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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

Report: Pentagon watchdog finds Ronny Jackson drank on duty and harassed staff

Rep. Ronny Jackson walking through the Canon Tunnel to the U.S. Capitol in January. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-Texas) allegedly made "sexual and denigrating" comments about a female staffer, drank alcohol and took sleeping medication while working as White House physician, according to an official report obtained by CNN Tuesday night.

Driving the news: The Department of Defense inspector general's report stems from a years-long investigation. Jackson has called the allegations "false and fabricated."

DOJ pressed to enforce Al Jazeera foreign agent ruling

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The Justice Department is being pressed to enforce its own demand that the U.S. arm of Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera register as a foreign agent.

Why it matters: The launch of Al Jazeera's new right-of-center U.S. media venture, Rightly, has refocused attention on the media company's alleged links to Doha, and DOJ's efforts to crack down on media outlets viewed as foreign interest mouthpieces.

Poll: Immigration is America's most-polarizing issue

Data: The American Aspirations Index/Populace; Chart: Will Chase/Axios

Immigration was found to be the most polarizing issue in America based on new polling from Populace.

Why it matters: Americans have surprisingly similar priorities for the U.S., but immigration stands out as one of the few issues with clear partisan differences. It underscores the challenge for advocates and lawmakers hoping to pass immigration reform in the coming weeks amid narrow margins in Congress.