An article in Wired caught my eye the other day, starting with a PR-based feud between two people who don’t exist.
The article described online “influencers,” which happen to be CGI creations: Lil’ Miquela and Bermuda, avatars with their own Instragram pages, who are usually seen posing in fashionable clothing or maybe posing with celebrities or other icons. Although (supposedly) these avatars haven’t begun making money as paid models yet, the article suggests that it may be just around the corner.
Personally, I hadn’t realized that this was going on (I’m not an Instagram user, so this was well outside of my radar). But it makes perfect sense, especially from the article’s point of view: Create a digital model, accept money from an advertiser to model their clothing, sit in their cars, appear in their hotels and hot-spots, whatever, that a live model can do; but have total control over that digital character, which means you don’t have to worry about them doing something stupid in public, or criticizing a client in a drunken stupor, or getting caught in a career-ending sexual escapade. The perfect model-slave is born… erm, generated.
When I first saw the image of Lil’ Miquela pictured here, I immediately knew it was a CGI model. Supposedly, some people may not be as discerning as I am, especially if the image is seen on a smallish phone screen. But it’s pretty good for a CGI model that didn’t come from a Hollywood effects studio.
There are supposedly still legal questions about who gets paid—or fined—for the digital model’s activities, pro and con. For instance, if an avatar posts hate-speech that encourages an illegal act, can the avatar be blamed? The ones who created the avatar? Or the ones who provided the hate-speech for it? But really, most of that should be obvious: I mean, if Mickey Mouse used hate speech, everyone would be at Disney’s door, not Mickey’s. If an avatar is owned by a company that creates everything that the avatar says and does, the company is fully liable for the actions of the avatar.
This reminded the Wired author about a Robin Wright movie, The Congress, in which Wright, playing herself, tried to sell a digital copy of herself for advertising purposes (which, naturally, goes horribly wrong). But I immediately thought of a movie that predated The Congress by over 30 years, and this episode by 35 years.
In 1981, the ever-prescient Michael Crichton gave us Looker, a movie that depicted a company applying the latest in computer-generated commercials, art, and avatars, to make irresistible promos, commercials and models. The computers took real images and massaged them digitally in order to make them perfect models for selling products. And in true Crichton fashion, the company was then killing the models in order to use their avatars in perpetuity.
Looker was in some ways satirizing the commercial industry’s intense efforts to control every bit of their ads, and the modeling industry’s efforts to make models more and more perfect for those ads. But it also presented us with computers so adept at digital manipulation that the audience wouldn’t be able to tell the real models from the fakes. Just as I commented about Runaway, another Crichton flick, low budgets and some sad acting by the non-leads contributed to a lackluster movie; but if remade today with big studio money, the movie could be a smash hit by virtue of its straight-outta-the-headlines concept.
And not long after, in 1983, writer-artist Howard Chaykin gave us American Flagg!, a comic series about an actor in 2131 who found himself replaced by a digital character on his own TV show, and had to enlist as a peace officer to make a living afterward. We never actually see his avatar-replacement, but supposedly no one can tell the difference.
We haven’t reached the verisimilitude of perfect CGI… yet. But if you saw Blade Runner 2049 and the scene where a CGI Rachel confronts Deckard, you know that we’re pretty damned close (at least when unlimited studio money is available to throw at the problem). But the funny thing is that it hardly matters whether it’s real or fake… to the audience. The key is in how well they model or depict the various things that the public likes to do; and if they do that well, as Lil’ Miquela, Bermuda and others apparently do, the public has already demonstrated that it’s more than willing to suspend any disbelief and buy the products they sell.
So we probably are around the corner from digital avatar-models—who will be harder and harder to tell from the real thing every day—winning endorsement contracts for their creators and becoming well-known models in any media. They’ll be selling products with their flawless looks, creating the media sensations that are precisely scripted for them… and perhaps becoming never-ageing stand-ins for real people, making money for the originals while they hang at the beach and get old and fat.