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Do Museums House the Simulacrum Threat?

August 15, 2008

I know in advance I’m probably way off base here, but this very brief interview with Alison Griffiths at the Columbia University Press blog about her new book Shivers Down Your Spine and the Immersive View kept making me think of “the uncanny valley.”

If you have spent any time on the internet (and given where you’re reading this, I’m certain you have) you have probably heard of the “the uncanny valley,” which is a measure of likeablity for various kinds of “human facsimiles” (robots, muppets, cartoons, etc) that runs from “Super Creepy” to “Totally Great.” I’m going to be pretty general here, if you want something less so, then click the previous link. Basically our willingness to accept certain human forms rises very slowly as facsimiles move from not-human (one of those robot arms that puts bolts in car doors) to an attractive healthy human. But somewhere around Tom Hanks’ character in The Polar Express the general level of acceptability plummets before it rises again with actual humans on the other side of this “uncanny valley,” the unhappy denizens of which are often described as “corpselike.”

At any rate, there’s something here, I think for philosophers in the Baudrillardian tradition. Is Griffiths correct in assuming that the shiver we feel upon entering “the rainforest in the Hall of Biodiversity at the American Museum of Natural History” is rooted in ” a sense of the infinite and divine” as when we enter a Gothic cathedral; are the “shivers down our spine” really inspired by “a disjunct between what we see and feel and what we know is happening to us” similar to the ticklebelly feeling of watching Batman leap from a Hong Kong skyscraper in The Dark Knight in IMAX? Or, as the interviewer asks, is it more akin to the “shivers down our spine” we get from horror movies, something rooted in the reptilian part of our brain that seeks survival when confronted with the existential threat of the Artificial pursuing dominance over the Organic? Are we staring into the abyss and recognizing that the face of the beast that looks back is this one?

https://i0.wp.com/www.smh.com.au/ffximage/2005/11/14/Polar_051114104811699_wideweb__300x375.jpg

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One comment

  1. I was creeped out by certain lifelike CGI graphics and such even before I heard of this phenomenon, and my gut feeling was always that it’s a bit like the inadvertent and embarrassing reflex of being taken aback when we unexpectedly see someone who’s, say, missing an arm.

    I think we experience revulsion at disability / death because of empathy, which I think is evolution’s way of making sure we prefer health and make decisions which promote it. In other words, if we see another primate lose his arm by harassing a tiger, or something, and we have sufficient empathy (and revulsion), we’ll be good and motivated to choose not to undertake the same activity.

    So I think that when human-like dolls or cartoons are simple, they don’t look a bit like humans, and all is well. And when they look exactly like humans, all is well. But when they look like sick humans, or humans with something amiss, or dead humans, we feel that revulsion.



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