Monday, September 20, 2021

The Book of Veles

So there's this photographer, Jonas Bendiksen. Magnum photgrapher. He made a book about this town, Veles, in North Macedonia (and about a literary forgery called "The Book of Veles" about the god Veles, yadda yadda yadda) which town is apparently where a lot of fake news web sites originated for a while. The teens there, I guess, had a cottage industry setting up shitty web sites packed with whatever trash fake news they could gather, and sold ads against them, and made some money. Eager little entrepreneurs!

Bendiksen went there, took some photos, and made a book. An artsy book. You can see a bunch of it here: The Book of Veles. There's fake news quotes and an essay, of course there is.

It turns out that it was a conceptual art project.

Bendiksen went to Veles, sure enough. But he only took photos without people in them. Then he bought some digital models of people, and some software and some digital "clothes" and stuff, and populated his photos with fake people. The essay and the quotes are carefully curated output from an AI text generator, GPT-2. He pumped this thing out there without telling anyone what was fake.

Because, see, it's about fake news! It's fake news about fake news!!!! I gotta say, it is conceptually sound, rigorous. I kind of dig it as an idea, as a project. The actual object itself, meh. I'd have to see it, and honestly I kinda don't care enough.

Evidently it was pretty positively received, people praised the essay as insightful (lol!) and whatnot.

Recently, he was called out on a thing, and came clean (as he had always intended to, he claims) and a few people are popping out of the woodwork with I knew it all along!!! stories. Of course they are.

The gruesome deets are all here: How Jonas Bendiksen Hoodwinked the Photography Industry and they are kind of entertaining.

The reaction, while extremely, almost hilariously tiny, has a strong tinge of OMG so scary that we can be so easily fooled. At least 3 of the 5 people who've noticed this episode at all have expressed this concern.

Ok, so let's think about some things here. Let's just start out with why it worked at all, given that the pictures do actually look kind of wonky in hindsight and the essay is unquestionably a shitshow of gibberish (I've seen GPT-2 output, and it's not very convincing.)

The reason it worked is simply that people weren't looking at it very hard. There was nothing challenging in the photos, no "Donald Trump has a tail!" or "Joe Biden is molesting a teenager!" photos. It's all "anonymous dude waits for a bus" material which there is literally no reason in the world to fake. "This person is in an office", "here is a woman sitting on a bed", "look, a dude in the window" it's all who-gives-a-shit photos.

The purpose of this kind of documentary photography is not to reveal truth, to support any facts, or any of that. It serves exclusively as evidence that the photographer was at the place, and also that the photographer has mastered the sort of glum washed out bullshit pictures of nothing that pass for Art Photography these days. That's it. A glance, and you're done. There is no reason in the world to suspect a fake, these stupid pictures are not even hard to take, and god knows there's a lot of them. There isn't even any reason to look at them seriously. The point is that the photos exist, proof that the artist "did the work" we don't need to check by actually looking at the photos.

As we shall see, faking them is much harder than taking them.

Similarly, the essay was the result of training GPT-2 on reams of news articles about how Veles is the center of Fake News, so it was literally a rehash of the standard narrative. Another glance serves to verify that the essay is saying more or less the right things, and we move on. "Brilliant book from Bendiksen, so necessary, so important, exposes vital truths, blah blah blah."

If you did notice that the people in the pictures looked a little weird, or that the essay is pretty incoherent, would you say anything?

Of course not. You don't want to be the guy who says "that dude looks fake" only to be confronted with that dude in the flesh. There's no percentage in saying I think this might be fake, and anyways who the hell would fake some giant nothing-burger like this? No, I'm not gonna say anything, I just don't care enough.

Would you call out the essay and say "this looks like GPT-2 output" or not? Again, what if the dude wrote it himself for real, and is just a terrible writer? Now you'd feel bad, right?

There is a point to be made here about the critical apparatus that received this thing: that critical apparatus is garbage. It's not that this thing is fake, it's that it sucks. The essay, if examined with any care whatsoever, would have been clearly revealed as junky rehashes of the standard narrative — because, let us review, that is literally what it is. But most essays in these things are incoherent drivel. The pictures are bullshit pictures of nothing that document only that Bendiksen was in Veles. Again, who cares if they're fake, the real issue is that the pictures serve no purpose, carry no weight, except to tick a few standard boxes in the standard Documentary Art Book punch list.

The problem is not that the book is fake, but that, taken as it was intended to be taken, it sucks. It sucks just like all its crummy mates.

If someone had had the cojones to say "this thing sucks" and then looked at it carefully, being amped up, they probably would have noticed that the pictures and essay feel super weird, and they might have said something about that. But no, the book was completely critique-proof, because it was about Fake News, So Awful, What A Scourge. You can write the review ("so necessary, so important") from the press release, and I am absolutely certain that the reviews, if any, were written just like that.

Because the critical apparatus that consumes books like this is absolute trash.

Ok, so there's that.

Is this thing truly a harbinger of doom? Is this a sign that news photography is over, and that we're about to be destroyed by fakes, now that they are so easy to make?

First of all, they're not easy to make. If Bendiksen had simply hired some models, he could have shot these pictures in an afternoon. As it was, he spent weeks or months screwing around with fake lighting to get his digital people lit right, he had to turn his photos into 3D models to shove his fake people into, and he had to pose his fake people by hand. On the one hand, this will probably get incrementally easier over time. On the other hand, this tech has been around in various forms for decades, and it's still a hell of a lot of work.

I warrant that, in general, fake news will be made with flesh and blood models, not digital ones, for quite a long time and possibly forever.

Furthermore, to assume that easily faking a photo equates to faking "the news" is to wildly misunderstand the role of photos in the making of the narrative.

You cannot just bang out a couple fake pictures of Trump with a second head. No single photo ever convinced anyone of anything, a photo serves to reify other material. A photo is a single tile of evidence, or of feeling, or of representation, or whatever, that either fits into a gestalt or does not. It doesn't matter if it's real or fake, if it doesn't fit into the mental world picture we already have, we're going to reject it.

It is the world-picture as a complete thing that needs to be buggered to float fake news, to support fake news, to in the larger sense build a narrative of the world and of truth. There are way easier ways to do that than dicking around with digital models, at least for now, and to be honest I don't see how it's ever going to get easy.

Digital manipulation is in the toolbox now, everyone uses it to enhance their version of the story. Yes, your guys do it too. Also, they crop photos and fiddle with color balance and tone, which are probably just as powerful as posing some video game avatar at a bus stop. Is it important? Is it the nuclear bomb technology we've been fearing?

Probably not.

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