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by on October 20, 2012

I was looking back through the lecture slides from last week and came across the picture of ‘Main Street’ in Disney Land USA. People who’ve been to the one in Paris will know it has something similar. I mentioned this during our seminar and was thinking about how strange it feels to be walk down a street that looks so real but simply isn’t. I guess I experienced something similar to the Uncanny Valley because although I wasn’t viewing something that closely resembled a human I was looking at something that closely resembled another thing that is real in the world (that is, a street). It amazed me but also made me feel quite uncomfortable, I got all these weird notions running round in my head such as what would it feel like to live there? In theory couldn’t we as there are a little line of shops, houses and restaurants? I thought, even then that would not make it real because if you went inside, these ‘houses’ still wouldn’t have beds or kitchens or any of the things that are required to live. But if you put those things in would that then make it real? Then I thought maybe what makes something real is not just how it is in itself but how we interact with it. If they had put a functioning kitchen and bedroom in one of these ‘houses’ and I had just looked at it but not used it, I think I’d still regard it as a mimesis of a real house but if I’d started sleeping there and using the kitchen, it would start to blur the lines between real and unreal: if I could eat and sleep there I would have thought it would qualify as being a ‘real’ house because it would now have a functioning purpose for me. That in turn reminded me of a Barbie toy kitchen I had when I was little. I was more obsessed with it than the Barbie since she wasn’t animated and looked quite clearly fake. But this miniature kitchen looked so convincing and even had a little light above the cooker that you could switch on and off. Reflecting on the way I felt when looking at it/using it made me think of how fascinated we are with getting at what is ‘real’ and wanting to somehow recreate that (I think someone else also mentioned this ‘need’ to keep pushing what we have and making more advanced creations). Modern technology is getting us closer and closer to creating ‘real’ looking things. But the word ‘looking’ seems really key here to me. However far we’ve come in creating robots that look and appear to feel emotion we are no further than we were 200 years ago: things appear to show ‘realness’ but still are not real. Robots and other such automaton still do not experience emotions or think and all the rest of it, they’re simply programmed. So in terms of that I’m not afraid because I feel there’s still a very clear distinction between animals and simulacrum. However I still think our obsession is not necessarily a healthy one. I thought this especially with regard to the ‘Reborns’ and the video we watched of the woman who had two real sons but also a Reborn that she used, it seemed, for comfort. Someone mentioned the idea that she’s not harming anyone and she gets to experience all the lovely aspects of having a new born child without having the responsibility of having to look after its needs, because they don’t exist. I thought this was valid point and for this woman she may have known the limits of the doll and been aware of the fact it could only ever exist as a comfort item. But to me it does seem unnerving that something that looks so lifelike yet is completely unresponsive could be perceived as being comforting. It also made me think that if comfort is needed in this way, could that be the sign of a deeper psychological problem? Just like someone addicted to a drug needs a regular hit, do the people that use these dolls for comfort need a regular hold or cuddle with them and isn’t this a case of an obsession going too far and becoming an addiction? I often think that this compulsive drive to keep producing things which seem ‘real’ and blurring this line further and further is, perhaps, playing with fire. Will we ever be able to make something that is fully ‘real’ (and if so then there would probably be a whole ethical debate to follow)? Or will we always taunt ourselves by feeling like we’re getting closer but actually being no closer than we ever have been? Obviously this isn’t a problem for everyone but for the people who are interested in this on a much closer level (e.g. the inventors of automaton or owners of Reborns) I can’t help wondering if it’s an obsession that will almost ‘haunt’ them for the rest of their lives by seeming so promising but not really getting any further (which made me think of the analogy of salt water-it doesn’t quench your thirst yet you’ll always need more).

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