THE NARRATIVE FUTURE

You're reading a website with the subheading, "Dopamine's Only Natural Predator." So by choosing to be here you implicitly accept a certain level of bleakness. I'm conscious of the fact that people don't like to feel hopeless all the time, however, and I try to keep the content from becoming too dark accordingly. Fortunately there is always something to laugh about, even if it's the kind of laugh you make from stubbing your toe on the steps up the gallows.

Two stories that have simmered for the past year intersected yesterday, one of which is getting long-overdue mainstream media attention for the first time.

One is a thing I threw at you back in September – the emergence of this new editing technology that allows the creation, without expensive equipment or expertise, of very realistic looking fake videos. Examples abound on YouTube; Radiolab did an episode on this last summer; now the New York Times is noticing. Right now the tech is still imperfect. If you watch some of the examples available online they still look subtly "fake." It's hard to explain exactly why, but you'll be able to tell something isn't right. But give this, like any tech, five more years to improve and you're going to see videos all but indistinguishable from reality. Think, as an analogy, of the first fully-CGI characters in movies back in the 2000s compared to today. Once the gap between legit video and these edited concoctions is closed, it will be game over for any remaining hope of having one consensus reality. Any real video can be discredited as fake, and any fake video can be accepted as real.

The second item was this belated and shockingly casual admission that Russian hackers accessed voter rolls and voting systems in "a small number" of states in 2016. Now, before you go running for the deep end, it appears highly unlikely that the outcome of the election was affected in any way. That's not the problem. The problem is the final leg of legitimacy beneath our elections is being undermined on the record. As we all suspected, voting systems are not entirely secure (nothing is, obviously) and now the government has admitted that, yes, hackers have tunneled under the castle wall. I think we all kind of knew that. Now we know it.

This is a crucial step in all semi-authoritarian states – the delegitimization of election results. A good autocrat doesn't rig elections so much as he convinces the public that elections as a whole are not legitimate. Everyone's cheating! Who can say who really won?! Every election gets "disputed" and the outcome has to be determined by the state's unelected institutions – the courts, the bureaucracy, and, eventually, the military. As much as it seems like Trumpers would push back against a "Russia hacked the elections" story, this actually serves the long term goal very effectively. Undermine everything, then the power reverts to the status quo. Whoever is already in the driver's seat has a real advantage over everyone else who wants to get in it.

That's the agenda here, to undermine absolutely everything, even previously sacred cows like law enforcement. This is the strategy of denialists writ large. Climate change denialists, for example, don't want to convince anyone that climate change is fake; they want to convince people that no one really knows if climate change is real or fake. There's a "debate." A "controversy." Then the average person who doesn't know their ass from a mine shaft and who doesn't much care one way or the other can shrug and say "Well I guess nobody really knows." And once nobody can say for certain, everyone is free to choose whichever version of the narrative they prefer.

That is why the future is so dark right now – it's a future that looks eerily similar to Putin's Russia where reality is whatever you choose to think it is, nobody can really know anything for certain, and all information is subjective. Add in a burgeoning ability to generate fake images nearly indistinguishable from reality and it starts to look downright reasonable to conclude that we are well and truly fucked.