July 10, 2010

The Uncanny Valley is a Canyon, Part 1

The "uncanny valley" theory describes the human response to robots and computer generated characters which are designed to appear human. The emotion which results from an encounter with an almost-human robot or figure is one of general dread and distrust. (The "uncanny valley" response could also explain why some people are disturbed by mannequins, wax statues, or dolls; all of which, incidentally, are represented in the horror film genre.)

We have evolved to have an incredibly nuanced sense of humanness. We aren't easily deceived by mimics or approximations. Near-human is not human enough.

Interestingly, designers' attempts to close the uncanny valley (that is, to produce a non-creepy synthetic human) are closely tied to film making: that increasingly artificial and inhuman art form. Obviously, computer generated graphics and digital characters are not entirely new and so cannot be wholly responsible for the artificialness of films. CGI is but one contributer to the cinematic nauseous dream. Consider, for example, the increasing artificiality of time in movies. It is no coincidence that our impatience with the pacing of older films has increased as modern film editing has abbreviated each image and moment. Or consider the artificiality of the actors themselves; certainly, this is not a new phenomenon in Hollywood, but it seems ever more pronounced. (I find it fascinating that the majority of attempts to bridge the uncanny valley are made by emulating unnaturally beautiful women; similarly, it isn't by coincidence that the pinnacle of beauty is an actress sculpted to look like a heroine for a video game.) And what are the endless parade of remakes and sequels if not artificial stories?

"Independent" cinema, as a counter point, would be defined ideally by its "humanity," centering on characters, philosophical meditations, settings, relationships. This human address often strikes audiences as pretentious and ostentatious. The box-office hero is more human than the plodding indy flick. I would like to raise my glass to the independent film, but it has increasingly become a product-based genre, a vehicle for Hollywood stars to show off their acting chops, a self-congratulating waddle through the most sophomoric of revelations. There are of course exceptions.

My point is, we are so immersed in the artificiality of cinema that the inhumanity of computer generated characters seems almost inconsequential. I am stupefied by the broader fraud. My identity, physicality, and emotionality, respond to and reflect this uncanny canyon in a thousand different ways.

Ultimately, this is the problem with artificiality; the more we are exposed to it, the more we begin to emulate it. Essentially, the process works the same as socialization, but unlike socialization, which brings you into a large and tangible landscape of interactions, artificialization prepares us to interact with vistas, scenarios, and persons that are not real. I am poised to be a hero in a plot and on a planet that do not exist.

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