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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

CCP releases two jailed Canadians after Huawei CFO deal with DOJ

Photo: Sheldon Cooper/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Two Canadians imprisoned by the Chinese government for over 1,000 days have been released and are expected to arrive in Canada on Saturday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday.

Why it matters: Their release comes hours after Huawei Technologies CFO Meng Wanzhou reached a deal with the U.S. Department of Justice that resolves the criminal charges against her and could pave the way for her to return to China.

Updated 13 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Arizona GOP's private recount of 2020 election confirms Biden's win

Contractors working on behalf of the GOP examine and recount 2020 ballots at Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix in May. Photo: Courtney Pedroza/Getty Images

In an odd coda to the 2020 election, private contractors conducting a GOP-commissioned recount in Arizona confirmed President Biden’s win in Maricopa County.

Why it matters: The unofficial, party-driven recount has been heavily covered on cable news as part of former President Trump's continued effort to sow doubt about the election result.

Del Rio bridge camp empty following Haitian migrant surge

A boy bathes himself in a jug of water inside a migrant camp at the U.S.-Mexico border on Sept. 21 in Del Rio, Texas. Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

The last migrants camping under the Del Rio International Bridge, which connects Texas and Mexico, departed on Friday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced during a White House press briefing.

Driving the news: Thousands of migrants, mostly from Haiti, had arrived to the makeshift camp after crossing the southern border seeking asylum. Roughly 1,800 migrants will now head to U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing centers.