The Columnist Part X: On the Uncanny Valley
Published on 16th December 2015
I last saw my Uncanny Valley in 2003.
2003 was the year I realised that photos could lie. I have no idea what else I was doing, of course, because THERE WAS NO FACEBOOK. I assume it was a golden time of quaintly gauche adolescence; supplanted now by deftly-filtered cock-shots and porn-addicted ten year olds. But appropriately, on the brink of our modern state of obsessive photographic validation, it was the year I bought a book called the Impossible Image: a collection of photographs that were – by the standards of those innocent days – firmly in the realms of the surreal: physical fact nipped and tucked and smoothed with someone else’s digital fantasy.
The genius of these images was their uncanny reality: they were too-perfect imposters. I had zero literacy in this new visual language, but I did have an instinct for normal physical reality. I knew they were off. In Aesthetics, this intuitive shiver is known as the Uncanny Valley: the dip in comfort levels, or even revulsion, experienced when we look at features that are almost, but not exactly, like a natural being.
By all rights, then, this discomfort should be a near constant state in today’s cosmetically-edited on and off-line reality. But fast forward twelve years, actually, and it would seem my Uncanny Valley is more of a flat, grassy savannah these days; bulldozed by ubiquity into far-as-the-eye-can-see uselessness when it comes to spotting today’s standardised lunch-job fillers and digital manipulations that populate our magazines and marketing and, just, normal London life.
On reflection, actually, I can handle that. It’s not the end of the world that I can’t tell Ariana Grande is in fact part humanoid - though, to be sure, this instinctual handicap may prove more of a hindrance when we are ACTUALLY dealing with Ariana Grande humanoids and a Blade-runner sort of vibe – or if using the camera on my phone now involves a constant tussle as its ‘beauty face’ setting tries to foreshorten my nose.
What concerns me more, really, are the other forms of enhancement I might have adapted to.
Because look at any part of history, and it’s clear that a society’s visual and verbal language is always intertwined. And if our defining visual language is a merging of fact and fantasy, the same could be said of the messages broadcast today, where the slenderest notion of fact is padded out with the corpulent girth of self-serving rhetorical fantasy – let’s imagine a fatter Donald Trump, in pants, with the toupee – that lazily spreads its belly across the political sound-bites, and populist headlines, and 20 second interviews that constitute the entirety of our global attention span; ultimately giving rise, not to greater diligence, but greater gullibility (as found by OfCom, who recently released a report suggesting that digital gullibility among young British people is growing faster than Beyonce’s digitally re-mastered thigh gap). These are strange times, then, when gut instinct simply won’t cut it; leaving us open in ways big and small to very nasty ideas and things much more serious than missing the latest Kardashian buttock plumping ceremony.
Human bile dispenser Donald Trump - a man who should, by all rights, evoke an Uncanny Canyon in even the most instinctively challenged – demonstrates this issue exactly: calling last week for a ‘total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States’ based almost entirely on a survey conducted by far right ‘think tank’ Centre for Social Security which polled a mere 600 Muslims of an estimated 5-8 MILLION in the USA – and on this statistical minnow-stream declared it has found ‘OMINOUS LEVELS OF SUPPORT FOR ISLAMIC SUPREMACIST DOCTRINES’. It made sure to use suggestive emboldening and CAPS ON THE REALLY BAD BITS so the bigots know which sentences to read and which to ignore. Naturally, and surely fanned by the flame of global condemnation that followed, financial support has flooded in. Tenuous estimates reckon 100,000 donations of around £40. That’s around 80 years of elite paid-for American College education.
This, of course, is an extreme case from the living definition of fathomless idiocy. But Listen to Peter Oborne’s Iraq War Report, or the lies being peddled as truths to attack American women’s reproductive rights, or the sudden forward surge of the French National Front, or the ongoing war of statistical fact and fiction being waged against the NHS - and it’s clear that we’ve got our work cut out.
We do actually need to be on-guard against the new linguistic surrealism which overwhelms our instincts; on-guard against stupidity, which can strike anyone of us, at any time, and ready to be revolted - really, really, grossly repelled - by information that looks, and sounds, and behaves like information - but isn’t. In this environment, the role of fiction in telling truths has arguably never been more important; and Donald Trump – fantastical, suspiciously enhanced, hugely stupid and uncanny in the truest sense – can serve as our constant reminder of these lessons. At least he’s good for something.
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