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Cultural Uncanny Valley

Read on for an semi-complete essay written in the spirit of silliness. It's an old draft I wanted to wrap up now that we are in the final countdown to entry 2000 (three to go).

I find it hard to make cultural comparisons when I'm in Japan. I don't get that Lost-in-Translation feeling that I do when I visit Europe. While I am mostly ignorant of Japanese culture, the places I visit there are familiar: they are where my first memories were formed. This familiarity makes it difficult to find anything culturally novel or different. The cultural comparisons I make are often comparing American culture in Japan to American culture in the US. Everything is one size smaller at Starbucks and the toilet is really nice. There's eggs on my "American" hamburger. That t-shirt has funny English. These comparisons, especially when they involve consuming lots of food and buying ironic t-shirts, entertain me during my travels. There is line, though, a Cultural Uncanny Valley, beyond which amusement drops into semiotic confusion.

I was continually shocked at seeing Japanese teenagers dressed up hip-hop style. I could say that I was concerned about American mass media eliminating cultural heterogeneity, but no, the twinge in my stomach was visceral: it looked wrong. The clothing was the same, but something was off. Was it the arrangement? Was it too impeccable? I don't know. What mattered was the context was wrong. It's the same sense of wrong-ness I get when I see an American with a Chinese character tattoo. The teenagers adorn themselves with hip-hop symbols and the Americans with Chinese symbols, but both achieve a semiotic vacuum: symbols stripped entirely of meaning.

I did not want to be guilty of cultural hubris, so I asked a Japanese friend about the marijuana leaf air fresheners in Japan that I had seen these everywhere, from the rearview mirror of a monk's car to in a kids' store next to Minnie Mouse. The response to my question was, "Really, those are marijuana? I thought they were maple leaves." From my single data point I felt comfortable continuing in my exploration of the semiotic vacuum. The discovery of the Cultural Uncanny Valley was confirmed.

The Uncanny Valley is a concept that is usually applied to robots, mannequins, zombies, clowns, 3D animations of humans, and other anthropomorphic endeavors. The belief is that as a creation becomes more human, we initially have a greater attraction to it. A cute stuffed animal or cartoon can evoke a positive emotional response. Look at it's doe-y eyes. They're so adorable. But if it gets too near human, our attraction immediately turns into revulsion. A robotic face tries to smile and, instead of smiling back, we can't help but feel weird. This Rocketboom video can illustrate. It isn't until creations get very close to being human that our revulsion dies down and we climb back out of the Valley.

The Cultural Uncanny Valley is the same idea applied to cultural re-creations. A good designer can incorporate aesthetic symbols from other cultures and come up with a clever fusion that we admire -- cultural syncretism is the basis of American culture. But if the designer borrows too heavily, cleverness becomes oddness. What was a graceful tip of the hat to Japanese furniture design starts to look like a cheap Pier One knock off. The symbols that were incorporated into the design try to take over, but they can't because they're outside of their own culture and the design isn't theirs. It isn't until the recreation becomes near perfect that the symbols can break out and say, "I am a Japanese lamp." Even then they may not be free of the Cultural Uncanny Valley.

My thoughts on the Cultural Uncanny Valley first started when I went to a design shop on 4th Street in Berkeley. There was a mix of Alessi, Starck, and other sorts of high-priced modern design decor. Also in the shop were Japanese stuffed animals made out of fabric scraps. I recognized them immediately -- my mom had several I used to play with as a kid. But in this store they were sitting inside of special plastic display boxes next to expensive designer clocks. They are now collector's items, treated like zoo animals. I wandered around the store looking at other familiar Japanese artifacts totemically arranged, all the while failing trying to come up with a snarky comment to say the cashier. Instead I handed her my credit card so that I could "rescue" one of the fabric scraps.

Why were these Japanese items at the store trapped in the Valley? They weren't recreations; they were the real symbols, now encased in plastic. It had to be something outside the symbol itself. I never get that Uncanny Valley feeling when I visit Comic-Con, where there is an entire market based on turning Japanese toys into collector items. Those Comic-Con vendors are selling Japanese toys to a sub-culture that has long re-appropriated Japanese toys. Twenty years ago I may have found it odd, but now I'm just amused at the ludicrous amounts of money the vendors make. What bothered me in the Berkeley store was that there was no cultural context for seeing the toys in plastic boxes on the shelf. They had taken something I knew, stripped it of all cultural context, and turned it into high class designer kitsch. Perhaps given enough time they'll succeed and I'll no longer find it strange to see the fabric scrap animals there. The most likely outcome is that they'll find something else from another culture to populate their shelves.

The future of the Cultural Uncanny Valley is less certain. It depends on whether or not you believe that we are headed towards a convergence of global culture or if we will continue to live in a cross-pollinating ecosystem of cultures. For tourists, the distinction is whether we buy German kitsch at a German tourist stand or whether there is one global kitsch that can be bought at any tourist stand in the world. For the Cultural Uncanny Valley, the distinction is, as Americans fill up the Valley with kitsch and the rest of the world piles in American pop, whether we find the Valley is infinitely deep or we fill it all the way up, stand on top of the pile and declare victory.

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This page contains a single entry from kwc blog posted on March 8, 2006 1:13 AM.

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