When Obama Met Snooki: Deep Fakes, disruption, and the democratization of reality

“Sometimes that albatross hanging around your neck isn’t yours. It’s someone else’s. When that happens, there’s only one thing to do: find the rotten bastard that bad omen belongs to and toss him overboard before the whole damn ship runs aground and you’re fighting for your life on Captain Cook’s Cannibal Island.”–Wyatt Duvall

The age of the deep fake is upon us. And while it frightens many, Wyatt Duvall is surely one who would rejoice in its arrival. After all, the noted prankster, bathroom stall philosopher, and provocateur launched what would ultimately become the deep fake era years ago while leading the team of creative ne’er do wells at the hoax-generating marketing company, Diversified Solutions, Inc. Not that anyone knew that is what Duvall had done. Perhaps that is what he intended all along.

Alongside Jay Hamilton, the chief disruption officer at DSI the head of the firm’s Hazardous Toys: Choking Division, Duvall’s experiments in the then-nascent form of computer mimicry lead to a panicked series of seven days that nearly brought the world to its knees. 

At the time, the goal that Duvall and Hamilton had set before themselves and the rest of the Presidential Alert team was exceedingly ambitious: broadcast a series of announcements from the current president of the United States — then Barack Obama. Some announcements were urgent reports regarding national security, while others were silly diversions that arguably were in-jokes to which only staffers from DSI would find amusing. Nevertheless, the broadcasts were significant for the horrible future they predicted. (Of course, it would be an error on my part if I failed to mention Obama’s own foray into the world of hoax art, when it was revealed that he was the cointelpro mastermind behind what was known as Q Anonymous to its devotees and a honeypot to federal law enforcement hoping to identify homegrown terrorists, white supremacists, and far-right fanatics.)

Few recordings from that experiment exist since Duvall, Hamilton, and company specifically targeted small media markets served by understaffed, underfunded television stations using out-of-date equipment, often at hours when a skeleton crew at best, and an intern at worst, was at the helm. Furthermore, the DSI team broadcast no single presidential alert in more than one location. In other words, no television station that received one of Duvall and Hamilton’s alert was prepared to hit the record button when the alerts came through without warning.

Fortunately, we now have a detailed synopsis of the campaign thanks to what appears to be an interoffice report from Diversified Solutions, Inc., itself. It’s a fascinating look at the nature and extent of this most dangerous campaign, one that lasted far more than the seven days as originally thought and which targeted a staggering 45 locations. In hindsight, it’s amazing Duvall and Hamilton’s experiment didn’t have more real-world implications.

More no mistake, the DSI duo fully intended to cause havoc. 

According to the newly obtained interoffice report, penned perhaps by Duvall himself:

 Hamilton believes that no two channels should be targeted at one time, since, he theorizes, the viewer of a false Presidential Alert will feel more anxiety if the message is only found on one channel. As the viewer flips, first to the cable news network of their political inclinations and then to its competitors and finally through every channel, they will become increasingly agitated when they discover that the president’s address cannot be found on any other channel. They will question the government. They will suspect a conspiracy. They will doubt their sanity. They will feel personally chosen, a feeling that causes more dread than any of the others. After all, what is true madness if not being touched by the hand of the divine.

Given Duvall’s proclivities, in particular his passion for hoaxes, historians have long wondered why the prankster abandoned this experiment, dismantled the Presidential Alert team, and never again attempted such broadcast chicanery. However, another recently discovered artifact sheds light on Duvall’s feelings about the project. 

Some scholars suggest the answers may be found in a 2015 interview, filmed shortly before Duvall went into hiding, although not to orchestrate Donald Trump’s successful 2016 campaign as some have speculated. The exact date and circumstances under which the video was shot is not clear at the time. But while further investigation is certainly warranted, there’s little doubt the Presidential Alert project was on the prankster’s mind during the interview:

Look, man, reality is what you make it, and if it was up to me, back in 2009 we would have had an entire season of “Real World: Key West” with President Obama and Snooki as bunkmates, but the rendering time was just too much for the hardware we had at Diversified Solutions. All other work would have ground to a halt. I mean, I’m glad we live in a world with Rebecca Black’s “Friday.” In fact, I don’t know what I’d do without it. And yoni eggs, too. It takes more bandwidth than you think to workshop those ideas. But there was a philosophical reason as well: it was just too much power in one man’s hands. My hands, man. Or Jay’s hands. Whoever else it may be at DSI. We could deep-fake Obama into every My Pillow commercial, but is that right? Is it good? Does society truly benefit? Is it frikkin fair? The answer is no, no, no, no. No one person should have that power. But everybody? Hell yeah. That’s why I said, no more. And it was tough to do, man. Really tough. I really want to watch Tucker Carlson clutch his pearls when Obama and Snooki enter the Smoosh Room for the first time. But I vowed to the entire team we wouldn’t take another step until everybody could do what we did. Until this power was in your hands, not just mine. We’re allies, bro. Solidarity today, solidarity, tomorrow, solidarity forever. Is that freedom rock, man? Well turn it up!

This particular interview may have been on Duvall’s mind when he turned his attention to “Tombstoned,” his discarded second novel. In email correspondence with Sally Field Ferguson, DSI director of disinformation, Duvall writes: 

The book [“Tombstoned”], if it’s about anything, it’s the total democratization of reality. Whatever anyone wants to be true becomes true. Let’s say you want the history books to say the South won the Civil War. Bam. Done. Let’s say you want Robert E. Lee to be a drag queen. Bam. Done. Or let’s say, Stonewall Jackson was gunned down by his own men during a fit of PCP psychosis. Bam. Done. Hell, you could even turn the entire Southern army into a ragtag gang of misfit toys with trust issues and a case of Bud Light with Lime. Easy. It happened. It’s history. The point is, reality is yours. It’s mine. It’s everyone’s. To shape, to mold, to manipulate. The world belongs to all of us, not just the ivory tower elites or Hollywood or the New York media. All of us. See, I’m a firm believer that the narratives of our lives should be written by our own hands, not the hands of some coked-out script doctor with an afternoon appointment with a femdom furry with a two-foot-long piece of PVC pipe she calls the Big Bopper. Not that femdom furries should be prevented from creating reality themselves. No way. If there’s one thing this reality needs, it’s more chicks in My Randy Stallion costumes singing, ‘Chantilly Lace.’ Am I right or am I right?”

It’s easy to dismiss this discussion of “Tombstoned” as being solely focused on the book proper and not Duvall’s overall views, but that would be an error. Based on the interoffice report, it’s clear that the prankster wanted more. The only question is, did he get his wish? Perhaps the more pertinent question is, are we ready to live in the very world Duvall longed for, whether we want it or not?

The answer to that question remains to be seen.

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