Deconstructing WOMBO: Mapping the Territory

Deconstructing WOMBO: Mapping the Territory
“It is dangerous to unmask images, since they dissimulate the fact that there is nothing behind them.” -Jean Baudrillard

Since WOMBO’s launch the global discussion around DeepFakes has grown monumentally. Never before has it been so easy to make someone sing Chug Jug and commentators have rushed to discuss the potentially nefarious implications of this power. A recent Washington Post article has pointed out that the quality of WOMBO is a foreshadowing of how good DeepFakes will soon become and how this technology needs to be regulated now before it gets into the hands of evil people. A Guardian article notes how WOMBO might serve a positive role by educating people about how easy it is to make DeepFakes.

Since WOMBO plays an important role in these broader discussions it is important to understand what WOMBO is. Is it a DeepFake app that poses a threat to our perception of reality? Is it an educational tool that highlights progress in AI? Is it a meme app that’s fun to use? Is it the newest EV company with a valuation at 2000x earnings??? Or is it all of the above and much more? This series will aim to answer this nuanced and critical question.

WOMBO, to be properly understood, requires a map of hyperreality. This map can help us understand WOMBO’s nature and its appeal, as well as being the source of much deeper discussions going forward. In this post we are going to draw this map and find WOMBO on it. In the next post, we will see how WOMBO’s nature provides it with enduring appeal. The final post in the series will highlight how WOMBO can solve our most pressing social problems.

Mapping the Territory

To be both Deep and Fake is a point on a grid with four quadrants. If Deep is one side, the other must be Shallow, and if Fake is one side, the other must be Real. We easily understand the difference between Real and Fake: things that actually happened are Real, while things that did not are Fake. The electric age, the period of history defined by technologies such as the radio, TV, and the internet, has introduced a second axis, Deep-Shallow. Deep things are authentic, textured, 3-dimensional experiences, while Shallow things are curated, flat, and 1-dimensional experiences. The Real was once always Deep and the Deep was once always Real, but Dorothy you’ve taken the red pill and gone through the looking glass.

DiagramDescription automatically generated

The fracturing of the Deep and the Real in the electric age has allowed the DeepReal to come into its own as a distinct state of being. The DeepReal is the unfiltered, authentic experience of life, the engagement with the world as it is, the Dasein if you will. The DeepReal comes out in the experience of awe and wonder with nature, it comes out in the experience of ordinary life that makes us aware of our own existence in nature, and it comes out in those interpersonal interactions that allow us to really experience other persons as beings in nature. The DeepReal is the conversation about something other than the news, it’s that time with friends without the TV on in the background, it’s that time in the woods looking up at the stars without light pollution obscuring your view.

That the DeepReal is not all the Real is why DeepFakes can seem scary at all. For the DeepReal is not only not all the Real, its claim to the Real is ever diminishing.

The electric age has brought us into the world of the ShallowReal. The scripted reality TV, the 1000 attempts before that perfect Instashot, the hours of practice for that TikTok dance.  These aspects of life are Real in that real people do them, but they lack the depth of full reality. The ShallowReal has corrupted the ability to engage with the DeepReal, it has opened us up to see nothing for what it is, but what its manufactured to be. The ShallowReal changes reality and gives birth to hyperreality. Hyperreality is the inability to distinguish reality from simulation. The Shallower the Real the more the Fake appears Real. The ShallowReal sets the default of your engagement. You manufacture yourself in relation to how others have presented themselves to you. This isn’t a nostalgic critique of Millennial and Gen-Z culture to say that there was some authenticity that could be regained by de-digitizing society. That’s obviously not the case. The existence of the ShallowReal is one of the inevitable consequences of a form of human progress that enables instant, global connection.

The opposite of the ShallowReal is the DeepFake. The abuse of DeepFakes, for malicious political, economic, or social purposes is well discussed, but the key component is not that they are Fake, but that they are Deep. They feel authentically real. The Tom Cruise DeepFakes are a perfect example of this. They represent a reality that doesn’t exist, but that feels more Real than the polished interviews and PR-approved social media posts that saturate our interaction with the famous and the powerful. They may be Fake, but they are Deep, and in being Deep, they feel more real than the ShallowReal of postmodernity.

That this can be used to mislead or manipulate is certainly the case, but the more worrying case is that they create a doubt of the Real. When the Real is so Shallow and the Deep so easily Faked, trust becomes more difficult. That which is Real can be denounced as Fake and the Fake can be championed as Real. Banning specific technologies would do little to restore this trust as the DeepFake sits atop a world where the ShallowReal has distorted perceptions. Only by going through these stages can a return to the DeepReal be experienced. By creating critical distance between the signs and the signified, by engendered a healthy skepticism towards the content being consumed. This is the radical potential of WOMBO.

These 3 quadrants are well explored, and smarter minds than me have discussed them ad nauseum, but the territory of the ShallowFake is unexplored. The ShallowFake is Fake, but it is also Shallow. It does not give the illusion of reality but exposes the shallowness of it. It is the Fake manufacturing a Shallow presentation by aiming at inauthenticity, by aiming at low quality, by aiming at making you look at it and saying “that’s fake”. It is this unique location where WOMBO lies. The ShallowFake is so far from the Uncanny Valley that the natural reactions are to laugh or to cry. And this where the power of ShallowFakes lie. By being Shallow they take you away from the video you are watching and ask you to think about why this is funny. They ask you to think about the person you are seeing as you actually think of them to be, not as how you see them in the video. By being Shallow they make you consider the Deep, and by being Fake they make you consider the Real.

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