Yesterday, Apple introduced their new lineup of iPhones, and while everybody seems to be focusing on poop Animojis, the new iPhone X has more serious implications to think about. (And yes, I’m going to bring this post back around to comics; just give me a minute or two).
Search for “iPhone X” on Twitter and you’ll find a lot of oohs and aahs, but you’ll also find a lot of people making fun of the phone’s new “Animoji” feature, which lets users animate emojis using their own faces. The phone uses its forward-facing camera to read the user’s facial expressions and movements and animate an emoji to mimic those expressions and movements.
It’s a neat feature, but it’s admittedly hard to take poop emojis seriously. After Tim Cook introduced the new phone at their event on Tuesday with Apple’s famous “One More Thing,” it must have felt a little silly and anticlimactic for folks in the audience to watch someone animate a poop emoji with his face. But the silliness of Animojis hides both how revolutionary it is for regular people to be able to own that kind of technology––and also just how frightening the pace of technological advance has become.
As the world grew smaller and smaller during the twentieth century and faith in traditional institutions and values failed, people began to doubt their ability to know objective truth. New technologies like television and other forms of mass media heightened this problem by allowing different worldviews to compete for attention in people’s living rooms. But if it felt difficult in the middle of the twentieth century to know the truth, it feels damn near impossible in the internet age. People can write whatever they want on the internet with almost no accountability, and photos and videos can be selectively edited to show what the editors want them to show. Whatever belief you want to defend, you can find something on the internet that will help you do it, and if you want to destroy a belief, you can find something to help you do that, too.
But technology is rapidly advancing to a point where we can not only lie or manipulate the truth using our words or by editing photos. We are approaching a point where we can convincingly spoof reality in ways that are even more difficult to disprove, and too few of us seem to be concerned about that problem.
The release of the iPhone X is the latest example of what I mean. If the average person can own a device that will allow them to easily use their faces in order to manipulate Animojis, how long will it be before we’re using our phones to spoof other people’s faces? After the use of digital effects to bring the dead to life in movies like Rogue One, how long before the average person can create a convincing video of another person doing things that the other person never did? And with companies like Adobe experimenting with technology that can allow us to edit audio as easily as text, how long before we can make people say things that they never said?
For example, imagine that I’m a college student, and I really hate my history professor. He gave me a bad grade, so I decide to create a video of him saying racist things to another student. Not everybody will believe it, but many people will––probably enough to ruin my professor’s career, and maybe worse. Technology is almost certainly going to reach point where the average person has the power to do such things.
Or imagine the effect that such technology might have on future elections. If “fake news” was a problem in the 2016 election, then the ability to create convincing videos of candidates saying things that they didn’t say will be a disaster.
But we don’t have to look at extreme examples to know that it won’t be good for us to have this kind of technology in our hands. Imagine how difficult it will be for the average person to know anything when anything can be put on video. I met a guy the other day who was absolutely convinced that love bugs were created by scientists in a lab in Florida. Why? Because he read it on the internet. If people can be convinced by fake news articles to believe things that aren’t true, then how much more gullible will they be when they’re presented with fake (but convincing) videos?
Now I said that I would bring this around to comics, so here goes: I’ve been reading comics steadily for about ten years now, and one of the things that has struck me most about both the Marvel Universe and the DC Universe is how frightening both places must be for ordinary people. I don’t say that because of the number of superpowered beings who live there, though. What’s most frightening about the MU and DCU is how often and how easily reality can be altered by beings like Dr. Manhattan or by objects like Infinity Gems and Cosmic Cubes. Several commentators have noted that stories like Secret Empire present us with a nightmarish postmodern world––a world where truth has become meaningless. If history can be altered as thoroughly as it gets altered in Secret Empire, how can there be a true reality––and even if there is one, how can we know it?
Well, we don’t have Cosmic Cubes in the real world. So far, we can’t make a device that can house cosmic energy capable of altering reality on a whim. But what if we can create a device that makes it possible for us to believe whatever we want to believe about reality? Or what if we can create a device that allows us to alter how other people see reality? That, I am afraid, might be just as bad as a Cosmic Cube.