Digital uncanny strips sense of self

Dark and strange, the uncanny is gradually revealing itself during our digital age. We especially observe the uncanny in cinema — not in the psychotic cat horror flick from the ‘70s aptly named “The Uncanny” (a laughable premise, albeit a satisfying trailer), but rather in animated films such as “The Polar Express” and Pixar’s short film “Tin Toy.”

But what is the uncanny if not a devilish pack of conscious felines? The most widely known uncanny effect in media is coined the "Uncanny Valley" phenomenon – a theory that describes the strange uneasiness we feel upon gazing into a human-like nonhuman face.

To understand the Uncanny Valley, compare two films: “Up” versus “The Polar Express.” Both feature humanoids; in “Up” the characters are cutesy enough to be charming, endearing even. Who doesn’t root for young Russell in his wilderness exploration? Conversely, the characters in “The Polar Express” are too human-like – their eyes gaze like immortal portals, their body movements are mechanically unnatural and as a result, we become unsettled. Creepy dolls, hominid robots and the animated baby from “Tin Toy” scare us because in all these cases, the nonhuman thing suddenly tries to pass as human.

This Uncanny Valley effect is merely one slice of the whole digital uncanny pie. On Thursday, Professor Kriss Ravetto from University of California Davis gave an hour-long guest lecture for free on the Tempe Campus on “Digital Uncannies.” However, the Uncanny Valley effect itself was very briefly mentioned; Professor Ravetto instead chose to explain how other methods in film are able to similarly strip the viewers of their security, placing their bodies in uneasy states.

Stauffer Building B 125: a black and white room. The room was sparsely lit, with twelve thick black cables dropping to the floor from the vaulted white ceiling above. Heavy black curtains clung to stark white walls. A whiteboard etched in faint black marker dwelled in the shadows. Nearly all 50 (or so) students attending the lecture had laptops, while certain reporters were equipped with mere pen and pad, which would soon prove quite contrary to digital uncannies.

Professor Ravetto has a Ph.D. in film and comparative literature; she has extensive knowledge in such topics as post-Soviet reconfiguration in Europe, sexualization of Naziism and fascism, as well as questions of embodiment.

Unfortunately, she also had laryngitis.

“Where does the sense of embodiment take place?” she began. Despite her raspy voice, she made it through the lecture by taking only two sips of water.

First, to define uncanny, Professor Ravetto explained its several characteristics: it “strips thought of its presupposition,” it is an “invasion of the unconscious,” and it fundamentally causes its subjects to experience different time, spaces and perspectives.

“Some examples in the past of the uncanny are ghosts, aliens and automatons, though ghosts and vampires seem to be returning,” she said.

But where does the “digital” part come in? To Ravetto, science and technology are never able to fully capture, or explain, what it means to be human. Sure, we can be defined as assembled particles acting as one animate being, but there is more to being human she said. As media improves, our inability to portray this human essence becomes glaringly obvious she said.

To Ravetto, we have never been able to perfect the human subject in art, but now that digital mediums are evolving, new pathways to the uncanny are opening up (hence realistic characters in video games and animated movies, for instance).

Professor Ravetto’s intro admirably delivered through her scratchy throat laid a fine foundation for an exploration on the digital uncanny. The second half of her lecture delved away from theory and moved toward three specific examples for the digital uncanny.

Bill Viola’s “Quintet of the Silent” is a very slow film that captures five people in joy, fear, agony and astonishment. Human emotions in this piece seem very eerily mechanic when viewed in slow motion. Viola’s other works similarly create this uncomfortably sensation.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s “Close-Up: Shadow Box #3” work uses computer tracking to make the viewer’s shadow appear on a scene – a shadow constructed from tiny snapshots of other people and even the viewer’s own live image.

Finally, “Bodytext” simulates a dance. The real dancer tells the computer word phrases such as “is this remembering or stealing” and “seems like an eternity falling,” and the computer tries to translate these phrases into emotion to accompany the dancer. The text spoken begins to rumble, change colors and ultimately assist the dancer in an interpreted performance. Machine and human work together, uncannily.

For those disappointed in missing out on the guest lecture on Thursday, this particularly lecture was only one part of a weekly series open to the full ASU community that seeks to explore digital media and how it may impact society. Those interested in attending future events such as this can contact Colleen Bivona at

To conclude the event, a student from the crowd asked, “In your opinion, are we currently cyborgs?”

Professor Ravetto smiled. “Sure,” she said with a laugh. “In the way we think of ourselves, we are kind of Cyborgian.”

In our digital age, as we seek answers for the human experience through hardware and software, through internet and cellphones, through news stations and social media, unlike Stauffer B Room 125, humanity might not be so black and white. It might come in shades of uncanny gray.


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