The Reality Game by Samuel Woolley

The Reality Game, subtitledHow the next wave of technology will break the truth and what we can do about it’, is a book about what Woolley and his colleagues have termed ‘computational propaganda’, or what other people might think of as online disinformation or ‘fake news’. Rather than focusing mostly on what has already happened, Woolley tries to sketch out where different areas—deep fakes, VR, machine learning—might go in the future, and then suggests ways that this might be combatted in the fight against this ‘computational propaganda’ that threatens our sense of what is true and real. The book looks at tools, but also the human side: what people do and the choices they make that affect how these tools and techniques have been developed and are used.

This is a book about technology that is both pessimistic and trying to offer up possible responses, and is not confined to the usual main points of similar books which focus on AI, big data, and the spread of disinformation on Facebook, but also looks at faked videos and how virtualising humans—through voice or otherwise—may be the future of this kind of falsified content. Woolley does occasionally fall back to imagining (or recounting, at one point) plots for Black Mirror, but he uses this as a way to engage the audience with the occasionally dry topic of technological threat to politics. What makes The Reality Game engaging is both the way that Woolley talks with people involved with many different areas of the issues and tech covered, meaning that the book goes beyond his research, and the way that the concepts are clearly laid out and the buzzwords explained, furthering one of Woolley’s later points that digital literacy is crucial for the future of reality.

There are a lot of books out now about ‘fake news’ or various threats that technology poses to politics, democracy, and reality, but The Reality Game is a good one to go to for a clear summary of some of the existing tech, some speculation about where it could go, and discussion of what might need to be done to improve the prospects for ‘reality’. The message isn’t that all technology is bad, but that humans have been utilising it in bad ways, and that something needs to change.