It seems that nearly every article on technology and culture I read these days references Masahito Mori’s concept of the uncanny valley at some point. It’s entered the intense late-meme phase which makes me think it’s about to be obliterated by some hot new techno-trope. But I think the underlying idea of the uncanny valley is actually a robust way of looking at other forms of cultural dissonance and estrangement that have nothing whatsoever to do with robots.
For instance, before I even came across the term, I had identified for myself something that looks to me like an uncanny valley of history: the period between the end of living memory—for practical purposes, about 100 years ago—and the beginning of what we are comfortable thinking of as history because there is substantial scholarship on the primary documents—roughly 125 years ago. In that uncanny valley we can’t quite find our familial connection to history any longer, but it’s close enough that it doesn’t yet feel completely autopsied by conflicting lineages of critical scholarship. Right now, that valley falls roughly between 1890 and 1915. Others might place the valley slightly differently, or even disagree that it exists at all, but it certainly exists for me.
I’ve recently identified a second, more culturally bound, uncanny valley pertaining to digital culture. This valley exists in the 70 years between 1923—before which nearly all printed matter is out of copyright in the United States—and roughly 1993—when the generation of early web adopters began putting the documents of their lives online. Although a good deal of writing and other media from this uncanny valley has been uploaded, a lot of it is behind paywalls of one kind or another (including the copyright-driven paywalls of Amazon.com and its ilk). Huge amounts of pre-1923 media have been uploaded through Project Gutenberg, Google Books, YouTube, major libraries and archives, and oddball projects like BiblioOdyssey. At the near end of the valley, you can find important or just interesting writings, artworks, and documentation by all the digerati online for free (as well as some behind paywalls). For a lot of what’s in the uncanny valley itself, you have to buy the materials online, pirate them, or go to a traditional dead-tree library. I’m not saying it’s not worth the effort to do this—far from it!—but that as one reads, skims, surfs, browses, and devours one’s way around the web these days, it can feel as if Rudyard Kipling is closer to us than William Faulkner, R. Austin Freeman than Sara Paretsky, D.W. Griffith than the Marx Brothers, Julia Margaret Cameron than Margaret Bourke-White.
What’s your uncanny valley?