Friday, January 15, 2010

Uncanny Valley Girls

In robotics research, they've found that there's a general tendency for people to prefer robots who look more human. However, at a certain point, this tendency suddenly reverses - people find robots who look almost but not quite human to be creepy and somewhat repelling. This phenomenon has been dubbed the 'uncanny valley'. As many video game players can attest, the uncanny valley can also apply to digitally animated characters.
On the website TVTropes, they have a page where people provide personal experiences of the uncanny valley. I read this page through, and was disturbed to find the following quotes:

"This troper has a cousin with severe genetic defects. On the surface, she looks like an ordinary girl of her age. But spend even a minute in her presence, and the defects become apparent. Not only is she unable to stand upright without support and has seizures, but she is mentally retarded to the point that this troper isn't sure if she's truly sentient. She's like an animal in a human body - and yet she is kin.

  • This troper has a great-aunt who's mentally retarded to the point that she has the mind of a four-year-old... despite being in her late 50's. Every time his family goes to visit her, he can't help but be really, really creeped out.
  • Two Words: Tear Jerker.
  • That's why I can't substitute teach in EC, (what used to be called "Special Ed") classes. My empathetic side feels sorry for them, but every other instinct is calling for retreat. The exaggerated cheerfulness of the other teachers in there doesn't help. They pretty much have to do that to register on the kids."

"This troper has inherited her mother's very pale skin and tall, painfully thin build (aided by a metabolism running at the general speed of a Concorde), along with strabismus (more commonly known as 'squint') in the left eye. This makes it seem as if she isn't looking directly at the person with whom she is speaking (when in fact actually she is) and coupled with the rest of her inadequacies, it makes for a probably overall unsettling image. She has gotten used to the odd looks and sometimes rude remarks and generally tries to dispel them with good humor, an application of subtle self-tanning lotion and a pair of dark-tinted glasses when out in public."

"This troper Has always had issues with pictures of birth defects. Not so much disfigurements from an accident or something, just anything congenital or genetic. There's just something about humans being born looking inhuman that makes me feel like nature isn't to be trusted, and the world is a really squicky place on a primordial level. I saw a commercial for some Discovery Channel show about The Elephant Man when I was around eight, and... Well, needless to say, I didn't watch Discovery for a while after, and that commercial was literal Nightmare Fuel for me off and on for years after. Which probably means this is more like Nightmare Valley for me."

"Not sure where to put this, so I'll just put it here. Many/most Aspies (definition from the other wiki - by the way, no matter what it says, yes we have a sense of humour), This Troper included, both ignore the Uncanny Valley and fall victim to it. ... We fall victim to it in our interactions with those strange creatures known as 'neurotypicals' (you call yourselves 'normal' ;P), where many people pick up on something subtly 'wrong' about us and treat us according to their beliefs on 'different', varying from 'intriguing' or 'finally, someone interesting', through 'humour him, edge away slowly', all the way to 'DIFFERENT EQUALS BAD, DESTROY!'. I'll let you decide for yourselves what this does to someone over a lifetime."

"This Troper have met the Uncanny Valley in a bus. She (it?) looks like a young woman, but thinner than every single thin woman. She must be suffering severe anorexia, to the point were you can see her bones. Yeah, literally, all she got was some flesh left on her bones. Combined with a pale, cadaveric skin, and a black robe in wich she seems to float... Looking at her was like looking to a human skeleton. She was creepy enough, but then she starts to move, like a disincarnate puppet; her arms reaching slowly to the door, straight as two pieces of wood, shivering lightly. And then, she gasps. Ooooooh boy, that was Nightmare Fuel !"

These quotes, as well as some others, indicate that certain real, living people, due to various disabilities, fall into uncanny valley for some people. Does this mean they don't see us as really, truly human? Is this related to disability discrimination? Is it possible for these people to get over this reaction and learn to accept us anyway?

[Note: for those who have trouble with puns - 'Valley girls' are people from a certain region who have a distinctive way of talking ('like, gag me with a spoon'). I'm making a pun on valley girls and the uncanny valley to talk about people in the uncanny valley.]


Blogger thinkingdifference said...

I went to check the TVTropes site and I have to say I didn't quite understand what it was all about. It seemed like a site where people write fiction? In any case, it seemed pretty poorly done.
On a different note, good work with this blog. It intellectually challenges the reader!

5:56 PM  
Blogger Adelaide Dupont said...

I love the Tropes.

Indeed last year, I was checking out lots of them, especially This is SPARTA!

TVTropes tells stories about what we expect to have happen in our fiction. Often, they are so common that they appear in lots of stories. (Tropes are a Greek word for things which happen in drama, concepts or archetypes).

They arrange them by genre or medium (for example: TV, movies, video games, literature).

And you could spend millions of years on that site. Well, hours.

When I was on The Middle of Nowhere: Ela Mika's blog (she is a Kazimierz Dabrowski scholar: check out his Theory of Positive Disintegration) I read about Aiko, who is VERY Uncanny Valley, and supposedly has everything the average man could want in a female significant other. There is neoteny and a lot of other stuff.

10:19 PM  
Blogger Adelaide Dupont said...


Nowhere the Middle by Ela Mika

And here is the 2nd January post:

Aiko the ideal woman

10:21 PM  
Blogger Ettina said...

TVTropes is mostly about 'tropes', which are common motifs in stories, such as the funny sidekick.
The particular page I linked to is part of TroperTales, a section where people share their own experiences with various tropes playing out in real life.

11:35 AM  
Blogger Andrea Shettle, MSW said...

"thinking difference": A "trope," as I understand it, is basically any element (it might be a type of character, or a type of sub-plot) that appears again and again throughout many fictional creations (TV, movie, etc.)

Someone here gave the example of a "funny sidekick" -- considered a "trope" because many movies, TV programs, etc. have a main character accompanied by a sidekick who is funny.

An example of a plot element considered a "trope" could be "bad guy has sudden epiphany and redeems himself" -- a subplot common to certain types of movies, etc.

The TVTropes site highlights all the various "tropes" that people can find and analyzes them, including analysis of why "tropes" become "tropes" in the first place (why people respond in certain ways to these tropes or why we tend to want them and look for them in fiction). I don't really read it much, though I have occasionally found an interesting article there.

Re, Ettina's question: Yes, it does seem plausible to me that, for some people, the so-called "uncanny valley" effect could be why they instinctively dehumanize (and then discriminate against) people with disabilities.

Can it be overcome? Only if the person recognizes this tendency in themself and also realizes that it is a tendency that can lead to appalling responses if they don't take responsibility for working to overcome it. Sadly, from the tone of some of the comments you quote here, I suspect that at least some of the people participating in that discussion thread in TVTrope seem to be lacking in the self insight they need -- they don't seem to be questioning whether there is anything wrong with the way that they continue to allow people with disabilities to trigger that "uncanny" response for them. I suspect that people who do feel discomfort at their own "uncanny response" probably aren't sharing their insights with this discussion thread--they're too busy wrestling with their conscience and (I hope) seeking out ways to overcome their own prejudice.

4:05 AM  
Blogger Lindsay said...

I sometimes get people, even fairly close friends, reacting to me in an uncanny-valley way.

There was a period after the first (school) year in my friendship with this guy who later became one of my very closest friends in the world (and me his, for that matter) when he kind of hoped I would forget about him over the summer, since, while he did like me well enough and didn't want to actually drive me off, I also creeped him out in a big way. Not because of anything I did, just because he had lots of undigested Issues with disability, and I made him uncomfortable by being obviously different. He got over it, but this was a fairly significant problem in our relationship that probably wouldn't have come up if we were both neurotypical.

5:09 PM  
Blogger Amanda Forest Vivian said...

some of those quotes are incredibly disgusting. "ooh, uncanny valley, I want to retreat from people with intellectual disabilities!" what fucking assholes. so society has totally brainwashed you into being afraid of other humans, just because they're different. why are you bragging about it on the Internet?

3:33 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home