This month, we were devastated to discover that the audio file of the awesome podcast panel we had recorded for you was completely corrupted (cue sounds of wailing and gnashing of teeth!). Not to be defeated, we decided we would re-release one of our early episodes, and chose this one because a) it has one of the lowest listen-counts of any of our episodes (and yet is awesome) and b) it is pretty relevant right now, considering its discussion of deepfakes. All the major social media platforms are considering changing their deepfake policies right now, after a doctored video of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was left on Facebook – this episode of ours was recorded just as the term “deepfake” was coming to be known in the public consciousness.
It’s also good timing considering that we are in the midst of an STS season with our interview episodes. So, apologies that this is not new material, but we hope you enjoy it anyway!
This month, special guest Dr Stephanie Betz (5:50) discusses “deepfakes”. It’s been possible to doctor images to a very high degree of believability for a long time – Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes, was fooled by fake images of two young girls playing in their garden with a community of fairies back in 1917! Even video could be faked if you had access to a special effects studio and budget. But deepfake technologies are now making it possible for everyday people to create fake video footage so realistic that it’s almost impossible to detect with the naked eye, and so easy to create that all you need is a smart phone. How will society adapt to these changes?
Besides the obvious application (porn), the technology has potential for advertising, art, blackmail, and bringing about nuclear war. Deepfakes, says Dr Betz, “further confound the relationship between image and reality.” When any fictitious word or action becomes possible to create on video, it’s the plausible that becomes political.
Dr Betz is a digital anthropologist at ANU, and has been the president of the Australian Network of Student Anthropologists. You can find some of her work on her Academia page.
In a flashback to TFS’s early days, our original executive producer Ian Pollock (1:12) asks how we should engage when people describe their culture one way, but our observations of their behavior don’t match those descriptions. What is a “culture,” Ian asks, if its members don’t adhere to it? As Julia argues, “what people say is just as important in their cultural imaginary of who they are as what they do.” Ian mentions his blog post about kasti: find it here.
Simon (11:27) brings up the problem of extreme emotions, and particularly hatred, for the ethnographer. He asks, does hate need to dissipate before analysis is possible? “We often talk about hate as an emotion that clouds one’s vision, and the aim of anthropology I think has always been to make clearer social relations.” As Steph argues, “there’s a reason we inhabit these places in the same way as our informants, and that’s so we can use the full breadth of our humanity in order to understand and analyze and interpret the situation.”
Last, Julia (16:56) considers states of ‘dissociation’, when one’s sense of self temporarily dissolves. Based on her reading of two articles (Ataria (2018) and Snodgrass et al. (2011)), she brings the conversation to Steph’s work with video game players. Julia asks, “how might fictional characters or avatars – which temporarily result in a loss or diversion of who we are – how might this help or hinder us to be with other people in real life?” Steph describes ways that immersion in familiar stories, combined with distancing tactics such as gender-flipped avatars, allows some players to incorporate traumatic events into their personas, with profound effects on their “real-world” sociality.
Ataria, Y. (2018) Mindfulness and Trauma: Some Striking Similarities. Anthropology of Consciousness, 29(1), pp.44-56.
Baudrillard, Jean (1994) Simulacra and Simulation. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.
Hage, Ghassan (2009) “Hating Israel in the Field: On Ethnography and Political Emotions.” Anthropological Theory, vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 59-79.
Snodgrass, J.G., Lacy, M.G., Dengah, H.F., Fagan, J. and Most, D.E. (2011) Magical flight and monstrous stress: Technologies of absorption and mental wellness in Azeroth. Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry, 35(1), pp.26-62.
This anthropology podcast is supported by the Australian Anthropological Society, the schools of Culture, History, and Language and Archaeology and Anthropology atAustralian National University, and the Australian Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, and is produced in collaboration with the American Anthropological Association.
Music by Pete Dabro: dabro1.bandcamp.com
Show notes by Ian Pollock (updated on 4/8/19 by Jodie Trembath)
KEYWORDS: culture, anthropology, ethnography, deepfakes, emotion, self, video games, dissociation
Feature image – screenshot of a YouTube video by The Fakening – https://youtu.be/cVljNVV5VPw