WELCOME TO REALITY BREAKDOWN
The Secret History of the 2020s
LAST YEAR, TWO SEISMIC jumps in artificial intelligence—Midjourney, which makes art, and ChatGPT, which writes text—seriously wounded humanity’s sense of self. Seemingly overnight, social media exploded with fake art and fake text. Some of it is profound, some is hilarious, and some is horrific. It’s an existential crisis for all of us, if not yet an existential threat, and it’s disguised as the world’s most dystopian meme: Machines freed humanity from the drudgery of doing art so that we can all focus on our day jobs. But if AI is the big story of this century, it’s only part of the big story of this decade.
The headline of the 2020s is this: Very soon, no one will be able to trust anything on a screen. Nothing will be safe from the threat of computer generated forgery. No audio, video, text, or song will be reliably real. Even phone calls will be suspect when anyone (or any thing) can impersonate anyone else. The coming reality breakdown will accelerate every other global crisis—policing, human rights, democracy, climate—in ways not yet fully imaginable. And as a vector of contagion, this new technology will explode the airborne whackadoodle of QAnon with the speed of a bioweapon. So, what happens when everyone can fake news footage in real time? This newsletter will explore that question and much more.
AS AN ADOLESCENT, I (briefly, shamefully) renounced science fiction to embrace punk music. But I found this new world had its own tragic version of science fiction, one largely culled from just one book—1984—and sifted through the cruelty of Reaganism. The awe of film vs. the doom of punk: Both approaches informed my perspective. I’ve never known a life that didn’t involve constant peering into the future, at both its gizmos and the political meaning of those gizmos. My little generation grew up dreading the next century. That is, dreading our current world, the one you’re reading from now.
Except, what does “current” even mean anymore? As of this year, we seem to have entered some sort of hyper-growth Looney Tunes world, with incredible advances coming every few weeks or even days. A lot of smart people seem concerned that this incredible growth represents the mere foothills of an exponentially sloping baloney times nightmare.
If all this feels like science fiction, that’s because it is. Science fiction films, however, have played two roles in this coming crisis, serving as both speculation about the future and active laboratories in the development of that future. The story of the reality breakdown is a technology story. But the technology is film, not AI. The tools of the reality breakdown have advanced, in public, in hundreds of films, for longer than anyone has been alive. Put another way, you’ve watched this thing coming for your entire life.
I FIRST IMMERSED MYSELF in this subject ten years ago, while doing research for my novel Exploded View, which explores the world of 2050, meaning the world decades after the end of consensus reality. While writing that book, I felt like I was racing the clock, that I was trying to describe something that everyone else was going to figure out at any moment. But I’ve spent the last decade waiting for these issues to catch on. And discussing these things outside the confines of fiction made me look like a conspiracy crank.
But this new era of AI gives me an opening. Suddenly the creeping weirdness has form, bodies, and faces. Some of them leer back at us with extra rows of teeth. Some of them look just like us. With increasing frequency, I see photos of a fake person who looks real, who seems to convey an emotion I’d always assumed could never be faked. Many people seem to be experiencing this. Suddenly, there is a feeling in the air that we’re on the verge of something colossal, a collapse of how our species experiences reality. Soon fake photos will be fake videos. Soon they’ll be fake phone calls. Soon you won’t be able to tell what’s fake.
IT’S ONLY LOOSELY THAT I call this endeavor a ‘newsletter.’ This is actually a book—one that can only be written in real time and in present tense. I can promise one post a week, although I’m aiming for more. I have a lot to say on this subject. I have a lot to say about all the things this subject touches. If you know of me through my music writing or my most recent book Mutations, I think this project will appeal to you. And I will be writing about music here, at least in that music is one of many things that’s about to drastically change. Thank you for joining me.
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