By now you have probably seen those videos online of long dead and famous people smiling and nodding and so on. For this joy we can thank the online genealogy company MyHeritage, which created the Deep Nostalgia feature that allows us to upload any photograph and animate it. For a few days, the internet was full of black and white celebrities or long dead family members smiling, nodding, turning their heads and blinking. The tech could animate any photograph of course but animating the images of ancestors as opposed to your selfie from last week immediately adds a plot where there was none.
It’s fascinating but also mildly unnerving—as would be the animation of the previously inanimate, such as those dancing robots (or so I presumed. Hard to say what’s going to be uncanny or unnerving for another generation. I recently watched a three-year-old swipe left on the screen during a Zoom call. I figured in a while that he was trying to go back five minutes into the past where something interesting had happened).
Even before we stopped being captivated by Bhagat Singh’s moving eyebrows, we got Wombo AI. While Deep Nostalgia was all lace doilies and bone china, Wombo is 1980s neon and beer. Wombo animates photographs with wild expressions and gives them a voice. Like Pinocchio, who wanted to be a real boy, Wombo decided to make an image of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un lip-syncing to I Will Survive.
Deep Nostalgia takes its name from the term deepfakes, images or videos created with the help of Artificial Intelligence. Photoshop on steroids is one way of thinking of it, especially if you don’t want to think about it much. Which is to say that many, many people around the world are concerned about the havoc deepfakes can create—from non-consensual insertion of people’s images in porn to the creation of political propaganda or whatever other evil thing people do in their free time.
My friend Leena Reghunath, who recently wrote a fascinating profile of P.K. Medini, the 88-year-old revolutionary singer from Kerala, told me, “Think of all that she has seen in her lifetime.”
What was the past like? What were people who lived back then like? It is something that intrigues all of us. When we think of people who lived a century or two ago, many of us have a tendency to attribute simplicity to those lives. Simple is, of course, something we say about all kinds of people we wish to speak well of without making the mistake of getting to know them (simple is an out of control adjective. My friend Meera often jokes about acquaintances whose favourite compliment to hosts who have put out a 20-dish spread is, “what a beautiful, simple meal!”).
For the incurious or those who guess that curiosity could have scary outcomes, it’s easier to think of the long dead in terms of simplicity or other one-dimensional virtues. The quick thrill of a Deep Nostalgia app is just right, just satisfying enough, a past that can be contained in vintage filters, the way it was once contained in photo albums.
Deep Nostalgia picked “simple” and natural expressions to animate the images but even the meanings of expressions change over time. In my teens, I remember being grilled by an uncle who asked me where I had learnt to shrug. I just stared at him in confusion but what I got in the interrogation was that the shrug was a new item I had introduced into the household, like BT cotton.
The past is a foreign country, as L.P. Hartley said. It is hard for most of us to really get to what it felt like. Doesn’t help that our past was ruled by foreign countries and local tyrants.
This week, I was drowning in a Malayalam novel, S. Hareesh’s Moustache. Swimming and drowning in the half-water, half-land world of early 20th century Kuttanad. It’s a universe of greed, cruelty, lust, beauty, comedy, death and starvation. There are poop jokes and lynch mobs and villages that come to a standstill at the sight of a man in a shirt. The other book I am reading this week, Scholastique Mukasonga’s Our Lady Of The Nile, is set in an imaginary, fancy boarding school for girls in Rwanda, a school with only two Tutsi students. Even an indifferent reader of history knows that the 1994 genocide is round the corner so everything in the boarding school life attracts meaning and menace. Not a simple thing in sight from cover to cover. In either book.
You know, I like the name deepfakes. Though the name comes from the deep learning of Artificial Intelligence, I always think of it as short for “deeply fake, so super fake, so hopelessly fake means what to do?” It’s like watching the slow decline of the superstar—the image. The image has been the holder of the truth for a while in our lives. The eye in the sky seeing truth and beauty. From the image on your voter ID to the footage of the sting camera to the mockery of a cruel meme to a paparazzi photograph, the image was what was keeping it real. And now approaching eye-level is our glum realisation that every image or video we see may not be real and we have to look elsewhere to decide what we think about ourselves or other people.
One place would be in novels or other kinds of stories that declare right up top, sing out aloud, that they are deeply fake. As Jaaved Jaaferi used to say, same plot, different bungalow.
Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger. Her first book of fiction, The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories, was released in August.