We Are Living in the Uncanny Valley

We Are Living in the Uncanny Valley

We Are Living in the Uncanny Valley 1920 1482 Grace Loh Prasad

I am one of the lucky ones. Four months into lockdown, no one in our household has gotten sick. We don’t work in health care or other sectors that face a high risk of exposure every day. My husband and I have the kind of jobs that we can do from home, and our son’s school is equipped for distance learning. We are healthy and safe, and our pantry is well-stocked. So why do I still feel so unmoored?

This is part of the psychic toll of the pandemic – the feeling that our sadness and ennui are unworthy when others are experiencing much more devastation and upheaval. The death of a partner, parent, child or friend. The inability to visit elderly or sick relatives. Loved ones stranded overseas with no return date. Weddings and graduations canceled. Businesses of all kinds shuttered. Millions of jobs (not to mention health insurance) lost at the worst possible time. Fear for those on the front lines who make the unimaginable tradeoff between a paycheck and their own safety every day. Tens of thousands of people are dying of an illness still unheard of a few months ago. Compared to those losses, our missed routines and social plans, canceled trips, and unused concert tickets are too trivial to mourn.

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©Jay Ruben Dayrit

Since we’ve been in quarantine, the days have an aching sameness. My commute is just a few steps down the hall and doesn’t require shoes or keys or a badge swipe. My work, my friends, my entertainment, and my news are now all the same thing: pixels on a rectangle of light.

One of the few things I look forward to is our daily, hour-long hike through the Oakland Hills to get some exercise and fresh air. It’s often the only moment of relief we get all day, when we can ditch our devices and totally unplug. I can almost ignore the grief when it’s sunny and warm outside and the world shimmers during what used to be rush hour. Now I think of it as Golden Hour because of the perfect way the light filters through the trees and elongates our shadows.  I take solace in the fact that at least the animals can go about their normal lives. On a good day, we’ll see deer nibbling the grass or wild turkeys with their feathers fanned out. Last week we saw bald eagles circling above the sequoias and eucalyptus trees.

Our daily walks are a form of self-care, but our respite is interrupted as soon as we see another person on the path. As we pass, I make a point to say hello and wave. But my friendliness is a lie – just like a cloth mask is a lie – a flimsy layer we put on to make ourselves feel better because it’s better than nothing. Under his breath, my husband curses at a couple who happens to be out at the same time we are – how dare they – even though they’re just like us, stretching their legs to get a break from the monotony at home. Our reactions are on opposite poles of the same brutal reality – we’re in this together – yet we both know that every person we encounter is an unspoken threat, a potential vector of disease.

After months of these walks through our neighborhood, we feel a certain intimacy with our neighbors even though we don’t know them personally. We see their recycling boxes and know who orders cleaning supplies from Method and who gets their groceries from Good Eggs. We notice who has lemon trees, who tends roses, and who hasn’t done yardwork in years. Sometimes we hear music or laughter, sometimes we smell BBQ or weed. We take note as one season blends into the next, and the camellia trees flower abundantly and then decay.

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Even though I don’t move around as much as in my pre-COVID life, spending hours sitting and staring at screens is exhausting. Partly it’s the stress of always being on, always visible and therefore self-conscious. I’m already in videoconference meetings all day for my job, so it’s hard to feel festive for Zoom happy hours and literary events when I’m sitting in the same chair at the same desk with the same bad lighting. What passes for a “party” these days is just a gallery of talking heads. Glitchy wifi, awkward meeting etiquette, alternating between trying to hide and trying to be heard – it’s all so tiring.

© Jay Ruben Dayrit

I have the strange sensation of being physically bound, but mentally adrift. My body is in low-battery mode, reducing its range and activity level, but my brain is in overdrive – endlessly scrolling the news and social media looking for answers that don’t exist yet. I live in a world of unlimited screen time (and so does my kid) but instead of feeling liberated, I feel a kind of vertigo because my mind can freely wander but my body cannot.

In robotics, when an android is so lifelike that it looks almost human, our brains instinctively reject it. The closer it comes to appearing real, the more glaring the discrepancies and the more unsettled we feel. This feeling of revulsion and dissonance is called the uncanny valley. Maybe this explains why prolonged digital interaction is so unsatisfying – we try to convince ourselves that we are spending time with people, but our bodies know that something is off. When our only experience with other humans is two-dimensional, we can’t smell their shampoo or feel their warmth when they lean in to gossip. That, too, is a loss to be mourned. On Zoom, the best I can do is pantomime closeness by sitting near the screen and maintaining eye contact, but it’s no substitute for the real thing. The need to gather and care for each other, to hug and hold those we love, to read someone’s body language without uttering a word, to bear witness when we are at our most vulnerable or in our final moments – this is what we are losing.

We are living in the uncanny valley, the gap between what we know to be real and a flawed approximation of reality. What has this extended isolation done to us? At the beginning of lockdown, there was more of a sense of unity in this country, of sacrificing together for a common goal. But the longer the pandemic goes on, the more the social fabric frays and splits – instead of relief, each new stage of reopening drives further division and distrust. Every day we see new videos of people who don’t want to wear masks, who believe the danger is overstated and their “freedom” matters more than taking precautions for the greater good. We have not succeeded in flattening the curve, yet a surprising number of people think their right to get a haircut or eat brunch or send their children back to school is more important than saving thousands of lives. We have forgotten that a community is also a body, and it remains forever vulnerable if it is not treated and cared for as a whole.

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Near the beginning of lockdown, I suggested to my son that we mark the time by folding one origami crane for every day that we are confined. On June 21, our 100th day of quarantine, I arranged the cranes in a mandala and took a photo. In Japanese culture, senbazuru is the custom of folding 1000 origami cranes to wish for good luck, long life or healing. While I admire the sentiment, I hope we don’t get to 1000.

In June, the U.S. hit a somber milestone: 100,000 lives lost to COVID-19. Dozens of my friends posted on Facebook the New York Times cover memorializing a mere one percent of this staggering number. Several weeks later as I write this, the virus has resurged and the country is in worse shape – more than 140,000 deaths to date, three times as many as the U.K. and more than four times as many as Italy in the same time period. My brain hurts from trying to comprehend the scale of this loss. The pandemic is far from over, and the numbers will only get worse.

Like everyone, I will continue to live in this state of suspended reality for who knows how many more months – or years. All I can do is focus on who and what is close to me and take it one day at a time.

It feels reckless to believe a better future lies ahead. But it feels even more reckless not to. Our neighbors have decorated their yards with signs and chalk drawings expressing messages of hope: “Spread Love.” “It’s Going to Be OK.” “Brighter Days Ahead.” All I can do amidst the uncertainty is remind myself what I can still enjoy – more time with my family and the closeness of nature. The other day I saw two hummingbirds right outside our house, and a few days after that two gorgeous bucks with antlers. My son and I have been eyeing the wild blackberries we see on our hikes, which are finally beginning to ripen.

Header photo © Jay Ruben Dayrit.

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