Sunday 1 February 2009

Das Unheimliche

Last weekend I went for a walk along the Bodensee. It was a beautiful sunny crisp winter day and people were out in force, catching whatever warmth they could from the sun before it disappeared.

All of a sudden I was struck by the feeling of being an outsider walking through somebody else's world. This was a strange feeling for someone who had just spent six months living in china: I mean in Germany I look like everyone else; I dress like everyone else; I even (arguably!) speak the language.

One of our major frustrations in China was knowing that, no matter how long we lived there, we would always look like foreigners. We could live there for 30 years, speak fluent Manadarin with no trace of an accent, and still pay more at the market than a "local". We were treated differently (though, in many cases, for the better) and yet, at some level, we fit in. While the pigeonholing was frustrating, our role in society was "expat" and playing it was pretty straightforward.

Contrast that to (relatively small-town) Germany: here I'm not given the role of "foreigner". Here I look pretty much like everyone else so, instead of being a convincing expat, I sometimes feel like an unconvincing German. This reminded me of a blog post by Jeff Atwood from a while back about the Uncanny Valley hypothesis. This hypothesis relates to all kinds of things from robotics to animation and (Bill Higgins says) web-based user interfaces. The idea is that, as one thing gets closer to mimicking something else, the remaining differences make us feel increasingly uncomfortable. So, for example, an animated character (like the one above, from Polar Express) that is trying to look human may feel creepy but one that looks nothing like a real human (Homer Simpson, for example) may feel totally natural. By the way, if you haven't seen it, check out how far computer generated animation and motion capture can currently take us: meet Emily.

I'm off to practice being a more realistic German...

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