The New Uncanny Valley

This is a guest post by Jakub Stachurski

Every advancement in communication has overcome distance through the reduction of identity. The mail summarizes us, the phone condenses us into a voice, and the Internet flattens us into profiles. We become the necessary abstractions of our technology, reduced for the sake of ingestion. Increasingly we spend more time in this reduced identity state of incorporeal flatness than we do in the face-to-face dimension.

“He’s not seeing real people, of course. It’s all part of a moving illustration created by his computer from specifications coming down the fiber optic cable. These people are pieces of software called avatars. They are the audiovisual bodies that people use to communicate with each other in the Metaverse.” — Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

In contrast to Stephenson’s vision of the avatar, our online interactions occur without our bodies in view, lacking gesture, nuance, inflection and all the unconscious bells and whistles that corporeality adds to a conversation. As the propensity for face-to-face conversation decreases, our average interactions are degraded to the primarily text-based messaging and posting that happens through social media platforms. The Internet has become our primary venue for communication but we lack the technology to project our bodies and voices in the manner of Stephenson’s “Metaverse.” 

Online identity is fragmented into artifacts like profile pictures, statuses, Tweets and search results. The reduction of human complexity into a set of artifacts makes identity reproducible and easy to imitate. This creates new opportunities for connoisseurs of identity such as marketers and conmen. Demographic data allows marketers to study identity and recreate its artifacts in the form of brand ambassadors, evangelists, and influencers. For the conmen, it increases the scale of identity theft, creates jobs on Putin’s social media team, and enables catfishing. When the price of identity is negligible it is used to infiltrate bank accounts, democracies, and the human heart. 

Like all successful inventions, the Internet is disappearing from our awareness and fading into the background of routine. As the technology of social networks decreases in novelty, the limitations of its design are becoming invisible. Increasingly the anonymity, rapidity, and brevity of communication built into these networks are influencing our behavior. Since face-to-face interactions are no longer the dominant form of social exchange, we are drawing less of a distinction between identity and its online artifacts. There is a sliding scale of human likeness to be found at the other end of our daily interactions. 

Robotics researcher Masahiro Mori suggests that as the human likeness of a machine (eg. the voice-activated search assistant Siri) increases, so does our affinity for it. When such a human likeness reaches the limitations of its design and fails to provide a lifelike appearance, such as Siri repeating the same phrase because of a glitch, our initial affinity turns into revulsion. When the almost-human shows its bloodless heart we recoil. 

In keeping with Mori’s theory, I suspect that just as technology can create the illusion of a human being at the other end of the screen, it can also create the illusion that a human being is artificial. I propose that such degradation of identity is an extension of Mori’s robotics theory. On the Internet, the human becomes the almost-human through the pervasiveness of online interaction and the limitations of its design. 

We are becoming uncanny to one another through the medium of technology. The mechanical reproduction of identity creates a gap between humans and human-like users on the other side of the screen. The way this manifests is in shifting values (indicated with the ‘>’ sign throughout this essay), contradictions, and subtle behavioral shifts as our online and physical lives become intertwined.

Noise > Signal

Consider the possibility that there are two Internets: Internet 1.0 which explicitly references the real world (eg. LinkedIn) and Internet 2.0 which constructs its own internal logic (eg. memes, shitposting).  On Internet 1.0 valuable information is still distinguished from useless information as it is in real life conversation and commerce. In some segments of Internet 2.0, valuable information is shunned as an anachronism in favor of the useless noise, particularly if said noise is ironic or references other successful noise. Social networks occupy each of these worlds: human users recognize and reward the value of the signal, but in many instances the design of the networks rewards the noise equally. Within a social network, signal and noise can be just as profitable and the only failure is silence. Noise is also cheaper to manufacture and there is less at stake with regards to the reputation of its messenger.  

Value may still  float to the top of social networks – individual writers and thinkers can establish audiences and entrepreneurs can thrive by creating value for others. But arguably there are just as many Instagram influencers, sex tape D-listers, and pimps of partisan melodrama who reap equal rewards from digital communication. This ambiguity accounts for a post-moral affordance of online communication. 

An affordance is an aspect of design which suggests how a particular technology may be used. Nothing about the design of social media explicitly suggests amorality, but the reduction of identity into a set of artifacts also reduces our responsibility towards fellow users. Whereas Mori’s Uncanny Valley is the unbridgeable gap between humans and human-like machines, the New Uncanny Valley houses other users, wherein they appear almost like ourselves but not quite. As a result, we are more likely to become repulsed by them and withhold basic courtesies of mutual respect. 

The Road Rage-ification of the Commons

In incidents of road rage, the anonymizing quality of urban traffic and the insularity afforded by one’s car contributes to context-specific flights of anger. This is similar to how we behave on the Internet. It’s an intrinsic part of our world but we still act like there is an unreal quality to online interactions and take commensurate liberties: amending morality and judgement and becoming more combative, with the added bluster afforded by perceived isolation. As it is with road rage so it is behind a screen: everyone is brave from inside of their dwelling. 

The easiest way to display morality is to compare oneself to another. Recognizing the sins of an outgroup has always been the fallback mode of manufacturing virtue. Since participation in a social network demands production of a quick succession of identity artifacts and statements, we use a backdrop of others against which to define ourselves.

The word ‘avatar’ is derived from the Hindu religion wherein it refers to the form of a god embodied on earth. This etymology contains a truth about a seductive aspect of the Internet: you can mold yourself into an idealized state in the online realm. In its severe form, this kind of god-like moral posturing makes one similar to the character of Comic Book Guy on the Simpsons: a self-appointed tyrant treating others with contempt, the snooty monarch of an irrelevant kingdom.

This is one of the contradictions of the New Uncanny Valley: the faceless mass of data which constitutes other people online is devalued in such self-serving moral posturing but membership in the right faceless mass is highly prized. In the NUV, ‘virtue’ and ‘civility’ are mocked as partisan values. Trolling, internet mobs, and recreational slander thrive. Our perceived online opponents appear almost like people but not quite.

Tribe > Individual 

The design of social networks incentivizes participation in tribes or in-groups and, in turn, devalues individual expression. This results from the flattening of complexity required to make an individual palatable to their purported in-group or network: the more your views differ from the prevailing norm, the smaller the set of subgroups in which you can participate.  

Outliers are punished in this context. Association with outliers is disincentivized by both the tribe and network: liking a Tweet or following a Facebook account is seen as a signal of affiliation or endorsement despite statements to the contrary. If you make the wrong endorsement or signal the wrong affiliation, you risk expulsion by the in-group. This is a case of network effects influencing values through their incentives — if you want to get likes, you adhere to the moral injunctions of your subgroup, risk expulsion or worse, silence. 

The Death of Proximity

Social networks have removed proximity as a precondition of initializing and sustaining relationships. Our potential access to, influence over, and visibility to other people was previously bound by proximity. This was a natural constraint on social affiliation. When proximity is removed as a constraint, our social networks become inundated with a mishmash of interpersonal sediment.

The removal of proximity as a necessity for communicative access has led to the proliferation of purported in-groups. Such illusory affiliations create the phenomenon of acquaintance fatigue: the accumulation of casual social media relationships which, increasingly, fail to reflect everyday reality. Coworkers, fellow students, roommates and associated acquaintances from > 5 years ago constitute the calcification of the personal social network. 

As our social network profiles become inundated with data, we no longer have a choice but to scan the output of our connections instead of reading it (scanning > reading). Our interactions are occluded by the sheer scale of the data created by the network. 

There is a notion of network effects wherein the value of the network grows with each additional node or user. I believe that this is true for the proprietors of the networks, but individual users, who might be supposed to benefit from the increase in social access and information afforded by this equation, end up ill-served by the swollen data flows. Limitless growth sounds appealing in Silicon Valley but the respective interfaces of Twitter and Facebook were not meant to accommodate such high numbers of users. While both sites have implemented significant design changes designed to accommodate the sheer volume of users, the usability and value of these networks seems to have decreased past a certain scale. 

Additionally, when you remove proximity as a fundamental precondition for interaction you increase the likelihood of conflict. Many of our values are influenced by the local environment. As comedian Colin Quinn notes in his one man show Unconstitutional: before the internet, red states and blue states didn’t see each other. 

Dunbar’s Dozen (Network > Proximity)

The majority of my Facebook friends are acquaintances with whom I shared an moment of proximity, like the ex-boyfriends of roommates from a decade ago. Should the disparate voices and personalities of the general populace be offered to us in such unlimited quantities?

Perhaps social affiliation requires portion control. The anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggests that the maximum amount of stable social relationships for an individual is 150. He explains it as “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.”

In keeping with Dunbar’s formulation I propose Dunbar’s Dozen: out of 600 Facebook friends, 12 will help you move. 

Mixed-Attractiveness Couples (Algorithm > Chance)

Algorithms are replacing chance in the way we meet people. This is as true in the Facebook and Twitter follower recommendations as it is in online dating. In the early days of the Internet, face-to-face introductions resumed through online channels. Now one is more likely to meet a person online before meeting them face-to-face. This is one reason why I believe heterosexual dating websites put men at a disadvantage: an algorithm doesn’t allow you to display your intelligence, sense of humor, juggling skills or any of the other gifts nature bestows on a man instead of a chin or a six pack.

Mixed-attractiveness couples are not as prevalent when Cupid’s arrow is guided by pagan image worship and Python algorithms. Online dating websites remove the limitations of proximity and chance as the factors which shape our romantic possibilities. Chance is replaced by algorithms, and proximity is no longer a limiting factor, giving way to self-branding, headshots, and rewarding the connoisseurs of identity. We increase choice but limit complexity and chance.

Conclusion

Some aspects of social life remain the same: instead of talking about the weather we now post pictures and videos of it. Your social status can now be gauged by your follower account instead of the number of people showing up at your party A blue checkmark may signal as much status as a straight back and an upright chin. The Internet has become so omnipresent that the summaries and reductions demanded by our digital identities are increasingly intertwined with our flesh-and-blood lives. 

The New Uncanny Valley finds us detached from the morality of face-to-face exchange and real-world relationships but does not offer an alternate set of principles to take its place. 

Mori’s Uncanny Valley concept captures the effects of making machines more human-like, with byproducts in the form of strangeness and alienation. In offloading our social interactions to technology, we are in the process of taking familiar aspects of being human and making them equally strange. The New Uncanny Valley is the gap between the physical world and its expression on the Internet. It contains contradictions involving social values and personal morality. It is the shadow of the software revolution and manifests in such strange conjunctions of code and flesh as the suicides reported after a data breach at Ashley Madison, a social network for cheaters.

On Internet 1.0, the narratives of our lives continue in digital form. On Internet 2.0, the artifacts of identity are manufactured and assembled for optimal effect. The design of social networks and the inventiveness of other users creates new artifacts, but complexity remains slotted into these set forms. 

In the New Uncanny Valley, the narratives of our lives are reduced to a depleted imitation. They retain some continuity with our personal narratives in digital form, but are also beholden to the optimization techniques of Internet 2.0. This is a similar argument made in the book “Database Animals” by Hiroki Azuma.

Instead of the Internet he talks about the reductions and imitations of identity in Otaku culture. His subject is postmodernity whereas mine is the Internet but we are asking a similar question: on these respective frontiers, “what becomes of the humanity of human beings?”

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Comments

  1. hi there! i have a question in reference to this sentence:

    “This is one reason why I believe heterosexual dating websites put men at a disadvantage: an algorithm doesn’t allow you to display your intelligence, sense of humor, juggling skills or any of the other gifts nature bestows on a man instead of a chin or a six pack.”

    Are you saying that heterosexual men are at a disadvantage in comparison to heterosexual women, or something else? I’m re-reading that sentence and subbing in the word “woman” for “man” and I see no difference. It seems more accurate to say all humans, not just hetero men, are at a disadvantage for dating websites. Could you clarify a bit?

  2. I think it’s pretty clear that *generally* speaking, heterosexual men value physical attractiveness in the opposite sex very highly relative to other not-as-immediately-visible factors such as personality, status, etc. Whereas heterosexual women tend to rank physical attractiveness slightly lower down the priority list relative to those other factors (which are not as immediately apparent in a dating profile).

    [This is a *general* phenomenon when averaged across the entire population – obviously counterexamples do exist, but that’s not the point.]

    Therefore, yes, on a dating website/app, where physical appearance traits are emphasized front-and-center, heterosexual women have an advantage compared to heterosexual men (because they can more easily showcase the attributes which the heterosexual men value most).

    • But it conversely makes it harder for women to evaluate men based on the traits they’d like to evaluate them on. For men (or looks-oriented people of any gender), it makes the selection game easier.

      So really it’s just a win for hot people who only want to date other hot people and don’t care so much about other attributes.

  3. “Since face-to-face interactions are no longer the dominant form of social exchange”

    What is the source for this assertion? And more meaningful, why would you persist in this “life”, given that humans are social creatures who need interaction to produce brain chemicals necessary to our very health? You know, this scenario needn’t be passively fallen into.

    This rather bleak depiction makes me glad again that I chose to live in a < 15,000 person city, where the majority of my social network connections are folks I go to church with, serve on community committees with, etc., rather than stale ex-classroom connections online. I know most of the people in my neighborhood. But also I enjoy participation in online niche interest groups that turn into F2F connections, enlivening my travel experiences. Many of whom would (and some have) help me move.

    Dude, maybe you're doing it wrong.

    • You’re swimming against the tide, and that’s good. The author is describing where the tide is pulling the culture as a whole. It may be depressing to read as a user, but for those of us working on the next generation of social network software (eg fediverse apps like Pleroma, PixelFed, PeerTube, and FunkWhale), articles like these are helpful guides to how we might turn the tide to pull in the direction folks like you are swimming.

  4. As a technology-phile from birth (1937), I see the effects of social networks and Big Data as brain-changing as well as value-changing phenomena. Remember the motivation and funding behind the research that resulted in the Internet: defense! The dissolution of geographical boundaries will be mirrored by evolutionary changes in what it means to be “human.” In fact I suspect the meaning of meaning will also change. Kinda scary.