The Mystics and Magic of Latent Space

Becoming the Unseen

The Mystics and Magic of Latent Space

Becoming the Unseen

A visualization of handwritten digits, 0 – 9, generated by a variational autoencoder.

Bridging concerns from human-computer interaction (HCI) and media studies, this essay theorizes deepfake images in terms of their phenomenological implications: the extent to which they enfold the human viewer in a world of the otherwise unseen. Drawing on comparative phenomenology of Vilém Flusser and Louis Bec, we focus on variational autoencoders (VAEs). We contend that the processes underlying deepfake image construction, as much as deepfake images themselves, evidence a parallel, prosthetic, and computational phenomenology: a study of “that which appears” to a computer, and which appears secondarily to a user-human as image. We use the example of VAEs to argue for the emergence of a second-order, received phenomenology of the augmented human as we reside in an increasingly computational world. 

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The latest advances in cognitive computation are a move inexorably towards a shamanism of the machine, a magical phenomenology based on fanciful but effective latent structures that we lack either the capacity or the sensorium to interrogate.
Reading time: 18 min.

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