Watching this singing competition has me asking what it means to be real

Technology is sparking all sorts of (not so) new philosophical questions about what it means to be.

Here’s a bit of half-baked Friday food for thought:

Thanks to the wide range of content available for streaming on-demand, I just don’t watch a whole lot of live TV. At home, we watch Fox’s The Masked Singer, but that’s mostly because my wife likes it while I could honestly take it or leave it, to be totally real with you. And while I’m still pretty lukewarm on The Masked Singer, I’ve come to be absolutely fascinated by the show that follows it: Alter Ego.

I’m not necessarily a fan of the show as I am a curious observer of it. At its core, Alter Ego is a singing competition with a level of anonymity to it similar to The Voice or The Masked Singer. What’s different about the show is in its execution. Contestants put on motion-capture suits with a camera connected in front of their faces to capture additional facial expressions and movement. Before performing, contestants work with designers to create a fully 3D, computer-generated “alter ego” to perform as. These performances take place backstage as a live audience watches the performance on monitors from their seats in real-time.

The show is an exercise in mixed reality, which is kind of like a more interactive and immersive version of augmented reality (see: Pokemon Go). Rolling Stone’s Samantha Hissong attended one of the show’s tapings and wrote a really interesting article about it that detailed some of the technology involved. Unsurprisingly, one of the companies involved in making the show’s avatars, Silver Spoon, was the same company that created fake virtual crowds for Major League Baseball during the fan-free 2020 season.

Another recent example of mixed reality technology in action comes from the Carolina Panthers of the National Football League. The team posted a video to its YouTube and social media channels featuring a giant digital panther bounding across the field and onto the scoreboard. It’s pretty neat!

What is “real,” anyway? Advances in technology add a layer to an already interesting question.

The full title of this newsletter is The Present Age with Parker Molloy. So now the question is… who is Parker Molloy? Is the Parker Molloy who you know from the newsletter or from Twitter or from my podcast the “real” Parker Molloy? The way I formulate and express my thoughts online is certainly different than the way I do those things in person. Is one really any more “real” than the other? I don’t know. Now, you may say that it’s the in-person version of me that is the real me given that there’s a body behind it. You can take that and ask whether the version of yourself that you present to friends is the “real you,” or if the version of yourself that only your co-workers see is the “real you?

Are we our actions, as Aristotle might argue? Are we our memories, per Locke? If my consciousness and memories were removed from my body and put into a computer, would the unconscious body be “me” or would the computer? Now, what if multiple copies of my consciousness were housed on separate computers? Would I be all of them? None of them? Surely, I would exist, and could maybe even continue writing this newsletter and interacting with people online. Or would I?

Or, take another example: if, as I did in this image below, I filled the relevant details into an artificial intelligence program and copy/paste them into my work, did I write it? I’d say no, but I’d also struggle to give the AI full credit for it, either, as it didn’t generate the content completely unprompted. Then again, how different is this than when an editor swaps some sentences around, adds a line here and there, or corrects my (frequently terrible) grammar? Is that a true reflection of me and my work? Again, I’d say the answer is likely no. But if that’s not me (my name will inevitably be attached to any article in this hypothetical), who is it? Or is it a version of me? Is that a “less real” me?

This, perhaps not so naturally, brings me back to Alter Ego.

If you watch the show, you can get an idea of the possibilities associated with this technology. Sure, it’s not quite there yet — for the most part, it still looks like a video game overlaid on live footage, which is pretty much what it is — but doesn’t seem too far off from adding a new layer of philosophical identity to our everyday entertainment choices.

Virtual creators have been around for a bit, but still haven’t really had their mainstream moment. Yes, Roblox and Fortnite have gotten into the concert business (and attracted some big stars like Lil Nas X, Ariana Grande, Marshmello, Travis Scott, and more), but this is an evolving media ecosystem with wide-ranging possibilities that could change just how we think about art and performance.

It’s not all positive, however. For instance, what are the ethics of using technology to create content in the style of dead artists? When the Lost Tapes of the 27 Club project released a “new” Nirvana song created with artificial intelligence, it didn’t sit right with some people. “Drowned in the Sun” has some major Nirvana vibes, and yet… isn’t. Likewise, it’s worth considering the blurry legal implications of these creations.

Deepfakes, which utilize technology (including AI) to superimpose faces onto actors, is similarly dicey. For instance, there’s a fairly famous example of a Tom Cruise deepfake that recently had actor Vincent D’Onofrio sounding off about ethics and union protections. That’s something to consider, as well.

I started thinking a bit about all of this back in August when I interviewed NFT artist Bryan Brinkman about his work. I love his work. I think it’s gorgeous. I cannot afford it, which only speaks to his massive success in this arena. Then again, why should I want to buy his work? I could just right-click and save the images and animations on my phone, but though I know they’re the same thing as the one being sold… it’s… not the same. I’ve been trying to wrap my head around why I feel that way for a bit.

The Present Age
Artist Bryan Brinkman explains the WTFs of NFTs [podcast + transcript]
Listen now (31 min) | Welcome to the Present Age podcast. I’m your host Parker Molloy. Joining me on today’s show is animator and crypto art creator Bryan Brinkman. His work has appeared at places like The Tonight Show, Saturday Night Life, and even Sesame Street. Today, he’s going to teach me a bit about…
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Bryan told me that “kids these days … care more about digital assets than putting paintings on their wall. They want to show paintings on their phone that they can show their friends.”

I don’t think he’s wrong, but it reminded me of something Bo Burnham said during one of the segments of his Inside Netflix special:

I’ve learned that real-world human-to-human tactile contact will kill you, and that all human interaction, whether it be social, political, spiritual, sexual, or interpersonal should be contained in the much more safe, much more real interior digital space. That the outside world, the non-digital world, is merely a theatrical space in which one stages and records content for the much more real, much more vital digital space. One should only engage with the outside world as one engages with a coal mine. Suit up, gather what is needed, and return to the surface.

Burnham wasn’t actually endorsing this worldview, but it is that: a worldview. I love Inside, and felt myself thinking, “Yes! Yes, this!” throughout. “This is a perfect description of how my mind is working right now. This is bad.”

But whether we like it or not, the digital space is getting increasingly vital. I’m not sure that I have a larger point here, though I’ll probably land on it sometime in the future. Until then, I wanted to share a bit of a rambling, stream-of-consciousness newsletter. I’ll be back Monday with something a bit more coherent, I promise! For the sake of trying to answer the question of the most genuine “me” is, I didn’t send this piece off to an editor and didn’t self-edit it, either. This is just raw, unfiltered Parker brain.