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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Made-up stories — spoken yarns, art, games, books and films — have always been a diversion reserved for the end of a long day. Now they're becoming alloyed with the rest of our lives, jostling for space with facts.

What's happening: We are surrounded by lifelike synthetic realities — super-engaging parallel worlds, enabled by new technologies, that are coming to define how we understand and interact with each other.

Why it matters: The distinction between fact and fiction is up for grabs as the boundary separating them gets increasingly fuzzy. And arguments over whose reality is most real are already derailing politics and society.

These technologies can enrich the physical world around us, supercharging art and our relationships with other humans. But just as the dominance of social media brought unforeseen harms, so might these developments.

  • "People are already living in synthetic realities," says Justin Hendrix, director of the NYC Media Lab. "They feel like they're in a perpetual state of conflict."
  • Social media rose on a wave of enthusiasm for its capacity to connect people and champion freedom. "We were blindsided" when the algorithms' underbelly began to show, Hendrix says. He leads a group of engineers, lawyers, VCs and others that meets quarterly to discuss the impacts of synthetic media on society.

In New York City last month, I saw the glimmers of newly emerging layers of reality.

  • I visited Betaworks, a VC firm that recently ran an incubator for startups creating synthetic, AI-generated media — music, stock photography, even pop stars. "People are not limiting what they seem like in a virtual world to the rules of the physical world," says Matt Hartman, a Betaworks partner.
  • At a Verizon 5G Lab, I saw a slime-green motion-capture room that can quickly make an animatable 3D model out of a person who stands inside. The model could be inserted into a film or a video game — or into a fake sex tape or some other compromising virtual situation.
  • And at NYU, I met Paul Barrett at the Center for Business and Human Rights, who follows the destructive path of disinformation online. In a new report he outlines threats to the 2020 election, including the prospect that people will be tricked on social media into gathering — and clashing — in the real world.
  • Bonus: Biking over the Williamsburg Bridge on a Saturday, I pedaled under a slogan painted on the steel trestlework: "Don't let reality ruin your life."

What's next: You can expect that these synthetic realities will become more engaging as the technologies that power them develop, and that you will spend more time in them — whether you know it or not.

Go deeper

Thousands without power as "hazardous" winter storm lashes East Coast

Winter view from Charlotte as winter storm Izzy creates dangerous conditions in Charlotte, N.C. on Jan. 16. Photo: Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A major winter storm was lashing much of the East Coast on Sunday, causing widespread power outages and disrupting travel over the holiday weekend.

The big picture: Heavy snow and ice accumulations are "likely to produce hazardous travel," downed trees and more power outages from the Mid-South to the Northeast, per the National Weather Service. Some parts of the U.S. can expect to see up to a foot of snow through Monday.

Updated 4 hours ago - Science

Volcanic eruption in Tonga caused "significant" damage

This satellite image of the eruption on Jan. 15 taken by Himawari-8, a Japanese weather satellite operated by Japan Meteorological Agency and released by National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT). Photo: NICT via AP

Significant damage has been reported in Tonga following an undersea volcanic eruption on Saturday, which covered the Pacific nation in ash and cut off communication lines.

Driving the news: The eruption triggered tsunami warnings across Tonga's islands and in other regions, including the West Coast of the U.S. and New Zealand.

4 hours ago - World

North Korea launches 4th suspected missile test this month

A news broadcast in Seoul, South Korea, of an apparent North Korean missile test on Monday morning local time. Photo: Jung Yeon-je/AFP via Getty Images

North Korea's military fired "two suspected short-range ballistic missiles" eastward from Pyongyang on Monday morning local time, per South Korean and Japanese officials.

Why it matters: The fourth such launch since Jan. 5 comes days after North Korea's military warned of "stronger" action if the U.S. moved to have more sanctions imposed on the country.