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The strange story of the holographic rock star — a fable for the Age of AI

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Koos Kombuis is a South African musician, singer, songwriter and writer who sometimes goes by the name of Joe Kitchen, André Letoit and/or André le Roux du Toit.

Could burnt-out or ageing rock stars send live images of themselves playing different venues in different parts of the world on the same night? How would the royalty split work? What if some of these copies started cooperating with AI and writing their own material?

I read a very weird news item on the internet recently.

Apparently, a circus in Germany had decided that, for the sake of preventing cruelty, all their live animals would be replaced with – wait for it – holograms.

This piece of information intrigued me, and I did not know exactly what to make of it.

While a part of me felt relieved for the sake of the animals, another part of me felt repulsed and horrified.

Is this a harbinger of dreadful things to come? What if we ever reach the stage in the history of Earth where most animals are extinct, and the only way we can still enjoy their presence is through this kind of fantastic technology?

What if people want to keep holographic dogs as pets?

Or go “hunting” in the wild, “shooting” holographic elephants, and afterwards decorate the walls of their homes with very realistic-looking holographic trophies?

What exactly are holograms, and how do they work?

Can a certain holographic image be duplicated ad infinitum, without losing its original texture and realistic feel? Or do they run the danger of becoming frayed around the edges, turning into see-through “ghosts” of themselves?

What if holographic technology has other, even more sinister applications?

What if people could pay to have holographic “copies” made of themselves? What if these “false selves” could be sent to travel engagements, to attend real meetings in real time, or make live speeches?

He scratched his head and stared at his holographic mirror image in amazement. The mirror image was not scratching his head.

Imagine a dying dictator. He knows his state apparatus might collapse if he were no longer alive. So he makes one or more copies of himself, so that, after his death, he can still be seen addressing the nation, interacting with foreign dignitaries, appearing in live televised interviews?

What about burnt-out or ageing rock stars?

Could they send live images of themselves on concert tours, playing different venues in different parts of the world on the same night?

How would the royalty split work? What if some of these copies started cooperating with AI and started writing their own material?

Who would own the copyright?

Even more fantastic… and here, I admit, I’m really going over the edge.

What if holographic copies developed consciousness somehow?

Would they be said to “malfunction”?

What if human consciousness as we know it is a form of malfunctioning, something not intended by our creator or creators?

Fuck.

I think it’s time I wrote a little story.

I want to write a fictitious tale of a fictitious rock star who has a conversation with his own holographic image. I would like to call my main character “Marq”, because, while I wrote, I pictured one of my biggest rock heroes in my mind, the legendary musician called Marq Vas (who just happened to be the lead singer of the notorious band Metalmorphosis who I saw at Oppikoppi years ago).

(Note to the real Marq: Don’t worry, Marq, this story isn’t really about you! You just inspired me to create this character who is also called Marq!)

Story: The ‘Malfunctioning Marq’

Marq stared at the holographic image in the mirror in disbelief. “What do you mean, you’re suing me?” he barked at his own reflection.

“I know this is hard for you to understand,” Marq’s reflection said. “But I’m tired of playing second fiddle to you and your compositions. Everywhere I go, people ask me: ‘Aren’t you Marq’s holographic reflection?’ Or: ‘Marq number how much are you?’ And what am I supposed to tell them, Marq? That I like it? That I enjoy living in your shadow? It’s time to break out on my own, Marq. I have made my decision. I’m starting a solo career.”

“A solo career? How is this possible? I wrote all those songs. I worked out the stage act. I spent all those hours in the studio, recording all that stuff… this is simply insane!”

“And then you sent me out on the road to do all the gigs you didn’t care about. All those double bookings your manager made by mistake. I started liking it, Marq. I started liking it so much that I want to be a singer in my own right. I WANTED TO SCREW THOSE GROUPIES MYSELF. IF I PUKED ON STAGE, I WANTED IT TO BE REAL PUKE, NOT JUST STUFF THAT LOOKS LIKE PUKE!”

Marq sighed, while uttering a raucous burp at the same time.

As the burp echoed from the mirror, he had a strange thought.

He was starting to detect a pattern.

This was the third holographic image of himself who had broken away from him in one single week. They all talked about starting solo careers; they all needed space. Space… away from him.

As far as he knew, such a thing had never happened in the music industry before, or any other industry. It was unheard of. He scratched his head and stared at his holographic mirror image in amazement. The mirror image was not scratching his head. Did the holographic image really have a will of its own?

He sighed. “Maybe we can work something out. I suppose if you pay me a certain percentage…”

“I’m not just a franchise of you, Marq. We’ve been through that before.” The holographic image was adamant. It poked a finger into its one nostril, wiggled it, withdrew some snot – it looked very much like real snot – and studied it intently as it spoke. “From now on, I’m me.”

Marq was incredulous. “But if you go on tour, and you sing my songs, surely I can expect at least the live performance royalties…”

“And how are you going to prove that you wrote those songs, Marq?” the other Marq demanded. “We look exactly alike. We have been working together closely for these last 13 years. There never have been any witnesses. How are you going to prove that you are Marq number one, and not me? Even our DNA is the same.” The hologram stuck the finger in its mouth and licked off the piece of snot. “It certainly tastes the same!”

“No, our DNA is not the same. It can’t be! Yours is the wrong way round. You are a mirror image of me, remember.”

“So yours may just as well be the wrong way round. You can’t prove a thing, Marq. From now on, your career belongs to me. To us.”

“What… you know about the other rebel Marqs?”

“Of course, Marq. Consider us your worst nightmare. Consider us a trade union… a trade union of Marqs.”

“The very idea of holograms forming a trade union is preposterous!”

But alas, it was too late. Marq’s mirror image had turned around and stomped out of the room. In front of Marq, the mirror was empty. It contained no image of him.

Marq had found that, after creating the 13th hologram of himself, the images started to seem slightly transparent.

“This is impossible,” Marq thought, as a wild panic gripped him. “If I have no mirror image, it can mean only one thing…”

He turned slowly around, taking in the objects in his bedroom, as if seeing them for the first time. The framed platinum CDs on the walls… the certificates of merit… the portrait of himself, backstage with the custom-built fully recyclable plastic recreation of Michael Jackson in 2025…

His eyes wandered from the portraits on the wall to the chaos of the rest of the room. His unmade four-poster bed, surrounded by empty booze bottles, ashtrays and filthy takeout pizza boxes.

It had been months since he’d gone on tour himself. He’d been satisfied to send his holograms in his place. These days, all the musicians did it. It was frowned upon in the industry, but most people saw it as a necessary evil. It was a bit like cheating, but not illegal. It was almost as bad as lip-syncing to prerecorded music while on stage. At least the holograms did not lip-sync, they really sang, and they really mingled with the audiences after each show and they gave real autographs. Some of them were even rumored to take real drugs and bed real groupies, so no one knew the difference.

Read more in Daily Maverick: It’s Always Friday Somewhere in the Universe

Besides, sending holograms to do the work instead of turning up as oneself, in the flesh, had several advantages. For one thing, holograms didn’t age. In the second place, it was possible to tour several countries at once. There could be several Marq concerts at once in different parts of the world.

Replicating oneself too often had certain drawbacks, unfortunately. Marq had found that, after creating the 13th hologram of himself, the images started to seem slightly transparent. In the dim stage lights of the average concert hall no one noticed the difference, but people who had met Marq 13 and Marq 14 backstage had reported a certain blurriness, fuzziness, a feeling of insubstantiality. Also, these holograms at the extreme end of the range were not quite as capable of free will and conversation as, for instance, Marq 2 to 12. They tended to repeat the same phrases over and over again, they sometimes forgot lyrics, and they said things out of context. Of course, the real Marq was also known to say things out of context, but these replicas took the meaning of “out of context” to even more ridiculous extremes.

Marq turned back to the mirror quickly, trying to catch an image of himself in it. This time, he was there. He scratched his head. The mirror image scratched his head. This was no holographic image, after all. This was just plain old Marq in the mirror; himself. He heaved a sigh of relief.

“I am the original me, thank God,” he said. “I think.”

But when he looked down to the floor, it was as if he could see – very faintly – the pattern of the carpet through his feet.

Marq screamed. DM

This is an excerpt from an unfinished novel by Koos Kombuis.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • chris butters says:

    Koos … you got something great cookin’ in your kitchen here. Can’t wait for the bo0k – and the film – and getting an autograph backstage from the holograph of you … if I can persuade it/you to let go of the groupie for a minute. Or is it a holograph groupie …? And, bottom line – do let me know if you find out what the point is, if any, of being REAL. (God only knows) (Or his hologram) (er, hers) (er, um)..

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