Of course, every metaphor carries its own baggage. For example, maybe bitcoin is “money.” Money surfaces all the emotional chaos surrounding credit, debt, thrift, riches, banks, bankruptcy. Or maybe bitcoin is a weapon, or cult esoterica. Maybe it’s the dark internet or benign nonsense. With any of those hypotheses comes a set of associations, aversions, even attractions. At the same time, metaphors are poor things that never adequately illuminate the things they stand in for. We’re practiced in the old connections from glittery gold to paper dollars to all that money connotes, but connecting bitcoin (which I defy any reader to clearly picture) to good old coins, the minted ingots used by our grandpas and ancient Romans alike, is a taxing mental operation.
To put it simply: Much of digital technology seems to be, in the words of our YouTube debunker, not in sync. It doesn’t quite track. Twitter emotion doesn’t rise and fall the way human emotions do. Similarly, death, final by definition, is not final in Super Mario 0dyssey. GPS tech is not true to the temperature and texture of physical landscapes. Alexa of Amazon’s Echo sometimes seems bright, sometimes moronic, but of course she’s neither; she’s not even a she, and it’s a constant category error to consider her one.
Living in the flicker of that error—interacting with a bot as if its sentiments were sentiments—is to take up residence in the so-called uncanny valley, home to that repulsion we feel from robots that look a lot, but not exactly, like us, a phenomenon identified nearly 50 years ago by robotics professor Masahiro Mori. When something gets close to looking human but just misses the mark—like that CGI creep in The Polar Express—it induces fear and loathing, the exact opposite of affection.
I’m unaccountably afraid. At root the anxiety is: Who is the human here, and who the simulacrum?
Mori used the notion of the uncanny valley to describe a restrictive aesthetic response to robots. But the internet, by aiming to represent a monstrous range of human experiences that includes everything from courtship and commerce to finance and war, introduces a near-constant dysphoria. An uncanny experience registers like a bad note to someone with perfect pitch. And bad notes are everywhere on the internet. Queasy-making GIFs, nonsense autocorrect, memes that suggest broken minds. The digital artifacts produced on Facebook, Instagram, and Spotify are identifiable as conversation, bodies, and guitars, and yet they don’t sync with those things in the three-dimensional world. Our bodies absorb the dissonance, and our brains work overtime to harmonize it or explain it away.
Consider my stock response to a friend’s honey-colored Instagram photos that show her on a yacht in Corsica. Is that what life is supposed to look like? Why does my own life by this loud municipal swimming pool look sort of—but not really—like that? We rightly call this jealousy, but the comparison of one’s multisensory experience to a heavily staged photo, passing for existence, entails cognitive discomfort too.
My poolside afternoon changes millisecond to millisecond. It also has a horizon line; robust unsweetened audio (yelps of “Marco” and “Polo” in my daughter’s pool-glee voice); a start-and-stop breeze; the scent of a nearby grill; ever-changing and infinitesimal shades that elude pixelation and suggest even hues outside the human spectrum that my sunblock (scented to evoke the tropics) is meant to guard against. What’s more, because it’s my experience, this scene is also inflected by proprioception, the sense of my own swim-suited body present in space. Compared to this robust and fertile experience as a mammal on Earth, isn’t it the Instagram image that’s thin, dry, and inert? “The imagined object lacks the vivacity and vitality of the perceived one,” philosopher Elaine Scarry wrote in Dreaming by the Book, her 1999 manifesto on literature and the imagination.
And yet. There’s that tile-sized cluster of pixels on my phone. The heightened portrait there, let’s call it Woman in Corsica, makes my own present moment—real life—seem like the impoverished thing. I’m unaccountably afraid. At root the anxiety is: Who is the human here, and who the simulacrum?
The good news is that the anxiety of the uncanny is nothing new or unique to digital experience. Every single realist form, the ones that claim to hold a mirror to nature, has made beholders panic—and worse. In the fifth century BC, the Greek artist Zeuxis is said to have painted voluminous grapes that looked so much like the real thing that birds pecked themselves to death trying to eat them. Novels, which were intended to show unfiltered middle-class life in everyday prose instead of fakey verse, drove women to promiscuity by representing their feelings so exactly. And, of course, there was the famous stampede in Paris in 1896, when audiences watching an early movie, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, retreated to escape the train hurtling toward them from the screen.
A Snopes search for these stories turns up nothing; all of them are now considered folklore. But they’re useful. We like stories that suggest that experiences with art and entertainment we now take for granted—realist paintings, novels, the movies—once overwhelmed our ancestors. As a species, we must have learned something: how to stimulate ourselves with movies without being duped. And if we learned it then, we can learn it now. Because while the gap between the real and the replica can seem nauseatingly narrow, we do have a brilliant mechanism for telling reality from artifice. It’s literacy.