Charles Spurgeon singing! Frederick Douglass moving! Tom Cruise playing golf on TikTok!
If you’ve seen any of these things online, you’ve encountered an amusing and significant new technology: deepfakes. While deepfake technology, powered by artificial intelligence, may have been in the limelight in recent months, this technology is not that new. It is just becoming more believable and more accessible to the public.
Recently we saw this technology used by a 50-year-old Japanese biker to trick the internet into believing he was a young woman. It has also been used to create fake videos of well-known leaders like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and in some cases to create fake nude photos of women without their knowledge. While this technology may make history come alive or create amusing videos on social media, its consequences will only continue to grow as society loses yet another anchor of reality and truth in the technological age.
In many ways, deepfake technology is a succinct metaphor for contemporary Western society’s tenuous relationship with truth—which can be traced back to the Enlightenment’s untethering of truth and transcendence. As Neal Postman describes in his classic Technopoly, the Enlightenment’s drive toward empiricism ultimately led to the rejection of all authorities—religion, government, the press—that could not be empirically verified.
This shift to empiricism also launched a new stream of thinkers who sought an empirical basis for morality in the “new moral science,” which James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky aptly illustrate in Science and the Good. They conclude that this cultural shift has led to an embrace of nihilistic utilitarianism in our day.
In many ways, deepfake technology is a succinct metaphor for contemporary Western society’s tenuous relationship with truth.
Without an overarching sense of purpose or telos behind science and technology, our tendency is just to innovate in order to fix what we’ve previously destroyed. As the late Canadian philosopher George Grant described in Technology and Justice, “More technology is needed to meet the emergencies which technology has produced.”
Grant picked up on a thread that runs back through the thought of French sociologist Jacques Ellul concerning the “technological imperative”—we simply don’t have a choice between the non-technical and technical means. Our world is increasingly mediated and managed by technology, including how we think about the nature of truth.
But this circular logic—turning to technology to fix the problems created, or exacerbated, by technology—is not providing satisfying answers to the deeper questions we face. Even technologies that seem to help us in the “what is true?” dilemma of the modern age—such as photography and video—now seemingly make the problem worse.
Lost Trust in Truth
With the rise of modern photography and video, we were able to have some type of documented evidence of what really happened in any given situation or context. We felt we could naturally trust what we saw on video or in photos because it was an accurate description of reality and could be reliable “evidence” in legal courts and the courts of public opinion. Throughout most of the modern era, doctoring video and photos was extremely time-consuming and expensive—even with the accessibility of tools like Photoshop and video-editing software. As a result, fakes were easily distinguishable from true snapshots of reality.
But in recent years, the ubiquity of video-equipped smartphones and the proliferation of easy editing tools has muddied the waters on the reliability of photographic and video “truth.” While videos and photos have justly exposed countless incidents of racial bias, sexual abuse, and corruption, there are increasing examples of digitally manipulated photos or conveniently edited, out-of-context video clips being used to advance a narrative more than capture the truth. And now, deepfakes are a new frontier of troubling possibility.
Dangers of Deepfakes
As deepfake technology continues to become cheaper and more accessible, we will see increased abuse of these forms of documented “truths” that will lead to at least two massive shifts in our culture.
First, we will naturally begin to question everything we see because we won’t know how to easily distinguish between fake—digitally reconstructed or altered—and real. This suspicion of everything will have devastating psychological and cultural effects. As skepticism widens and accelerates, tribalism and political bifurcation will increase, as more people assume their “enemies” are constantly deceiving them while “their side” is the only one that can be trusted.
As skepticism widens and accelerates, tribalism and political bifurcation will increase.
Second, as deepfake technology continues to become more realistic, it will allow people to evade responsibility by throwing the trustworthiness of real video and photographic evidence into question. Imagine someone claiming a photo or video of them committing a crime isn’t really them. They could easily claim the “evidence” is simply a deepfake created for political or personal gain. Even if, at some point soon, we have the ability to authenticate these photos and videos, it will always be a race to keep up with the pace of the technology.
The potential moral and social unrest due to our inability to discern truth from a deepfake should be a wake-up call about the power and influence of technology in our lives. One of the most effective methods in combating this degradation of truth is to simply be aware of how technology can alter our perceptions of the world around us—rewiring our sense of reality—and ultimately dehumanize us and our neighbors.
The call of the Christian in the age of social media, deepfakes, and crumbling truth foundations is to see through the shiny veneer of our latest gadgets to the core of the issues we face. We are living through a massive rejection of truth and reality in nearly every area of life—including politics, sexuality, technology, and even the church. But humans cannot flourish in a world devoid of solid truth and transcendent purpose.
The church has an opportunity to step into the moral void and light the path of transcendent truth to an understanding of God and truth that corresponds with reality—not a deepfaked version to further someone’s partisan agenda or nefarious fantasy.