The uncanny valley is a lie

Has everybody heard about the uncanny valley? The idea is that the closer art gets to mimicking life, specifically in reference to human beings, the less likely that we are to find these representations attractive. OK, that was confusing, let me try again. I know you’re thinking, Rob, you’re writing, you can’t just write bad sentences and then write, “Wait let me try again.” There’s supposed to be some sort of editing process, where instead of telling everybody to wait, I should just rewrite the sentence and replace the bad sentence. But look, I’ve already gotten a whole paragraph out of this, whereas if I did an edit and a rewrite, I’d only have one sentence.

So let me try again. The uncanny valley. It’s all about computer graphics, about CGI humans, like digital animation, like The Polar Express or that Final Fantasy movie. Experts like to draw graphs, and the graphs always show that, when you’re animating something, the more lifelike the animations get, the more they’ll evoke a kind of negative reaction from the viewer. I know it’s confusing. I should just read an article on the Internet about it and paraphrase. But I’m not going to. You’re just going to have to deal with my half-baked explanation.

The actual term “uncanny valley” refers to these graphs that these scientists make. They correlate the realism of an animation with an audience’s positive reaction. Once the graph gets to a certain level of being too life-like, the graph drops, eliciting an almost entirely negative response from the audience. This is the valley, and it’s absolutely uncanny.

But I don’t buy it. And that’s the point that I’ve been trying to get at for the better part of three paragraphs. Again, I could do some serious editing here, but I like to think that there’s something about me commenting about my writing process as I’m writing, in real time. Like it’s charming or something. And then I don’t have to do any editing. Sure it’s distracting, what am I talking about? Am I talking about the uncanny valley or am I talking about writing? I’m talking about both, at the same time. I’m weaving in and out.

I think the uncanny valley is bullshit. I think it’s a cop-out, a way for computer animators to write off their inability to make decent human animations. Look at my examples from earlier, The Polar Express, that Final Fantasy movie. Why are audiences turned off? It’s easy for a bunch of professionals to get together and say, “Well, it’s not that our animation was poor or that the movie just sucked, let’s whip up some graph and analyze and theorize and come to the conclusion that the movie itself wasn’t terrible, it’s that human beings are inherently predisposed to not enjoy computer rendered illustrations of human beings. Harumph.”

That sounded pretty scientific, right? I’m talking about my writing again, not about the uncanny valley. Well, I’m still talking about the uncanny valley, but I’m doing more of a little critique here. I feel like I’m actually suffering a little bit from the formula I’ve laid out for myself here, this whole, “Let’s write about something and then keep commenting on it.” It might have been interesting the first one or two times I did it, and I’m not even saying it actually was interesting, I’m just saying that it might have been interesting. Regardless of whether it was ever interesting or not interesting, I can look back at what I’ve written so far, I can think about the words being typed on the screen right now, and I can definitely conclude that, at the very least, there they are, a whole document. On bad writing days I could at least stop now and think to myself, whatever, at least it looks like a blog post. It’s the right length.

But wait a second, maybe this is like my own version of the uncanny valley. I’ve taken it to the next level. I’m commenting and critiquing my commenting and critiquing. And it’s not working out. Maybe it’s not my fault. Maybe it’s all of humanity’s fault, that there’s something in our genes that makes it impossible for anybody to see and appreciate the inherent genius in all of this. Yeah, that’s it. I’m also going to call this the uncanny valley. Who’s going to stop me? Is the phrase trademarked? I don’t care if it is or isn’t.

I think about the uncanny valley and I think about paintings, about great paintings, about masterpieces. One time I had to go to an art museum for a class, and I took a turn through this hall of Dutch realist painters. I think they were realist painters, but I’m not an expert on art, or on Dutch, and I’m not pretending to be. Names like Rembrandt are flying through my head, but I have no idea if that guy was even Dutch, or what his first name was. But it’s not important. What is important is that all you have to do is to take one look at a master painter’s portrait of another human being and you can say with certainty that the uncanny valley is total bullshit. These are illustrations and depictions of humans made with pigments and oils and brushstrokes, and when you look at them, you’re filled with a sense of wonder, like how can this be so lifelike? It’s a canvas. I know it’s a painting. But it looks alive.

I’ve taken painting classes before. And I’ve done some shitty paintings. I’ve done some shitty portraits. It would be really easy for me to look at a shitty portrait I’ve done and say, well, it’s not my fault it’s shitty, it’s the uncanny valley’s. And then I think about computer animation and I think, there’s no uncanny valley, there just hasn’t been somebody in this very new and very rapidly evolving medium of CGI that’s really shown us what it’s capable of. Imagine what painting was like before a truly great painter came around. It was probably just a bunch of terrible cave drawings, and all of the cave scientists came around and said, well, painting is just an inadequate medium. It cannot produce greatness. There is an unbridgeable gulf between what is possible and what we’d like to see.

And then a great master painter came along and was like, “Oh yeah? Well what do you think of this!” and he whips out a Mona Lisa or something equally brilliant, and everyone is just speechless. But not only are they speechless, they can now look at the technique, and they can begin to see how it was done, and they study it and replicate the success. And they’re like, “Ohhhh … so there was no uncanny valley. It’s just that nobody knew how to paint until this master painter showed us the way.” And to make my point, finally, this is what it has to be like with CGI. Someday somebody is going to make an insane representation of life with computer graphics and it’s going to be like, who was that jerk that came up with the uncanny valley? That severely limited intellect that tried to scientifically explain why art is simply impossible?

And that guy will be like, “Yeah … that guy was such a jerk,” pretending it wasn’t him, as he slinks off into the background of history, hoping that humanity will forget all about him, his name, his lackluster legacy in the unimaginative halls of uncanny stupidity.

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