Archive for February, 2008

The Uncanny Valley

Posted: February 20, 2008 in Culture, Nomenclature

While the larger focus of an article by Jennifer Palmer called “Zombie Apocalypse” is deconstructing our weird zombie fetish in entertainment, the best part is the discussion of a curious term: the uncanny valley. The term finds its origin in robotics (in 1970, according to the Wikipedia article). Although purely theoretical and lacking scientific support, even the soft science of psychology, it goes a long way toward explaining a wave of revulsion we typically feel as objects of our own creation approach realistic human likeness just before they become indistinguishable from real humans.

The theory states that as an object begins to acquire human characteristics, those characteristics stand out from its nonhumanness and we empathize with it. As it begins to look too human but is still recognizably nonhuman, the nonhuman characteristics stand out and we feel revulsion. Once we can no longer tell the robot or doll from a human, we again feel empathy. The valley between the tops of the two empathetic curves is uncanny precisely because humanness is too closely yet imperfectly imitated. The theory draws inspiration from an essay by Sigmund Freud called “The Uncanny.” This graph, unscientific as it is, plots the effect and several objects:


I draw attention to the lack of science to support the theory, but it nonetheless deals with some very real effects we experience and witness with dolls, animation, robots, corpses, and yes, even zombies. Artists who create life-like human forms that blend into crowds at art museums play on this effect. In animation, styled human movement (or animal movement, as is often the case) poses no trouble, but purely CGI characters (as in Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, I Robot, etc.) cause varying levels of discomfort. Those of us who contemplate a possible future with very life-like robots find the idea of it more than a little bit ooky. (more…)

Twisted Buildings

Posted: February 16, 2008 in Idealism, Science, Skyscrapers

One of my first posts on Creative Destruction (my nearly dead group blog) featured comments on a twisting skyscraper design, the Fordham Spire (then the Chicago Spire, now in 2012 just a hole in the ground). That post still draws some hits. Well, it seems that the new self-proclaimed skyscraper capital of the world has copied the twisting building idea (the first is actually a building called Turning Torso in Malmo, Sweden) and intends to erect the Infinity Tower:



(For the politically correct feminist folks, erect is the proper word, since these buildings represent phallic, patriarchal triumphalism in the extreme.) Perhaps it’s such an attractive design that it bears repetition, one per city, let’s say. Whether post-industrial economics can continue to thrust multiple supertall buildings skyward remains to be seen, but for a short while at least, it seems that the undeniable appeal of multibillion-dollar projects with futuristic design aspects will continue to cast aside more humble aspirations.


Posted: February 1, 2008 in Consumerism, Technophilia

My decades old vacuum, a Kirby, has several minor faults that I thought about getting fixed. (Alas, the repair shop I identified is now out of business. Indeed, for many things, the cost of repair far exceeds the cost of replacement.) It still works fine, and the motor and casing are extremely well built. But a few of the plastic parts have broken, I’m out of replacement belts for the roller, and I had yet to replace the (non-HEPA) bag despite over a decade of ownership and use.

So while I was out shopping recently, I decided to see what a new vacuum goes for. New vacuum designs are hardly even recognizable to me as vacuums. They look like some sort of alien plastic contraption with far too much marking of their features directly on the devices. (The prospect of a $400-$500 Dyson vacuum with allergenic filters was just too much for me, though for others I suppose they’re indispensable.) So like toothbrushes, pens and pencils, automobiles, and TVs, they join the ranks of the overdesigned.

Admittedly, some new designs features add worthwhile utility or safety, but it begs the question “What did we ever do before them?” The ergonomics of various grip designs (especially for toothbrushes and writing utensils) certainly makes things more utile for those with arthritis and disabilities. However, is there a point beyond which a redesign or technology upgrade becomes a little … well … ridiculous? I’m thinking specifically about the plethora of soft-grip pens and displays for nighttime driving.

infrared display

How did we ever survive without them?

I ended up buying a new Bissell vacuum. The cost was within my price point, though perhaps beyond the cost of a repair. After using it a couple times, I’ve noticed that the wheels are driven in forward motion, which requires that I only pull the vacuum toward me. I’m certain that pushing the vacuum forward is now too much to expect from such a device, thought the older model I eventually trashed was no problem for me. The dust that escaped the old model is also no match for the new vacuum, which filters and collects everything far more handily.

But what if I were a homesteader in the 19th century with barely even a wire broom to sweep my dirt floors. What on earth would I have done to survive?