Situationist Activism and the Uncanny Valley

There’s a superbly cool hypothesis in robotics that I’ve been in info-fatuation about lately called Uncanny Valley, which discusses the comfort that humans feel in relation to the “humanness” of a machine. Essentially the argument goes something like this: human empathy and familiarity with a robot increases as it becomes more human-like until a vague point very close to a complete human likeness — during which there’s a sudden drop in a human comfort with the object. (a good example is fear of zombies, or clowns –thanks Xtina–, or mannequins)

This much seems intuitively true, but non-obvious. However, I feel that the Uncanny Valley hypothesis doesn’t go far enough. I think the insight isn’t limited to the way robots are constructed, but to the way environments exist more generally, and to the way situationist activist movements have worked in the past, and how they might work in the future.

Consider the graph above with a new axis — the “X” being the spectrum from “No Resemblance to Normality” and “Total Resemblance to Normality” with the “Y” remaining “comfort” or “familiarity.” The shape of uncanny valley remains the same. Most people are clearly uncomfortable with an entirely non-normal universe — a la in the case of heavy hallucination. Similarly, they become more comfortable operating in environments that are increasingly “normal” — a foreign culture versus your own, for example . Until you hit the far end of the X-axis, where things are completely recognizable.

But there is a space, lying just below this level of complete normality — where things remain highly recognizable but changed in an unusual way — which has an Uncanny Valley effect. This is a September 11th for example, or something like the dramatic effect you get out of a movie like Children of Men.

Arguably, the 60s counterculture centered on exploiting the “Uncanny Canyon” on the left side of the chart to shock society out of complacency and into a new frame of thinking. It was, as has been commented, actually a pair of movements. One against external forces, in terms of using huge distortions of reality as a force against the establishment. (One thinks of Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests) One internally as well, through the work of Timothy Leary and the use of psychedelics as a form of self-discovery. Both are premised on the positive force of the discomfort caused by entirely altering the “normalcy” of the environment into a space with no resemblance to everyday life at all.

Modern situationism, however, takes quite a different tack. One thinks of work by Banksy and the Yes Men, and the phenomenon of Flash Mobs and Subtervising. These, definitively, exploit the Uncanny Valley for their punch. They are premised on fighting the establishment by appropriating symbols, shifting the intended purpose of public (now private) space, or creating bizarre reality hacks that merely remix the cultural context, as opposed to providing something entirely surreal.

And, while modern situationism has done exceedingly well in proposing their external revolution — it’s unclear if there has been a paired internal revolution proposed. But, I think there’s an argument to be made that all political movements contain this dual revolution both externally and internally just by the inherent logic of political movements: fighting against something means that you have determine not only how you fight, but also who you are fighting (and in doing so, define yourself as different).

So the question becomes, where will the internal personal revolution of self-discovery for the new situationism come from, how will it operate uniquely in the uncanny valley? How can the uncanny valley become a dual-purpose arena for the external and internal fight for culture hackers?

There’s a hint of it in the movie “Brazil,” where the only escape from an increasingly closed and private-space centered society is inside your mind, but how that translates into method, I’m not sure.

Questions to ponder…any opinions, oh dear readers?


2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Christina said,

    Interesting theory, but I don’t know if I completely agree that it’s the “uncanny valley” effect that we’re really dealing with. Uncanny valley means that things like “Children of Men” or “Brazil” are creepy to us because they’re almost the same as our world, but not quite–in the same way that CLOWNS are creepy because they’re almost the same, but not quite. I think that those films are creepy yes, because of their similarity to our current situation, but more because of the “Oh shit it could happen here” mentality than uncanny valley.

  2. 2

    switchbladecapslock said,

    True — there’s certainly that dynamic there — I guess it’s difficult to parse it out since it depends so much on how the viewer experiences the media. Though even the “oh shit it could happen here” mentality is arguably kind of an uncanny valley effect. A la the fear factor of zombies as “oh shit that could be me.” It’s scary because we identify with the object whose behavior is changed.

    But, I think the point about situationist activism stands. Like the Yes Men? I think totally more in an uncanny valley genre than a far-left of the chart uncanny canyon effect. (That they look and smell like WTO people, but behave like a clown of a WTO official would)

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