A Summer Home in the Uncanny Valley

The Uncanny (Ger. Das Unheimliche — literally, “un-home-ly”, but idiomatically, “scary”, “creepy”) is a Freudian concept of an instance where something can be familiar, yet foreign at the same time, resulting in a feeling of it being uncomfortably strange.

“uncanny valley”; coined by roboticist Masahiro Mori…The hypothesis holds that when robots and other facsimiles of humans look and act almost like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers.


Since coming across and posting the Sugar Krinkles cereal box
Sugar Krinkles Cereal Clown picture a few days ago, I’ve been obsessing over it as my mind is wont to do. It doesn’t help that I’ve been awake and at home for most of the time between then and now. Not because I was worried that a manic and possibly supernatural white face circus clown was going to chase me down, rip my heart out, and stuff the hole with cotton candy, but because over the past few days Mrs. Storm was getting ready for, had, and is now recovering from an arthroscopic procedure. It went very well and she’s recuperating like a champ, thank you very much, but my mind’s coping mechanism, apparently, was to cling to the clown.

The upshot is that with the help of the internets, I now know more about the history of the breakfast cereal industry, its mascots and advertising, and circus clowns in America than most people would consider healthy. I’ll have much, much more to say about all of that another time, but a post by our friend Marian Call brought on a more self-contained realization: years from now, history will show that white face circus clowns prepared humanity to ultimately accept routine interaction with and/or to be destroyed by robots.

Please understand that I have an incredible amount of respect for the art of clowning, and it is not my intent to lay the blame for the demise of the human race at their outrageously-large and bulbous feet. But clown lineage dates back to ancient Greece, which means that over a span of 2,500 years humanity has been steadily desensitized to people whose appearance and behavior might otherwise have us running to the kitchen for a meat cleaver:

Bear in mind that the purpose of that ad was to sell cereal to kids–AND IT WORKED. So if little children can keep their shit together in the face of such an uncanny onslaught, shouldn’t we all be able to get over the vestigial ooginess we feel when confronted with even state-of-the-art humanesque automatons?

Less cadaver-like than most! Not trying to sell you sugary cereal! And unless equipped with a superior intelligence, completely harmless*!

I will confess that I’ve always been more fascinated than creeped out by the uncanny, so my conclusions may be suspect. But I really do believe that although the “ewwwww!” reflex may have helped our caveman ancestors recognize and avoid contact with the diseased (may seem cruel, but they didn’t have Cipro), or helped keep them from screwing Neanderthals (probably happened anyway), all it does today is slow down the development of really cool robots.

I can hear many of you shouting out “Maybe that’s exactly what the instinct is for–haven’t you seen BSG?!” Yes I have. Every last episode. But if our race could survive 2,500 years of clown onslaught, surely we can manage the Cylons.

So relax! You’re all invited to my summer home in the uncanny valley, where all we have to fear is…clown Cylons.

*excludes the possibility that the robots are “playing possum” until the time is ripe to destroy us.

One Comment

  1. Posted March 9, 2011 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    First I’ve come across the ‘Uncanny Valley’ phrase, but linking clowns and our future robotic overlords is a clear sign we’re headed towards the apocalypse faster than I had thought.

    I don’t know why clowns hit such a nerve, but they do. My wife hates them. A friend’s mom used to paint dozens of sad ones on black velvet. And just when you think you’re rid of them, Judy Collins comes around and sends in another bunch of them.

    At least their cousins, the mimes, are easy to spot. And you never hear them complaining.

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