Our course discussions of the simulated has struck a mental note for me, and for this week’s writing, I could think of nothing but the uncanny valley, a concept most often associated with technology and robotics, but just as informative and interesting in any conversation about representation or imitation in photography. The Uncanny Valley was first termed by Japanese robotics professor Masahiro Mori in 1970.
Of Bukimi no Tani Genshō (不気味の谷現象) Mori wrote, “Climbing a mountain is an example of a function that does not increase continuously: a person’s altitude y does not always increase as the distance from the summit decreases owing to the intervening hills and valleys. I have noticed that, as robots appear more humanlike, our sense of their familiarity increases until we come to a valley. I call this relation the “uncanny valley” (Mori, 1970, p. 33). Freud wrote of a similar concept in 1919, Das Unheimliche, translated as “the opposite of what is familiar.” In Freud’s concept, it is the feeling where there is something familiar, yet completely foreign at the same time, resulting in an unnerving cognitive dissonance. The mind tries to rationalize this cognitive dissonance, but ultimately, it wholly rejects the object (rejection thus being far easier and more psychologically comforting than to rationalize). Man, I love those German thinkers.
Mori’s concept can be seen in film-making as in the images below.Whether it’s robots, Mogwai, or digitally rendered dogs and flying bison, our minds rationalize these images within the realm of film, and possibly as supra-photogenic. Of 2011’s The Adventures of Tintin, critic Dana Stevens warned, “With the possible exception of the title character, the animated cast of Tintin narrowly escapes entrapment in the so-called ‘uncanny valley” (Stevens, 2011). The motion capture and life-likeness of the animation proved too unnerving. Kevin Kelly, editor of Wired Magazine, was far more positive, suggesting “we have passed beyond the uncanny valley into the plains of hyperreality” (Kelly, 2012). In video games such as below, much the same is true. These digital images have achieved the hyperreality of the experience of playing games. The repulsion is non-existent for a collective of gamers who get to “be” the representative life-like image.But what of photography? What of the images we consume in our print media and peruse through on internet sites? What does the digital nature of today’s photography mean for our cognitive in the uncanny valley? Does it alter the ritualized nature of our consumption?
Photoshopping has become accepted, where once it was as shameful and artificial as auto tuning in the creation of art, the practice of retouching photographs has become so engrained in the popular culture, it’s nothing but a mere afterthought. We used to assume that every model’s picture was photoshopped, now it’s as if we don’t care. In fact, we have video and memes when the digital is tasked for its retouching. Starlets routinely complain about the loss of authenticity in their glamour shots, arguing the poor message it send teen girls to the digital footprint it leave on the corporeal body. But what about those of us who live purely in the digital retouch?
From varied reports on the internet, she’s a 18 yr old Floridian who promotes herself online as a “living doll.” One of the ways she does so is with photos, like the one above described as “uncanny valley X high fashion” (DRESSMEMUSIC, 2012), and through her YouTube make-up tutorials and fashion blogs, even earning a contract with a Japanese fashion house. She tweets these photos regularly to her near 97,000 followers, many of whom are Japanese anime fans like herself (Hollywood Reporter). Without getting into the “Is it healthy for young girls?” (Whitelocks, 2012) or the “Does she use Adobe AfterEffects?” (Demmi, 2012) debates, I’d much rather discuss the question of it’s perceptible authenticity. It doesn’t matter to me whether Kota Koti is or isn’t digitally enhanced. It’s that for all-intensive purposes, she’s fine with that, and so are thousands or her fans. But for me, she has very much achieved a sense of the uncanny valley. I cannot look at her eyes and their plastic glaze without a shiver of cognitive dissonance. Something is off, and my brain recognizes the askew. Interestingly, in her quest for the doll like, she has in a sense, surpassed it by entering the hyperreality of a “post-photoshop” existence. Is this the future of photography, or have we been here for quite sometime, and the collective cultural cognition is just now catching up?
Demmi. (2012, Mar. 23). “Kota Koti.” Underyourbreath. Retrieved from http://photoshopdeficere.blogspot.com/2012/03/kota-koti.html
DRESSMEMUSIC. (2012, Apr. 15). “Enter the Uncanny Valley”. Dress Me. Retrieved from http://read.dressmemag.com/enter-the-valley/
Hollywood Reporter. “Teen Girls’ Provocative YouTube Beauty Videos a Growing Concern”. Fashion. Retrieved from http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/fash-track/dakota-rose-kota-koti-venus-angelic-youtube-beauty-videos-305947
Kelly, K. (2012, Jan. 2). “Beyond the Uncanny Valley”. The Technium. Retrieved from http://kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2012/01/beyond_the_unca.php
Mori, M. (1970). The uncanny valley. Energy, 7(4), 33-35.
Stevens, D. (2011, Dec. 21). “Tintin, So So”. Slate. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/movies/2011/12/adventures_of_tintin_review_spielberg_s_motion_capture_adventure_has_its_charms_but_it_s_no_raiders_.html
Whitelocks, S. (2012, Mar. 29). “Meet the real-life Barbies: Internet craze sees teenagers turn themselves into freakish living dolls”. Daily Mail. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2122177/Meet-real-life-Barbies-Internet-craze-sees-teenagers-turn-freakish-living-dolls.html