Digital Bunburying

Here are a few lines from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, which reveal the play’s key plot device. Stay with me, it’s going somewhere.

ALGERNON  Well, that is exactly what dentists always do. Now, go on! Tell me the whole thing. I may mention that I have always suspected you of being a confirmed and secret Bunburyist; and I am quite sure of it now.

JACK  Bunburyist? What on earth do you mean by a Bunburyist?

ALGERNON  I’ll reveal to you the meaning of that incomparable expression as soon as you are kind enough to inform me why you are Ernest in town and Jack in the country.


JACK  My dear fellow, there is nothing improbable about my explanation at all. In fact it’s perfectly ordinary. Old Mr. Thomas Cardew, who adopted me when I was a little boy, made me in his will guardian to his grand-daughter, Miss Cecily Cardew. Cecily, who addresses me as her uncle from motives of respect that you could not possibly appreciate, lives at my place in the country under the charge of her admirable governess, Miss Prism.

ALGERNON Where in that place in the country, by the way?

JACK  That is nothing to you, dear boy. You are not going to be invited . . . I may tell you candidly that the place is not in Shropshire.

ALGERNON . I suspected that, my dear fellow! I have Bunburyed all over Shropshire on two separate occasions. Now, go on. Why are you Ernest in town and Jack in the country?

JACK  My dear Algy, I don’t know whether you will be able to understand my real motives. You are hardly serious enough. When one is placed in the position of guardian, one has to adopt a very high moral tone on all subjects. It’s one’s duty to do so. And as a high moral tone can hardly be said to conduce very much to either one’s health or one’s happiness, in order to get up to town I have always pretended to have a younger brother of the name of Ernest, who lives in the Albany, and gets into the most dreadful scrapes. That, my dear Algy, is the whole truth pure and simple.


ALGERNON  What you really are is a Bunburyist. I was quite right in saying you were a Bunburyist. You are one of the most advanced Bunburyists I know.

JACK  What on earth do you mean?

ALGERNON  You have invented a very useful younger brother called Ernest, in order that you may be able to come up to town as often as you like. I have invented an invaluable permanent invalid called Bunbury, in order that I may be able to go down into the country whenever I choose. Bunbury is perfectly invaluable. If it wasn’t for Bunbury’s extraordinary bad health, for instance, I wouldn’t be able to dine with you at Willis’s to-night, for I have been really engaged to Aunt Augusta for more than a week.

And now here is a proposal that was brought to my attention today:

The tweet, of course, is in jest—in the spirit of gallows humor, I’d suggest—but it usefully brings together two trends that should concern us: ubiquitous surveillance and deepfake technology. What it suggests is that you need a fake version of yourself to escape the ubiquity of surveillance, although, of course, the ubiquity of deepfake technology also appears to require ever more

Relatedly, take a moment to visit This Person Does Not Exist. The image you’ll see is of a person who … does not exist. The image is generated by generative adversarial networks. Hit refresh and you’ll get another.

After you’ve perused a few images, read Kyle McDonald’s “How to recognize fake AI-generated images.” Things to look for include weird teeth, asymmetry, surreal backgrounds, mismatched or missing earrings. That helps. For now.

More news on the deepfake front: “The creators of a revolutionary AI system that can write news stories and works of fiction – dubbed ‘deepfakes for text’ – have taken the unusual step of not releasing their research publicly, for fear of potential misuse.”

Here’s a link to OpenAI’s post about their work: Better Language Models and Their Implications. In it they explain their decision not to release their research:

Due to concerns about large language models being used to generate deceptive, biased, or abusive language at scale, we are only releasing a much smaller version of GPT-2 along with sampling code. We are not releasing the dataset, training code, or GPT-2 model weights. Nearly a year ago we wrote in the OpenAI Charter: “we expect that safety and security concerns will reduce our traditional publishing in the future, while increasing the importance of sharing safety, policy, and standards research,” and we see this current work as potentially representing the early beginnings of such concerns, which we expect may grow over time. This decision, as well as our discussion of it, is an experiment: while we are not sure that it is the right decision today, we believe that the AI community will eventually need to tackle the issue of publication norms in a thoughtful way in certain research areas.

All of this recalls Max Read’s recent piece, “How Much of the Internet is Fake?”

How much of the internet is fake? Studies generally suggest that, year after year, less than 60 percent of web traffic is human; some years, according to some researchers, a healthy majority of it is bot. For a period of time in 2013, the Times reported this year, a full half of YouTube traffic was “bots masquerading as people,” a portion so high that employees feared an inflection point after which YouTube’s systems for detecting fraudulent traffic would begin to regard bot traffic as real and human traffic as fake. They called this hypothetical event “the Inversion.”

The arc of digital media is bending toward epistemic nihilism, as I’ve been inclined to put it on Twitter; it amounts to a casual indifference to much of what has counted as evidence in recent memory. There is, of course, something decidedly Baudrillardian about this. But, of course, even to suggest that Baudrillard has something to tell us about our moment is to acknowledge that digital media has not necessarily initiated the trajectory, it has merely accelerated our descent, exponentially so perhaps.

3 thoughts on “Digital Bunburying

  1. I always appreciate your posts so much! They comprehensively bring to light issues I don’t even bat an eye at, which in turns brings a clearer sense of awareness. Hope that makes some kind of sense. Thank you!

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