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Dances with Wolves

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In 2017, the great American novelist Paul Auster traveled to Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, on a pilgrimage of sorts to the hometown of a grandfather he never knew. Although Ivano-Frankivsk had once been home to many of the author’s ancestors, the Austers—like all of the Jews who lived there before World War II—were long gone. Auster published an account of his journey in 2020 as a Literary Hub piece titled “The Wolves of Stanislav."

During his visit, Auster met a local poet who de­scribed what Soviet soldiers found when they arrived to liberate Ivano-Frankivsk from the Nazis in July 1944. While Auster knew what happened to members of his own family and the town’s other Jews between 1941 and 1943, he was surprised to discover that by 1944, all of the occupying Germans and remaining non-Jewish townspeople were gone as well: “Instead of people the city was now inhabited by wolves, hundreds of wolves, perhaps thou­sands of wolves.”

Upon returning home, Auster researched the poet’s story but found nothing to con­firm it. The nearest thing to proper documen­tation he unearthed was a Soviet propagan­da film from the period, showing Russian soldiers as conquering heroes freeing a cheering crowd. He came away unsure of the facts but inclined to print the legend, , recognizing the wolves as representing, more plausibly than the propaganda film, "the spawn of war and what war brings to the earth."

“The Wolves of Stanislav” probes the kind of questions about stories and storytelling that Auster’s work has, in one way or another, been asking for 40 years: “Does an event have to be true in order to be accepted as true, or does belief in the truth of an event already make it true, even if the thing that supposedly hap­pened did not happen? … If the story turns out to be so astounding and so powerful that your mouth drops open in wonder and you feel that it has changed or enhanced or deepened your understanding of the world, does it matter if the story is true or not?”

In this age of AI-enabled deepfakes and syn­thetic filmmaking, we’re more conditioned than ever not to trust our eyes when it comes to visual accounts of present or past events. And as we become more adept at recognizing the tell-tale signs of awkward-looking synthetic videos and cliché-ridden, hallucination-addled Open AI-generated writing, we’re just as aware that as AI technology improves, it will become harder to tell the difference.

Most of those following the Hollywood strikes of 2023 found reason to cheer on Nov. 8 when SAG-AFTRA and AMPTP reached a tentative agreement that reportedly resolved the AI-related disputes that largely motivated the strike (alongside the impasse over stream­ing residuals).

And while 86% of union members voted in fa­vor of the agreement, dissenters took exception to the AI provisions, which guaranteed actors compensation and 48 hours to consent to the digital replication of their voice and likeness. While the “consent” clause may seem actor-friendly, its inclusion is likely to prove a sell­out even more insidious than SAG president Ronald Reagan blithely signing away back re­siduals to his producer pals at the conclusion of the 1960 strike (although many choose not to remember it that way).

As dissenting SAG negotiating committee member Shaan Sharma told Rolling Stone, enshrining the consent-to-AI provision in the union contract effectively makes it a condition of employment. “If you want to get hired, you have to be ready to consent to be replicated, so there are people who are out there saying that consent at the time of engagement is co­ercion because they won’t hire you unless you give them those rights,” Sharma says. “And it’s only those with considerable leverage that will have the ability to say no to the replication, but still be hired.”

It’s anybody’s guess what the impending era of synthetic filmmaking and storytelling will yield following this negotiated surrender , and what AI-augmented artifacts will distort recollections of war-torn times. Decades from now, odds are that all we’ll re­member is the circling of the wolves.

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