to refer to conspiracy theory purveyors and content creators as the leaders. In reality, purveyors are more like drug dealers. To give people more hits and keep them engaged, they need to push more and more theories no matter how ridiculous they are.
Plain and simple, it’s a con, and purveyors of conspiracy theories are con artists. It’s like when John McClane realized that Hans Gruber was only after the money and wasn’t some ideologue with an agenda. We need to create more John McClanes, who peer through the ruse discovering the reality underneath.
Ignorance and stupidity have consequences. Let’s talk about accountability. When an event never happened, holding someone accountable for that non-existent event is dangerous. When people bring a gun into a pizza place for access to a non-existent basement or blow up a telecom provider, it’s their way of holding them accountable. People will continue to be hurt by others’ ignorance.
Conspiracy theories are inclusive and hierarchical according to their ridiculousness and danger. For example, it may be relatively harmless to think that the government has alien bodies at Area 51, and someone who believes that may not believe something more absurd like 5G towers causing Covid-19. However, someone who thinks that 5G towers cause Covid-19 definitely believes that the government as alien bodies at Area 51. The higher up you go, the more you are obligated to believe everything below. In a way, Area 51 aliens are the gateway drug to Pizzagate.
People have and will continue to die. It’s not just keyboard warriors or simple destruction of property. We recently had someone kill themselves by blowing up an entire city block in Nashville over 5G conspiracies, and other conspiracy theorist destroyed vaccine doses. After Pizzagate, a man stormed into Comet Ping Pong and discharged a weapon. Thankfully, nobody got hurt. It’s going to get a lot worse. The freshly minted conspiracy theorists of 2020 aren’t going anywhere.
Sadly, people who seem so obsessed with gaining knowledge are so far away from it. I think an increase in complexity, erosion of trust in institutions, and an increase of time on people’s hands have lead to a massive surge in conspiracy thinking.
Now, it’s time for a scary thought experiment. Just think, if you believed in some of these theories, what would you do? What lengths would you go to?
FUD stands for fear, uncertainty, and doubt. FUD creates the perfect breeding ground for conspiracy theories, mainly because they appear to have an answer. This answer is for why a particular event is happening, but it doesn’t offer a solution. The solution is the fill in the blanks part that people are left to actualize for themselves.
There is a danger with assuming everything is malicious intent. If a particular company or government agency did something, it must be to cause harm. Some of this is rooted in fundamental misunderstanding. Most people have never solved a major, fast-moving problem playing out in public. When people who don’t understand observe this, they assume either malicious intent or incompetence due to disorganization. The reality is, the situation changes as you learn more.
Take a pandemic, for instance. An agency may publish initial guidance based on data available at the time. As time goes on and the agency learns more this guidance changes. This situation is neither malicious or incompetent, but for ignorant observers can lead to a lack of trust.
Hanlon’s Razor states you should never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. You can insert “ignorance” in place of stupidity. Although Hanlon’s Razor doesn’t apply to the pandemic example above, it does apply to many other situations that are breeding grounds for conspiracy theories.
You add a lack of knowledge about how things work and sprinkle a hint of distrust and you have a recipe for conspiracy theories.
Conspiracy theorists are growing, and the situation is getting ever more dangerous. Breaking someone away from this culture takes a lot of time and care that you’d only employ if they were a close friend or family member. Try to nurture their curiosity. Remember, they are the leader and possess secret knowledge. Also, employ different techniques to see what works best for the individual.
We need to create friction to falsehoods and decrease friction to reality. The opposite is in place today where content manufactured to look like news is available free and real news is behind a paywall. It also takes many years to become a doctor, but only 5 minutes to watch a YouTube video.
I wanted to start my refreshed blog with a post on Deepfakes, but probably not highlighting the threat you expect. For the past couple of years, I’ve said the real threat from Deepfakes is different from the one discussed most of the time. There’s a lot of handwaving and hype focused on one specific threat, but this can create a distraction from some profound and lasting issues. Let’s look at a couple of other threats posed by DeepFakes and examine why these have a more lasting impact.
When you think of the danger from Deepfakes, you are probably thinking about their ability to convince people something happened that didn’t. This threat is something I call narrative evidence because you are using the content in an attempt to show evidence in support of some larger story. It’s this issue that steals all of the oxygen on the topic. The threat’s stated impact is that it tears at the fabric of reality, and people will believe things because they see and hear it. Although this impact isn’t false, it doesn’t take into account certain actualities.
The fabric of reality is already torn. If anything proves this, it should be the events of 2020. We’ve seen people burn down 5G towers and believe that a major company was shipping children in their furniture. At this moment in the United States, millions of people believe something happened that didn’t with no evidence and no proof. These falsehoods are all perpetuated without the benefit of Deepfakes.
Let’s consider an example In 2019, there was an altered video of Speaker Nancy Pelosi making the rounds on social media. This video was slowed, making her seem as though she was slurring her speech and intoxicated. No high-tech tools were used. Now, how would a Deepfake have changed this? The reality is, it probably would have made little difference. People who wanted it to be true would share it, while others would not.
Thankfully, the creators of fake content are rarely subtle. Someone generating content for Speaker Pelosi would have her saying something about how she enjoys the nourishing effects of child blood or something equally as ridiculous. This ridiculousness is an indicator of future use. In the future, Deepfakes won’t be a tool used to convince people an event happened but instead used to excite a particular group’s existing biases, in much the same way fake content and memes do today. This is because provenance and reality don’t matter in this context.
As resources become more available and tools get easier to use, Deepfakes technology will remove the friction in creating fake content, but this also has a downside for its purveyors. Increased availability and simplification will generate a deluge of fake content, but this increase will normalize the content and make people tune it out. So, this fake content won’t be a tool to expand a particular viewpoint to new people, mostly keep the current crop engaged. While the technology catches up, there is a good bet we’ll see an expansion of services offering Deepfakes as a Service (DFaaS).
The fact of the matter is, we underestimate people’s biases when they evaluate content, and people have gotten pretty good at pwning themselves.
Deepfakes in Attacks
What about the Deepfakes used in attacks? It’s true, there are a couple of instances of Deepfakes being used in attacks, but these are exceptions and not the rule. In general, humans aren’t good at envisioning threats that haven’t happened yet, but once they happen, they do adapt. This adaptation will be the same for these attacks. The success of these attacks only work while the novelty is high, and the novelty wears off quickly.
What About Evidence of a Crime?
I mentioned the word evidence, so what about Deepfakes being used in a court of law? It’s unlikely that this would become a real issue in criminal court. It’s unlikely because there’s usually not a single piece of evidence in a case, so corroborating details wouldn’t exist. Also, techniques are getting better to detect manipulations that wouldn’t survive the scrutiny faced in a court of law. Is it impossible? Certainly not depending on the situation, but it is doubtful that this would become some widespread issue.
Still a Threat?
In the short term, narrative evidence attacks still pose a threat and are something we should be conscious of, so I’m not suggesting we write this threat off. The novelty value is still relatively high. However, I consider narrative evidence attacks more of a short term threat and won’t be the most impactful and long-lasting effect of Deepfakes. In short, the risk is overhyped, not non-existent, and my goal is to get people to focus on some of the more long-lasting problems.
There are several threats from DeepFakes, but the two of the most lasting and impactful fall under the following categories:
Reality denial is the opposite of the threat most people claim. The mere existence of Deepfakes is enough for people to question legitimate content. Anytime someone sees evidence of something they don’t like, they can just claim it’s a DeepFake. This situation can have massive ripple effects. I mean, how do you get a fair trial by a jury if the jury is willing to mentally throw out legitimate evidence?
Weaponizing backlash against legitimate content is also much easier to engineer because it takes no effort at all. All of this conducted with no technology, no constructions, and no time. The impact is everyone from friends to nation states can merely raise the question of the content’s provenance, and for many who are biased in that direction, it will be enough. This is the threat that should scare people, but it’s not the only threat. There’s another that can affect you personally.
Deepfakes have the ability to cause harm in instances where provenance and reality aren’t important. Here’s a question to ponder, does it matter whether the fake nudes of you shared online are real or fake? Deepfakes have the ability to take bullying and harassment to the next level since you can steal someone’s likeness and put them in all manner of situations. These situations include pictures, audio, and video. In most cases, it doesn’t matter whether the content is real or not. The impact is the same.
In October of 2020, I reviewed and provided feedback on a report before publication on Automating Image Abuse. The report detailed a Telegram channel where you could strip the clothes off of individuals. The original incarnation of this software was called DeepNude, and that term has stuck to all manner of technology concerning the removal of clothing.
Harassment will be the real legacy of Deepfakes. Consider how ease of use and availability of tools makes harassment and bullying much easier. In the near future, anyone who wants to generate this kind of content will have an outlet for doing so.
This is an area where the legal system can help, and we are starting to see some anti-Deepfake laws, but unfortunately, they are focusing on issues of narrative evidence and not harassment. This issue is something I think will change over the next few years, but the legal system moves slowly. Online platforms and social media companies can help as well, by building tools and punishing users spreading harmful content. Unfortunately, short of legal assistance and cooperation of social media companies, harassment may be one of those cultural issues we have to learn to live with for quite some time.
The Entertainment Industry
The entertainment industry is who should be worried about the technology powering Deepfakes. The disruption caused will be particularly impactful to actors and actresses, meaning they may be out of a job in the future. It would be a mistake to think that the generated content of the future will resemble the CGI of the past.
As an example, the creators of South Park made a Deepfakes television show called Sassy Justice and can be viewed on YouTube. The show features a cast of celebrities (all fake) and, like most things the South Park creators do, is entertaining and educational, performed in an over the top fashion.
In the future, availability and advancements will make it easier for regular people to generate their own worlds, people, monsters, etc. It may very well be that in the not too distant future, people are begging you to watch their feature film like a lot of artists do about their songs today. So it’s not all doom and gloom, depending on your perspective.
In a post-Covid19 world where social distancing and other environmental concerns impact real film shoots, a generated alternative could prove lucrative and allow movie studios and amateurs alike to increase the content.
Genies rarely fit back into bottles, and we need to come to grips with the fact that the technology is here to stay. Focusing only on the narrative evidence aspect of Deepfakes takes attention away from the long-lasting threats. This lack of awareness is apparent in the anti-Deepfakes laws being drafted. We need to make sure we highlight the other threats, such as harassment, so they get more attention from lawmakers and social media companies.