Saturday, March 06, 2010


On one of my favorite programs on NPR, "On the Media," there was a segment this morning on something called "The Uncanny Valley." The term was coined forty years ago by the Japanese roboticist Mori Masahiro (in Japanese: bukimi na tani gensho, 不気味な谷現象), and describes a deep plunge in favorable response to various human simulacra, robots, etc. as they approach serious human-likeness. If you can make it to the other side of the "valley," approval bounces back. The segment was mainly about "uncanny valley" phenomena in film and video games - apparently the animated human beings in films like "Polar Express" and games like "Final Fantasy," while more "realistic" than earlier work, creeped viewers out. A princess in "Shrek" was found to be too human-like in one film, so in a sequel was made more obviously a fairy tale figure, and all was well. The "Na'vi" in "Avatar" clearly aren't meant to be human, so their human-likeness is something we enjoy, we learned - but the chill I felt at the so fully realized 3-D landscapes, one I didn't feel at the clearly imaginary 3-D landscape of "Coraline," seems like an uncanny valley phenomenon.

The graph above is from Wikipedia; interesting that bunraku puppets are safely beyond the valley (at least in Japan!). Perhaps because their movements are known to be worked by human beings (the viewer knows s/he is screening the black-clad puppeteers out of view). But I suspect that Noh masks (and many other masks) have their fearsome fascinating power because they seem to move independently of us; that they seem to direct or even possess the people wearing them is as uncanny as it comes! I wonder why unmasked theater isn't uncanny this way...

And another front... I know it's just a hypothesis to start with, but it seems like it could be used to discern what kinds of people are understand as fully human, which of course may not be the same for different people or different cultures. I know I'm not the only person to have gone through something like an "uncanny valley" when I first heard a woman priest say mass (so glad to be on the other side now!), and perhaps part of the redemptive excitement of the Obama campaign had something "uncanny valleyish" about it. As for full inclusion for gay and lesbian people, I'm struck - now I have a term for it - that the "uncanny valley" seems to lie in such different places for Americans (marriage) and for Europeans (adoption, what the French call homoparentalité).

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