We now have the ability to reanimate the dead. Improvements in machine learning over the past decade have given us the ability to break through the fossilized past and see our dearly departed as they once were: talking, moving, smiling, laughing. Though deepfake tools have been around for some time, they’ve become increasingly available to the general public in recent years, thanks to products like Deep Nostalgia—developed by ancestry site My Heritage—that allow the average person to breathe life back into those they’ve lost.
Despite their increased accessibility, these technologies generate controversy whenever they’re used, with critics deeming the moving images—so lifelike yet void of life—“disturbing,” “creepy,” and “admittedly queasy.” In 2020, when Kanye got Kim a hologram of her late father for her birthday, writers quickly decried the gift as a move out of Black Mirror. Moral grandstanding soon followed, with some claiming that it was impossible to imagine how this could bring “any kind of comfort or joy to the average human being.” If Kim actually appreciated the gift, as it seems she did, it was a sign that something must be wrong with her.
To these critics, this gift was an exercise in narcissism, evidence of a self-involved ego playing at god. But technology has always been wrapped up in our practices of mourning, so to act as if these tools are categorically different from the ones that came before—or to insinuate that the people who derive meaning from them are victims of naive delusion—ignores the history from which they are born. After all, these recent advances in AI-powered image creation come to us against the specter of a pandemic that has killed nearly a million people in the US alone.
Rather than shun these tools, we should invest in them to make them safer, more inclusive, and better equipped to help the countless millions who will be grieving in the years to come. Public discourse led Facebook to start “memorializing” the accounts of deceased users instead of deleting them; research into these technologies can ensure that their potential isn’t lost on us, thrown out with the bathwater. By starting this process early, we have the rare chance to set the agenda for the conversation before the tech giants and their profit-driven agendas dominate the fray.
To understand the lineage of these tools, we need to go back to another notable period of death in the US: the Civil War. Here, the great tragedy intersected not with growing access to deepfake technologies, but with the increasing availability of photography—a still-young medium that could, as if by magic, affix the visible world onto a surface through a mechanical process of chemicals and light. Early photographs memorializing family members weren’t uncommon, but as the nation reeled in the aftermath of the war, a peculiar practice started to gain traction.
Dubbed “spirit photographs,” these images showcased living relatives flanked by ghostly apparitions. Produced through the clever use of double exposures, these images would depict a portrait of a living subject accompanied by a semi-transparent “spirit” seemingly caught by the all-seeing eye of the camera. While some photographers lied to their clientele about how these images were produced—duping them into believing that these photos really did show spirits from the other side—the photographs nonetheless gave people an outlet through which they could express their grief. In a society where “grief was all but taboo, the spirit photograph provided a space to gain conceptual control over one's feelings,” writes Jen Cadwallader, a Randolph Macon College scholar specializing in Victorian spirituality and technology. To these Victorians, the images served both as a tribute to the dead and as a lasting token that could provide comfort long after the strictly prescribed “timelines” for mourning (two years for a husband, two weeks for a second cousin) had passed. Rather than betray vanity or excess, material objects like these photographs helped people keep their loved ones near in a culture that expected them to move on.
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Not all contemporaries saw the value that we grant these rituals in retrospect. Charles Dickens voiced his dissent when he wrote that Victorian mourning practices were a “barbarous” system that perpetuated “dishonest debt, profuse waste, and bad example.” Such critics saw this form of grief as irresponsible, selfish, a diversion from the public duties that community members ought to be focusing on. Similarities between this moralizing and the criticisms directed toward Kanye and Kim over a century later shouldn’t be ignored. The history of technology’s relationship to mourning runs parallel to a history of people attempting to circumscribe the way we grieve—to delimit a mode that they deem proper, as opposed to one that is decadent, narcissistic, and self-involved.
As we transitioned from the stillness of photography into film, the critical eye turned toward the uncanniness of that new medium. In 1896, Russian author Maxim Gorky attended a screening of short films hosted by the Lumière brothers—one of the earliest public showings of the newly invented cinématographe and the moving images it could produce. Afterward, he describes his experience watching the silent black and white film in horror, reporting that it was “terrifying … Curses and ghosts, evil spirits that have cast whole cities into eternal sleep come to mind and you feel as though Merlin’s vicious trick had been played out before you.” Nearly half a century later, André Bazin—one of the early giants in film theory—would further strengthen this connection between film and death, associating the medium with the “mummy complex,” a desire to “[embalm] the dead … providing a defense against the passage of time.” For these critics, the cinema’s ability to unearth lost time was resurrective, its projection of light and shadows ghostly. In short, film was always about bringing to life that which had been lost.
The newly invented cinema would remain closely associated with ideas of death and return for decades to come. Even today, when we talk about films being “animated,” we get glimpses of the resurrective qualities of film. Yet, as a culture, we eventually got over this instance of what feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey described as the “technological uncanny”—that “sense of uncertainty and disorientation which has always accompanied a new technology that is not yet fully understood.” Despite the early protests of writers like Gorky, the uncanny eventually gave way to curiosity, then to mass popularization and consumption as we became more familiar with these technologies and how they produced their effects. Through repeated contact and a campaign of cultural acclimation encouraged by the creators of these tools (recall that the Lumière brothers went on tour with their cinématographe), the alien and inexplicable gave way to the banality of the everyday; Gorky’s nightmarish visit to the“Kingdom of Shadows” became a simple trip to the movies.
Deepfake reanimations do not represent some radical case of technology encroaching on forbidden territory, but are part of an ongoing exchange between our relationship to death and our visualizing technologies. Critics may lament their uncanniness or the excesses they allegedly represent, but if we’re to take a cue from history, these feelings will subside as the novelty of the tools wears off and their mechanics become less alien to us. Education and continued exposure will assimilate these deepfakes into our technological vernacular, as they did film and photography. Rather than lament this fact, we need to meet this future head-on.
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Our technological landscape may have changed since the spirit photographs of the 19th century, but we can still see the legacy of those practices. Take, for example, the TikTok phenomenon in which users apply a “Green Screen Scan” effect to show themselves alongside late family members. By choosing background images featuring their late loved ones, users can create new images with their current selves posing alongside those who have passed: a spirit photograph for the 21st century. Though everyone acknowledges the artificiality of these images, the comfort they provide is palpable. As one user told BuzzFeed, “it made me really happy to be able to see myself now with my dad because he has missed out on so much after passing.” New tools give us ways to process old emotions, and manipulating images allows people to work through their grief now as it did over a hundred years ago.
Machine-learning technologies, however, allow us to take the manipulations of these spirit photographers a step further. We can now visualize alternate realities to satisfy our “what ifs.” We can “age up” portraits of children who have died so parents can see what they might have looked like as young adults, or, like Kanye did for Kim, have avatars of dead loved ones deliver scripted messages to their living family. Seeing our dead doing things they didn’t when they were alive, or looking older than they ever got to be may seem like an odd way to grieve, and some have levied the harsh critique that it betrays a sort of denial. Our wariness is understandable; after all, the unrealistic, unattainable images that proliferate on social media have helped fuel the culture of dysphoria we find ourselves in. We’re all too familiar with how depictions of a life out of our reach can hurt us, and it makes sense to worry that these could do the same.
Yet, as Phillip Hodson, a psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy, tells the Guardian, “we all grieve in our own way—so it's up to the individual to decide whether such a process ‘helps’ ‘or ‘works.’” Grief is an intensely personal thing, and though not everyone will find these technologies useful, the possibilities they open up for others shouldn’t be discounted. After all, these “what ifs” were always a part of grieving; all these technologies let us do is visualize them and give them tangible form so that viewers can grapple with them more directly.
Yet just as photography and film can be used for malicious purposes (from fascist propaganda to subtler forms of objectification), these tools pose their own unique risks: deception, violation, dehumanization, and exploitation. I propose four guidelines—based on previous ways that similar tools have been wielded and the current social climate into which these new tools are being born—to help formulate initial ethics practices that might help us use these technologies.
First, we should always be clear about the artificiality of these tools and cautious of those who seek to obscure that fact. Just as some spirit photographers duped their audiences long ago, there may be those who seek to deceive mourners. Educational heuristics around identifying deepfakes are already being developed, but in the future we should hope to see more automated forms of tagging that flag the constructed nature of these images.
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Second, we should respect the wishes of the dead as best we can. The fact that Prince hated the thought of being brought back as a hologram in life should have forced us to do better in his death. We have legal institutions that protect the wishes of the dead regarding their physical bodies (e.g., organ donations); we should create similar safeguards for virtual bodies.
Third, we should remain wary of the ways in which these practices intersect with racism. We live in a culture in which certain groups of people are fetishized and appropriated, dehumanized and technologized. These technologies could contribute to those attitudes if we’re not careful. Asian people, for example, have long been characterized as mechanistic automata capable of industrious, hard work but unable to think for themselves, lacking “personality.” It’s not hard to imagine a world in which we continue to fail to train these algorithms on Asian faces so that the Asian likenesses they reproduce are particularly uncanny and robotic, further entrenching us as an alien Other.
Finally, we should be vigilant about the domains in which these tools are being employed. It’s one thing to use these tools to help us grieve, another to use them for spectacle and profit. While mourning leaves room for us to engage with the dead as subjects, with all the weight that accompanies that recognition of humanity, using these technologies for entertainment instrumentalizes them, reduces them to surfaces and data—digital objects that can be owned and traded. Given the existence of similar practices wherein the likenesses of people, especially people of color, are bought and sold by those in power (just look at college sports), we should proceed with caution so that this doesn’t become a new territory in which those predatory markets and voyeuristic viewing practices can form. Our tools will have to be explicitly designed to preclude such usage. Deep Nostalgia intentionally left out speech “in order to prevent abuse, such as the creation of deepfake videos of living people.” It’s a start, but our future technologies will have to do more.
The full repercussions of these tools won’t reveal themselves immediately, and new guidance will have to respond to yet-undiscovered challenges. Design decisions around how these algorithms are trained and the features the final deepfakes should include (e.g., the ability to speak, watermarks to signal artificiality, a limited range of movement) will need to be informed by research to ensure that these technologies address the grieving process while impeding those who would seek to misuse them.
We don’t know what the landscape of grief will look like once the dust of the Covid tragedy settles, but we do know that people are already using these emergent technologies to reckon with loss: to hear their loved ones, see them once more, if only to say goodbye. Now is not the time to brush them off, but to listen in good faith and embrace these advanced deepfakes as tools with the potential to help us express and explore the complex emotions that compose the tapestry of human life. Though the ancient feelings of loss that accompany death have always been with us, the ways that we mourn have shifted as the technologies at our disposal have evolved. What we should hope for isn’t to halt these movements, but to anticipate them so that we might do better by them.
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