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Walking through the shadows of the uncanny valley l Chuck's World


Last updated 2/14/2018 at Noon

The word “ken” is not so much a word as an old Anglo-Saxon root that referred to knowledge. “That is beyond my ken” is something you could say if you’re in unknown intellectual territory. Or if you’re Barbie, I guess.

It’s old-fashioned, anyway, but it gifted us with “canny,” another old-fashioned word, an adjective that we sometimes use as a synonym for clever or knowledgeable.

As with many things, though, including cars and video games, it’s all about the modification. Add a prefix and the word “uncanny” seems simple at first, just a way of saying something is unknown or unfamiliar, but it’s much weirder than that.

Popularized by some early thinkers on human psychology, among them Sigmund Freud, “uncanny” has come to mean an eerie unfamiliarity, with emphasis on the eerie part. You might refer to a comedian’s impression of Morgan Freeman’s voice as uncanny, and you mean that it sounds very realistic. It’s an oddity of language, like saying something is so good it’s “unreal.”

But there’s an underlying sense of strangeness at the same time. It kind of creeps you out, it’s so close.

Because it’s not close enough, or so goes the theory. Freud and the others speculated that this “close but no cigar” aspect inspired revulsion of a sort, a queasy, uncomfortable feeling.

Thus we come to the “uncanny valley,” a concept that’s been around nearly half a century but has been heating up in recent years. This is generally used when discussing robotics, although most of the robots employed around the world don’t have faces, so it tends to crop up a lot when discussing digital animation.

You’ve probably been in an uncanny valley, then, even if you’ve never heard the term. The “Star Wars” franchise has used digitized versions of actors Christopher Lee and Carrie Fisher in films, and it definitely felt creepy to me.

This is what the uncanny valley is all about. It’s an image that approaches reality but doesn’t quite make it, and instead of seeing a very accurate imitation of a human being, we see a human being who doesn’t seem very human. Again, it’s weird, and not comfortable at all.

You might have noticed this with some of the CGI effects in “Wonder Woman,” as I did. I loved the film, this didn’t diminish my appreciation at all, and it was skillfully done, but it bothered me just enough that I realized what was happening.

I assume the technology will only get better, which is why I’m beginning to suspect that this feeling of distaste and revulsion we sometimes experience in these situations isn’t just a quirk of human psychology, but a survival mechanism.

In a 1973 book, writer Norman Mailer coined the word “factoid.” It referred to statements that appeared to be facts, because they were printed in newspapers or magazines, although they only appeared to be true. We now tend to use that word to mean a small or trivial fact, although the original meaning is far more useful today.

It became apparent in the 2016 presidential election that there was a massive disinformation campaign underway. With our increasing reliance on social media for news and information, sites were popping up that looked official and had screaming headlines, aimed at confirming biases and solidifying positions. This was Fake News, we were told. Don’t believe it.

And then this became co-opted by the Donald Trump team, redefined to describe any news that wasn’t complimentary to the top of the ticket, and the truth got foggier still.

This isn’t just the other guys, no matter where you land politically. I have many friends who share most of my political and social opinions, and more than a few routinely post links to stories that confirm what they believe and are, for the most part, propaganda. There may be some nuggets of truth there, but they’re packaged to tickle our reward centers and not enlighten us (this is also the mission statement of most cable news stations).

A relative recently shared a story about a veteran, a double-amputee who was honoring a fallen comrade at a funeral. The picture of him wearing his dress uniform, sitting in his wheelchair, was solemn and moving. The text told us that Facebook had forbidden the picture from being shown, and we were encouraged to share it to correct this outrageous decision.

This was on Facebook. The site where we weren’t allowed to see the picture. That we were seeing. On Facebook.

And that’s a reasonably harmless one, designed to spark a little temporary outrage and, primarily, to get numbers up so people can turn around and sell their Facebook pages with fake news to other people, and so on. It’s not intended to snare ignorant or dumb people as much as casual ones, people who have other things to do than research stray photos. It’s just so easy to click.

Now we have word of new software that’s used to digitally insert faces onto bodies in films, usually (it’s the internet) pornographic ones. Apparently it’s very realistic.

I think we might need to tend our uncanny valleys, then. I think we might need to nurture our revulsion at, and our awareness of, the factoids that invade our realities. If it’s a skill, we all might need to work on improving ours.

Because soon, we won’t be able to tell the difference. And close should really only count in horseshoes.


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