Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

It was a case of interesting timing. Last week, just as the House of Representatives was debating the morality and legality of the biological cloning of human beings, digital cloning was proceeding apace.

AT&T Labs announced a giant step forward in text-to-speech software that would allow the dead to speak and put words into the mouths of the living. No longer would machines talk in the adenoidal accents of a robot. They would use borrowed human voices chopped into digits and reassembled at will. And virtually any recorded voice can be borrowed. Does this mean Martin Luther King Jr. might now endorse Alcatel by name?

Why not? The same technology that brought you Jar Jar Binks, a young James Brown in a performance he never gave for Seattle’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Museum, and one sequel too many of Jurassic Park makes just about everything else possible, too.

Actors in the average big-ticket action film already spend most of their time interacting with digital effects. Now they can be digital effects, like the photo-realist stars of the much-hyped film Final Fantasy. Andrew Niccol, who showed he knew how to exploit the public’s anxiety over the media’s use of technology for The Truman Show, promises to do it again with the upcoming Simone, in which a digital replacement for a temperamental Hollywood diva becomes a star in her own right.

Scenarios like these have spooked the Screen Actors Guild, 90 percent of whose members are out of work even without digital competition. But for now, SAG can rest easy. Final Fantasy’s Aki Ross-she of the flashing digital eyes and 60,000 individual strands of computer-generated hair

-has legions of flesh-and-blood starlets feeling better. While digital simulation may be good enough to swell the bloodthirsty Colosseum crowds in Gladiator, algorithms do not necessarily a leading lady make. Not since Jean Seberg bombed as Joan of Arc has a film performance been greeted with such scorn. Moreover, as the star of a movie that cost a rumored $150 million to make, she’s one of the most expensive actresses in town. If poor Aki were a real actress, people in Hollywood would have stopped taking her calls by now.

The film’s main competition in this summer’s video-game-to-big-screen category, Tomb Raider, was an equally brain-dead movie. But at least it had Angelina Jolie. Real actors 1, digital actors 0.

If we’re a long way from seeing digital actors become stars, we have already arrived at the possibility of stars-dead or alive-becoming digital actors, doubles that can be stolen and manipulated without the originals’ consent. Some critics contend it’s like appropriating an actor’s unique “soul”-a notion that medical and technological progress makes increasingly quaint.

But if your soul is going to be appropriated, you at least want a say in it, and an actor’s control over his or her digital image is by no means certain. Dustin Hoffman recently lost a lawsuit against a magazine that used his Tootsie image to model a dress in a fashion spread. The judge deemed it legitimate editorial use. What if it had been a film showing Hoffman’s digital double walking down a runway?

Digitization may be bad for the souls of actors, but good for Hollywood managers, agents and lawyers, whose client lists double to include the actors and their avatars.

Who knows, actors may come to like a technology that allows them never to age. James Brown can try out his 68-year-old moves on his 35-year-old body. An actress could remain an eternal ingenue. An actor could play his own son. And why not the other way around? If the older Michael Jordan cannot replicate the feats of the younger Michael Jordan on the court, his digital self could, literally without breaking a sweat.

Yet somehow it wouldn’t be the same, would it? While technology multiplies the ways in which public persons can exploit themselves and be exploited, and could even extend roles and endorsement contracts to the dead, it also chips away at the aura that makes their images valuable in the first place. How much is, say, a commercial endorsement worth when anyone, living or dead, can be made to do or say just about anything?

One can argue whether the MLK ad was good for Alcatel’s image. But there’s no question it was bad for MLK’s, which was ripped from its context and turned into just another free-floating sign in the kingdom of signs. Today FDR, like Christopher Reeve, can rise from his wheelchair and walk. And thanks to advances like AT&T’s, Jimmy Stewart is again available for voiceovers.

The problem is, why would the audience believe a word he says?