Naomi Klein: ‘AI is set to undermine our belief in reality itself’

It’s always worth humiliating yourself in front of people – their reaction will tell you who they are. Before even interviewing Naomi Klein, one of the world’s great public intellectuals and among the most important non-fiction writers of the last quarter of a century, I had done just that.

Years ago, another famous writer called Naomi – Naomi Wolf – said something that enraged me, but in the stupidity of anger, I climbed aboard the rage machine (Twitter, now X) to tell her. Except that I got the wrong Naomi. Naomi Klein, mercifully, did not rage back. She responded calmly, decently, to tell me of the mix-up. My mix-up.

Unfortunately for Klein, it’s not exactly an uncommon error. Even their respective Wikipedia pages state at the very top: “not to be confused with Naomi Wolf/Naomi Klein”. So often are people making the same mistake online, in print, and even in person, that she’s written a new book framed around the confusion: Doppelganger.

It’s a nifty device into a much darker landscape surrounding our online identities, and the distortion of truth both personally and politically. She calls it The Mirror World. Through her investigation, we’re guided around the land of conspiracy theorists, the far right, anti-Semitism, and anti-vaxxers – a land that infects the internet and affects us in real life too.

It is, she explains, where facts crumble, the currency of language is devalued, and nothing is real. Or seems it. Instead, all is mirrors, distortions, refractions seized upon by opportunists to make money, gain clout, and cynically galvanise political support. Meanwhile, most of us have an online version ourselves. A double. Which in effect becomes a brand. And like all brands, it’s open to corruption, misuse, and hijacking by external forces.

When Klein beams through the video call from her home in British Columbia, Canada, I confess to my crime. “I confuse people online all the time!” she replies, laughing. “There are at least four people named Alex that I am perennially confusing with each other. I’ve never met any of them. They’re just names and tiny little photographs to me. I really don’t think our brains are adapted to deal with this many faces.”

But as light-hearted and self-deprecating as her manner is in person, in the book, her shame and frustration at being forever mistaken for Wolf oozes out.

Once the celebrated feminist author of the Beauty Myth (1991), Naomi Wolf now regularly appears on the podcast of Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon, making multiple questionable claims about the Covid pandemic. A Covid anti-vaxxer, Wolf has likened Covid-19 jabs to mass murder. She was suspended from Twitter after claiming such vaccines are a “software platform that can receive uploads”.

Naomi Wolf, who Klein in regularly confused for (Photo: Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty)

Klein, meanwhile, has devoted the past 25 years to exposing the threats of corporate globalisation, capitalism, and climate change through her internationally best-selling books. The era-defining No Logo (1999), whipped the curtain open to major corporations who use branding to insert themselves into our daily life while behind it, profiting off sweatshops.

The Shock Doctrine (2007) revealed how governments around the world seize on catastrophes to implement extreme and exploitative policies. And This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate (2014) unveiled how the market forces inherent in neoliberalism are blocking attempts to prevent climate catastrophe. All involved years of painstaking research on the biggest problems of our age.

It would be easy, however, to begin reading Doppelganger and think, “Well, I sympathise with your plight, Naomi Klein, it must be awful to be mistaken for another writer who now represents much of what you oppose, but why does this matter? And how does it relate to anyone else?” But in nearly 350 pages of what is the most beautifully written of her books we discover why this confusion, and distortions more generally, matter. And over our video call, she outlines a sobering truth that could hit us all.

“In the age of AI, somebody could make a duplicate you without your knowledge, they could just feed in 10 photographs of you into one of these programmes, and out comes another you, that you could stumble upon online. And it could be saying all kinds of things that would absolutely horrify you,” she says. In this scenario, she describes with grim concision, “the self becomes a quicksand.”

Worse, it could affect our livelihoods – and for some, it already is. “It’s having a level of influence on the lives of many creative people,” she says, citing artists who are now “having to compete with an AI version” of their work.

“So when I started this project, I felt like it was pretty niche and specific. I did think that it was an interesting, narrow aperture to look at the issue of personal branding, which I had wanted to revisit a quarter of a century after No Logo because it has changed so much. I thought this would be an interesting way to do that. But then all of this AI stuff started accelerating as I was writing. Deep fakes were out there, but the accessibility of it and ChatGPT launched when the book was already in draft form.” So she updated the book to include AI.

Klein warns: ‘Almost all of us are going to have that very strange, uncanny feeling of coming face to face with our double’ (Photo: Rob Trendiak/Penguin Press)

“Sooner or later,” she says, “almost all of us are going to have that very strange, uncanny feeling of coming face to face with our double, whether it’s in embodied form or in virtual form, which is very real to us, because that is increasingly how we represent ourselves professionally. So it has a very serious impact.”

But Klein is less worried about the individual crises of people meeting an AI version of themselves and “more the deepening of the disbelief in reality. And I think that’s very, very proximate.” Connecting back to This Changes Everything, Klein, who is also Professor of Climate Justice at the University of British Columbia, describes how AI can entwine with conspiracy theories to hamper our ability to tackle global warming.

“Ultimately, the world of conspiracy and the kind of doppelganger world that is created by conspiracy culture is similar to our own, but it has all of these fantastical elements,” she says. “And more and more people are choosing to disbelieve in all of these inconvenient facts. It’s easier to just say, ‘No, this is a plot by all the climate scientists in the world to make us believe this thing that would cause us to have to re-examine core principles of free market economics’. Climate change denial comes out of a desire to protect a comfortable worldview.”

The same process happened during the pandemic, she says, where many people preferred to believe it to be a hoax to avoid facing it. “When we don’t know whether we can believe our eyes, which is what AI is producing on a mass scale, you see a news story like large parts of Maui [in Hawaii] just burned to crisp, [and you can think], ‘maybe not, maybe that’s just generated by a computer’. You can say anything is a hoax. AI is such an aid to that. That’s the part of it that makes me kind of panic.”

And it’s why, she says, “it becomes so terrifically disingenuous when you have people like Sam Altman [CEO of OpenAI] claiming AI is going to solve climate change and cure disease. The first thing AI is doing already is making people not believe that reality is real.” It’s part of a “profound rupture” that most people have begun to feel, she says, between a truth and its capacity for impact. Facts, in other words, have to be believed, or God help us.

In the UK, the most visible climate activists currently are Just Stop Oil. Their direct-action protests – blocking traffic, running onto football pitches, gluing themselves to famous paintings, or throwing soup over a Van Gogh – command attention, rocketing the issue up the news agenda, but often annoying the general public. Klein is diplomatic about them.

“We need to act in the face of the climate crisis,” she says. “Do we know what we should do in a moment like this? Do we know what to do with that fear? I think a lot of us don’t. I think Just Stop Oil are providing a lot of young people with that sense of, ‘we can do something’. I think we also have to be very strategic about what the something is. There are other groups who are more focused on fossil-fuel infrastructure. And I think we need more of that, to be honest.”

There can be, she says, a “legibility challenge” (which sounds gloriously euphemistic) amid the need to disrupt. “I’m not criticising them, anybody who’s doing anything at this point, deserves our support. But it isn’t only about attention and changing the conversation. It’s [about] marrying action with belief. The more that the actions are very legibly an attempt to stop the flow of fossil fuels the more people will understand what the point of it is and imagine how they could support and participate. We need strategy.”

It’s a theme that occurs throughout the book and our conversation: how progressive movements from climate justice to racial justice and beyond often have remarkable flashpoints of engagement, only to see the momentum wane.

One of the refreshing arguments in Doppelganger is the need for calm as a defence against our global problems, with clear, focused thinking and collaboration. But how possible is level-headed solution-finding when social media is designed to make us all idiotic with rage?

“We’re not forced to spend hours of our day subjecting ourselves to it,” she says laughing. But the addictive-forming, dopamine-releasing reality of social media grips many in a loop, feeding our need for distraction.

This may not be for long, however, says Klein. “I feel like we owe a debt to Elon Musk for making Twitter (now X) a much more unbearable place. I’m hoping that reduced Twitter use is not just being transferred to another platform. And it may be we’re deciding to use our attentions for something else.” I’m not so sure. In any case, doesn’t distraction help us, psychologically, in some way?

“No, I don’t think what we need now is distraction. I think what we need is to believe we are living through what we’re living through,” she says. The type of distraction that would actually help, she argues, is good art that allows us catharsis and collective experiences that help make sense of the horrors facing us. While we’re talking, wildfires are burning in multiple locations around the world, from Maui to Tenerife, Greece to British Columbia, near Klein’s home. “We don’t know how to experience what we’re living through,” she says.

Underpinning much of Doppelganger is a vast critique of narcissism; how it melds with individualism and capitalism to drive us not just round the bend but away from solutions to our biggest threats. Klein’s near obsession with Wolf, documenting what she considers her many failings and missteps, could also be seen in terms of a narcissistic drive, so the psychological origins of this fixation on her double are intriguing. When No Logo was published, it sold over a million copies, making Klein a poster woman of the left internationally. She was famous at 29. By then she’d already struggled with bulimia growing up, rebelled against her counter-culture, left-wing parents, and had dropped out of university. What did all that attention and success do to her ego?

“I found it very difficult,” she says. “I’m not an extrovert, naturally, and I’m a pretty guarded person already. I have an overdeveloped sense of shame. I had that in part just because I grew up with very extroverted, free hippie parents in the 80s. And then when No Logo came out, it was like my worst fears coming true in terms of being surveilled.”

Canadian author, social activist, and filmmaker Naomi Klein, Milano, 4th June 2001. (Photo by Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images)
Canadian author, social activist, and filmmaker Naomi Klein in June 2001 (Photo: Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images)

This surveillance wasn’t a mere feeling, a reaction to fame, but a documented reality. “There was a short-lived column in the National Post called Klein Watch,” she says, “where it was like, ‘we’re going to try to catch Naomi going into a Starbucks or something.’”

In other words, the anti-brand, anti-globalisation figurehead was being monitored. Being a woman, one of so few prominent young political voices on the left at the time, helped make her more of a target. It was, perhaps, one of the early examples of personal monitoring of progressives to catch them out in case their own habits or lifestyles contradicts their message. But this went further. Vice – now known for its more right-on youth news organisation – was at the time a weekly magazine in Toronto.

“They went through my garbage and took photographs of the garbage to try to prove that I had…” her voice trails off to indicate that it was the same hypocrisy-hunting. “But if you knew me at that time, you would understand this was my absolute worst nightmare. And so I went a little bit inward on all that. There’s a way in which shame, insecurity, is its own kind of narcissism because you’re still imagining that people care about you, probably more than they do, and so when you have that personality type already, and then people take pictures of your garbage, then it really does a number on your head.”

As one reads Doppelganger, and Klein takes us on a Wolf hunt – her tweets, her public statements, her interviews on Steve Bannon’s show – it’s not hard to start singing, “Let it go”. Or perhaps, “let her go”. But by the end, there’s a shift. She’s grateful for the disorientating experience. “I really do appreciate the experience of losing control over my public self,” she says now. “Because it taught me that you can try as hard as you want [to control your public image], but it will not work, it will not matter.”

Doppelganger, I think, is part exorcism. The difference between Klein at 53 and 29 is huge, it seems. Her early success, “created an overinflated sense of self,” she says. “I felt like I was carrying the weight of the left on my shoulders for a few years.” Now, however, “there’s something very freeing about not feeling like I’m carrying that.”

Along the way, of course, were the totemic big-themed, hard-hitting Shock Doctrine and This Changes Everything books. They were not fun to write, she says, however much the subject matter was important. Klein wanted to have some fun again, fun that she even had writing No Logo. “In order to do that, you have to take yourself less seriously, you just have to. And so she [Wolf] helped me with that.”

(Penguin Press)

What you only learn near the end of Doppelganger is that Wolf in fact inspired Klein to become an author. Wolf came to give a talk at her college, just after the publication of The Beauty Myth. Klein, as editor of the campus newspaper, was dispatched to interview Wolf. At the time, Klein saw in The Beauty Myth a blueprint for writing about what matters. It seemed possible to Klein that she could too. And she’s done just that – much more than Wolf, or indeed most authors alive today.

Wolf did not respond to Klein’s approach to be interviewed for the book. “I think it just speaks to the fact that she’s fully flipped into another world [where] she’s getting what she needs,” says Klein. “This is why I call it the mirror world. It’s a parallel reality.”

Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World by Naomi Klein is out now on Penguin Press