Uncanny Valley: A definition

You may have heard of the term uncanny valley.

In this post, I want to get you to understand the meaning of uncanny valley. I also want to expand the definition. With everything going on in the world today it’s fair to say that the term is only going to become more applicable.

Polar Express and the uncanny valley

Robert Zemeckis film The Polar Express might be when you became aware of the term “Uncanny Valley”.

Kill it with fire

To be honest, it was that scene from 30 Rock. The one where Frank uses The Polar Express to explain the uncanny valley to Tracey.

The uncanny valley is something that looks like the real deal yet there’s something not quite right. It’s that inability to define what it is that is wrong that gives us that creep out feeling.

The Polar Express had an unsettling effect with it’s at the time cutting-edge CGI. There were people in the audience who found the whole thing troubling. Something was missing. There was a dull deadness behind the characters eyes that some found off-putting.

That’s when you know you’re in the uncanny valley.

The uncanny valley is a term that has been used mainly about computer graphics. The idea can go further.

The Shining and Freud.

What about the word uncanny, what does it mean?

Well, obviously, it’s the opposite of canny, duh.

I did a dissertation on The Shining and what was it that made it a perfect horror film. Spoiler alert the essay was terrible, and I’m going to summarise it here.

The Shining is such a good horror film because it epitomises that emotion. The feeling of being unsettled through use of the uncanny.

Freud defined the uncanny, and I’m summarising for the sake of swiftness here. The uncanny is the idea of the doppelganger, the double, your dark shadow.

Next time that you watch The Shining keep an eye out for the use of doubles. There are the twins, most obviously, but it goes further than that. There is the two caretakers, the two Jacks, the two Dannys, the use of mirrors, young lady/old lady. The list goes on, you get the idea.

“What has this got to do with me?” I hear you ask on the other side of the screen.

Let me tell you.

The Uncanny Valley in our day to day lives

You might think that the uncanny valley only occurs on a screen, the truth is it doesn’t.

Think of a robot, imagine in your mind’s eye, a robot. You’re probably thinking about something that is humanoid in shape that has the wires and all.

Now imagine a woman. For some of you reading this you may find it more manageable. Just imagine a human woman. For those of you struggling here you go.

What I like most about photos is that they are silent

Now watch this.

Unnerving isn’t it?

It’s too close for comfort. Something that is similar to us will have its differences more pronounced. Those differences are what repulse us.

I love doing impressions. I do a good Jimmy Stewart and created the Eisenberg Scale which is one voice in different pitches. It ranges from Kermit, the Frog at the top. It then goes through Jordan Peterson to George Lucas, Jesse Eisenberg in the middle. Harold Ramis all the way down to Ray Romano at the bottom.

I used to be able to do impressions of those around me, but something strange happened. The closer and more accurate the impression was, the less comfortable the subject. So I stopped doing accurate impressions of people. They became ridiculous and overblown. People could say “I don’t sound like that” and feel the impression was nothing like them. If I do an impression of you and it’s nothing like you it’s because your comfort is important to me. If I do an accurate impression of you, never mind.

It’s probably why some people don’t like photos of themselves. It’s how they look, and they don’t like that.

Where are you going with this Kieran, get to the point.

Ok.

People you dislike, you’re more like them than you care to let on.

That’s what I’m trying to tell you.

I don’t mind if you disagree but think about a person you don’t get on with.

Even the expression “They get under my skin”. How can someone do that?

There was a guy I didn’t get on with. He was lackadaisical. He was never organised, always late and thought the world revolved around him.

Hold on was I describing him or myself?

Once I realised that it made what I had to do all the more clear.

I had to become unlike him to get on with him better.

From then on I started to plan ahead and organise myself better. I did what I could to be more punctual. I did my best to acknowledge that I was more a Judy than a Punch.

This person and I will never be best friends, but I now consider him an acquaintance.

If you find yourself disliking someone, look for ways in which your similar. You don’t hate the person you just see aspects of yourself in them, and it leads to that uncanny valley effect.

You see that in society as well. Working class white people are more likely to blame other working class ethnicities. They blame others rather than themselves for their misfortune.

Even political parties are more similar than they are different.

Big societal issues are divisive because both sides are closer to agreement than they are apart. It’s just the details. No one thinks that school shootings are a good thing, it’s how do we prevent them in future is where the arguments start.

All the main religions are agreed that there is an afterlife. The question is not, does the destination exist, it’s, how do we get there?

I’ll be using the term uncanny valley more often on this site. I want to make sure that you know where my heads at when I use the phrase.

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