Uncanny Valley

In 1970, Masahiro Mori, a robotics professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, made a powerful observation about representations. As representations become human looking -- Mickey Mouse for example -- they charm us. However Mori recognized, as they approach realism, human-almost-like, they reach a point where they creep us out. Once they become highly realistic, my favorite is the Rembrandt self portrait in the Gardner Museum in Boston, they again become more attractive to the human gaze. He called that creepy place between charm and attraction, the uncanny valley.

Animators since then have wandered into the uncanny valley at their peril, (Polar Express: am I right?)

Good morning family, friends, colleagues, collaborators, all of you represented by pixels on my screens. Welcome to another day at our summer camp in the Uncanny Valley.

First, gratitude for all of you. Gratitude for meaningful work. Gratitude for the internet and, particularly to you, Tim Berners-Lee. Gratitude for the decision, seemingly extravagant at the time, to bring a fiber optic cable to my 210-year-old house.

At the same time, I’ve been coming to terms with how much energy I derive from being in close proximity to other humans. I’m finding what I miss most on a daily basis, are the simple interactions with strangers and acquaintances in the shops, at the pool, in the post office and bank. I’m near to heartbroken at the loss of sitting side by side, working shoulder to shoulder, standing toe to toe, joining hands, getting and giving pats on the back, and, when I have to hand it to you, actually getting to hand it to you. All these expressions that, on New Year’s Day 2020, were cliches, are now poignant reminders of loss.

And through it all, I’m impressed at our amazing human ingenuity and the speed at which nicely designed markers designating six-foot distances, plexiglass screens with optimal cutouts, stylish masks, curbside pickup, and ubiquitous hand-sanitizer dispensers have appeared.

Nonetheless, the energy it takes from me to remember the mask, resist the handshake, stand apart; in short treat you, my companions, as though you may be toxic to me and I to you, is taxing. And visiting with your collection of pixels in the Uncanny Valley is unsettling and requires more conscious application of my attention and energy.

As someone who places a lot of stock in statistics, I’m dismayed by the headlong rush by some into unveiled proximity. However, it’s hard for me to criticize. Closeness, openness, and transparency are core values for me. We have mysterious drives to close the gap among ourselves. I don’t see it as a bad thing to find each other irresistible, and to find the simulacrum unsatisfying.

When we’re trying to comply with one of our own expectations, it’s important to know why it’s hard. What exactly am I craving? Can I find a meaningful substitute? If not, how do I manage the loss?

In our current condition, it’s glib to think virtual presence replaces physical presence. For some it does, Does it for you? If I’m energized by the huddle: locking eyes, linking arms, holding together: the virtual one doesn’t substitute. We can manage it, but not without accounting for what’s missing.

Don’t know where. Don’t know when, Don't know when. In meantime, I’m grateful for your perplexing, pixelated, presence.

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