Fake Fake News

I messed up with yesterday’s post. Yesterday I talked about Sidney Powell, the lawyer for the Trump Campaign who went too far with her craziness, revealing that it was indeed possible to go too far in the Trump Campaign organization. I talked about Rush Limbaugh and the strategic Tucker Carlson, who once again proved that he didn’t survive being called a dick by Jon Stewart on live TV by mere luck. I talked about Rudolph Giuliani who might as well at this point wipe off the beige makeup and reveal the bright clown colors of his true skin.

I talked about a lot of things but I only but mentioned Max Headroom, and it is Max Headroom that I intended to write about from the beginning.

Max Headroom was, in the 1980s, the first electronic manmade man of the TV age, the first talking head without a body. The technology then didn’t allow Max to be computer-generated, not really. He was an actor in foam make-up, the glitch-stutter edited in later. But he looked like he was the future and, as it turns out, he was.

I used to have a poster of Max Headroom, in a way, on my wall in my small, low-rent apartment near the University of Akron. I wasn’t a student there but the slum-lord rent was all I could afford in my early artist days.

Back in the 1980s—it’s going to be hard to remember this—politics wasn’t what it is today. People were very upset or happy about Reagan as president but his presidency didn’t consume the nation as the Trump presidency has in our own time. Everyone wasn’t an expert on the Electoral College, every one a specialist in the voter certification processes of the key battleground states. The Republicans and Democrats didn’t have their own competing news channels and Venn diagram-like versions of reality, with the overlap of the two circles shrinking and shrinking as each narrative of reality disentangled itself from the other. Back in the 1980s there was time to think about other stuff.

There was a comic strip that back then was a player in the world of politics, Doonesbury, which was usually printed on the op-ed page of the newspaper, not in the fun section. During the Reagan years a new character appeared, Ron Headrest, a mash-up of Ronald Reagan and Max Headroom, hacking into the regular storyline, hijacking it. I photographed one of these panels that I thought especially funny, made a big negative with my Hasselblad which looked good on a cheap 20×30-inch poster. I put an orange gel filter in front of the lens to make it a little more decorative.

What made me think of Max Headroom at all was an article in the New York Times about new and rapidly improving technology to create videos of fake people. The Times offered a video where a picture of a person would gradually morph into a picture of another person, with each step of the way looking convincingly like a real person, though every bit of it was fake.

Michal Jackson put out a video years ago with the same sort of segues, though the models there were real and would sometimes shake their heads to disguise the transitions. But the point of the article is that we are not far now from fake people being presented on-screen as real people, with the consequences unknown and unknowable.

You might imagine actors who look real but never were but I think newscasters might be the first to go. The people on TV now mostly say what you’d expect them to say, going down the party talking points like obedient interns. And if you’d ever seen top Trump advisor Stephen Miller, with or without his extremely odd spray-on hair, you might be forgiven for thinking he was a poorly designed AI character rather than the architect of the kids-in-cages immigration policy.

Miller aside, we are almost there. Which brings me back to Anderson Cooper Reacts. Could we replace Cooper with an even cuter or hipper invention, something with great writers backing it up, fleshing it out, if you will? We might even consider monitoring user reactions as he speaks and then, live, while it happens, adapt his reporting to provide the most engaging experience for our viewers. There are many versions of the truth, all of them legitimate, so why not use technology to find the one that keeps them watching, right through the commercials? It’s a win-win.

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