Bridging the uncanny valley in our virtual relationships

This summer, I worked closely with a handful of journalism students and colleagues to publish obituaries of COVID-19 victims in Maclean’s magazine and the Calgary Journal news website. As with any scholarly or professional relationship, this required countless emails, Google Meet sessions, phone calls, Slack messages and Google Doc comments. It persevered through summer holidays, glitchy internet and interruptions from dogs and kids.

What it did not involve was in-person meetings of any kind. It occured to me recently that I have never been in the same room as one of my top students with whom I’ve worked closely for nearly six months now. In our meetings, she’s a pixelated face or an “A” icon.

Such is our world in 2020. We all have a growing number of professional and personal relationships that exist entirely in the virtual world of Zoom, Slack, email and social media.

There are advantages to these virtual relationships. At their best, they allow us to treat physical distance as an afterthought. I have students join my classes and meetings from wherever suits them and I’ve found attendance is often higher than in-person. Guest speakers can talk to us from anywhere and with the same flexibility enjoyed by the students (no getting dressed up, no traffic, no MRU parking, etc.). To relaunch our website this fall, the Calgary Journal has been working with web developers and digital journalists from around the world, including New Orleans, Europe and Vancouver Island.

But as we head toward winter and pandemic fatigue continues, the downsides of digital life can feel overwhelming. For all its power, online communication cannot yet replicate the spontaneity and energy of a simple drink with colleagues on a Friday afternoon or a chat in the lunchroom. It can’t duplicate the relationships that come through after-class discussions or hallway talks with students. 

In the 1970s, Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori coined the term the “uncanny valley,” which suggests that robot faces become more appealing to people the more lifelike they become. But this likability only goes so far. When such faces become too lifelike, we begin to find them distasteful, like creepy dolls or weird video game faces.

Virtual relationships, even the best ones, often feel this way to me. They bear hallmarks of an in-person relationship and are certainly appealing in many ways. But the more technology brings us together, the more they feel unfulfilling, since we see so clearly what’s missing — the effortless human connection of being together in a shared space. Technology may one day bridge this gap but for now we stand firmly on the far side of this uncanny valley, so close to normal relationships, but feeling as if we’re moving farther apart.

That sounds depressing but it doesn’t have to be. For me it means that striving for perfection in virtual learning — especially on-the-fly during a pandemic — is not only the wrong goal, but it might actually have the opposite effect as intended.

We have to accept that digital relationships are fundamentally different and require us to think deeply about how we work together. It’s an opportunity to ditch perfection, show our students and colleagues vulnerability and cut each other some slack if the relationships aren’t quite as simple as they would be in a campus setting. We can acknowledge the limitations of technology, but feel grateful for all the astounding ways we can still connect and do our work. We can be free to try new things and accept that we’ll never get it just right. 

In Mori’s theory, the uncanny valley is eventually crossed as robot faces inch closer to an exact human likeness. Maybe by 2060, holograms, wearable technology, digital sensors and who knows what else, will have us on the other side of the valley, able to work with each other as if in the same room. But until then, I’m looking forward to all the coffees, classes, drinks and even meetings that we’ll have when we’re safely back on campus, together.

By Archie McLean

October 2, 2020