Ethics and Synthetic Media

Metaphysic is committed to the ethical development of synthetic media technologies.

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Metaphysic is committed to the ethical development of synthetic media technologies.

At Metaphysic, we’re working with leading artists, technologists, industry leaders, and policymakers to create an environment where synthetic media can flourish without undermining public trust and safety. We believe that it is critical for all creators and stakeholders in the synthetic media community to have a voice in creating standards and ethical baselines and we hope that having an open and honest discussion about these urgent topics will lay the foundation for fair and productive public policies around synthetic media.

The world of synthetic media is rife with ethical tensions that must be explored for the field to advance. Critical tensions exist between the freedoms of expression that underpin liberal democratic societies and the desire to regulate the development of technologies that can both be used to manipulate media but also to create wonderful art. How should we develop tools that empower creators to build rich virtual worlds while limiting the ability of bad actors to use these technologies to cause harm? For example, creating a deepfake without the consent of the subject can be potentially devastating to that person. But what about public figures and satire? A blanket ban on non-consensual synthetic videos would undermine the critical role that humor and parody play in our ability to speak truth to power. But who counts as a public figure — and who gets to decide? Will the development of synthetic media destroy our trust in video content or will we learn to adapt to the possibility that a video has been manipulated? How can policymakers craft legislation that doesn’t stifle the massive economic potential of synthetic media and the metaverse while also ensuring the safety of their constituencies?

These are challenging questions without straightforward solutions but concerns about the effects of image manipulation are nothing new. In the late 19th century, shortly after the invention of photography, artists began to question the medium’s restriction to literal representations. The result was the pictorialist movement, which put the aesthetic dimensions of photography on the same footing as it’s use as an arbiter of truth. Photography no longer had to stick to the facts. It was a medium that was equally useful for depicting reality and artistically distorting it.

The pictorialist movement predictably led to concerns that using photography for anything other than strictly literal interpretations of the world would undermine our shared sense of reality. These fears were further inflamed when George Eastman released his Kodak camera, which was inexpensive and easy to operate. You no longer had to be an expert in chemistry, optics, and light to take a photo; as Eastman put it in his advertisements, “You press the button, we do the rest.” Now any dilettante could pull at loose threads in the fabric of reality!

In retrospect, these fears were overblown. The democratization of photography had an incredible and mostly positive impact on the way we experience the world. Today, we all walk around with cameras in our pockets and you’d be hard pressed to find many people who would prefer to go back to the days before photography. And yet, with each advance in our ability to create, manipulate, and distribute images — from motion pictures to Photoshop to computer graphics — the same fears about undermining reality bubble to the surface. Synthetic media is merely the latest instalment in this timeworn concern about whether seeing is believing.

Concerns about image manipulation are not entirely baseless, of course. Photography, video, and synthetic media have been used with the intention to deceive or cause harm. But as the technology matured and became more widely distributed, it had several secondary effects that mitigated its potential for abuse:

  1. Widespread adoption created greater public awareness that images could be manipulated and people quickly learned not to take images at face value. Today, most people are aware that the models on magazine covers are photoshopped, we know that Tom Hanks wasn’t actually talking with JFK in Forrest Gump, and we’re aware that ‘reality’ TV is anything but.
  2. The professionalization of the technologies resulted in the emergence of norms and codes of conduct that governed the use of the technologies in various contexts. As a society we’ve accepted the use of image manipulation in advertising, but when Los Angeles Times photographer Brian Walski didn’t disclose his manipulation of images he took on the battlefield of Iraq, he was fired.

The technologies we use to manipulate images have changed a lot in the last century, but what hasn’t changed are the ethical responsibilities of the people using them.


Metaphysic builds software to help creators make incredible content with the help of artificial intelligence. Find out more: www.metaphysic.ai

For more info please contact info@metaphysic.ai or press@metaphysic.ai

About the author: in a galaxy far away, I was a lawyer turned internet & society researcher. In the 7 years before co-founding Metaphysic, I built tech companies in SF and London. I have always been obsessed with computational photography and computer vision, so it a thrill to work alongside amazing people on the next evolution in how we build and perceive reality — one pixel at a time.

© Thomas Graham & Metaphysic Limited 2021.

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It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

Aristotle