The Uncanny Valley: Plastic Surgery & Transhumanism

The other day I went to the kitchen tea party of a girl I had never met, I had been invited by her bridesmaid, a friend of mine. I was welcomed into the room by a flutter of overdressed women fussing over drinks and food. There she was, the bride to be – I think my jaw nearly hit the floor as I attempted to congratulate her. I didn’t see a face, I saw swollen cheeks, expressionless eyes, an immobile forehead, a nose so straight that I’m certain its edge would cut you, and lips that were so large that I’m not sure how she was capable of speaking.

I tried my best not to make any judgements, maybe she had been in an accident, maybe she was born disfigured, there had to be some logical and valid reason for this extreme mutilation, that was, until I saw her mother. The mother didn’t even look human. This had clearly gone form a potential accident scenario to an understanding that this was deliberately aesthetic and encouraged. I swallowed my discomfort and began talking to the mother. I felt so estranged and unable to connect to her, she didn’t look human, her face augmented past human resemblance or recognition.

When I got home, I was concerned with how I struggled to connect with these women, how they looked alien and otherly. I began to question this strange feeling, a human – that doesn’t really look human, that felt strangely familiar, eerie and somewhat revulsive.

How do we explain this feeling? It’s such a strange thing to be faced with, familiarity and foreignness, external and internal, physical and theoretical. I couldn’t escape the feeling that I had just spent the evening with something extra terrestrial.

I began to think of the theory of the uncanny valley, how this trope could be placed within the perimeters of humans and their use of plastic surgery. In 1970 Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori proposed in The Uncanny Valley that the more human a robot acted or looked, the more endearing it would be to a human being. For example, most loveable Robot Buddies look humanoid, but keep quirky and artistically mechanical affectations. However, at some point, the likeness seems too strong and yet somehow, fundamentally different—and it just comes across as a very strange human being. At this point, the acceptance drops suddenly, changing to a powerful negative reaction. The Uncanny Valley doesn’t necessarily have to invoke fear though; for some people, the reaction is more similar to unintentional comedy. Either way, you don’t feel the same about that character as you would a human, or even something less realistic.

This trope was reversed with my scenario, the women were human, but appeared strange, this then lead me to think about the purposes of transhumanism. Transhumanism is an international intellectual movement that aims to transform the human condition by developing and making widely available sophisticated technologies to greatly enhance human intellect and physiology.

Transhumanist thinkers study the potential benefits and dangers of emerging technologies that could overcome fundamental human limitations as well as ethical limitations of using such technologies. The most common transhumanist thesis is that human beings may eventually be able to transform themselves into different beings with abilities so greatly expanded from the natural condition as to merit the label of post-human beings.

Let’s put this into context here, is it possible that the desire for this augmentation could be genetically inherent, for the purposes of survival? If the goal of transhumanism is to use technologies to greatly enhance physiology, then what’s to say that plastic surgery doesn’t achieve that?
Facial symmetry is considered desirable because it denotes a healthy genetic predisposition. Cavemen chose women with the most aesthetically pleasing face, determined by facial symmetry. So, if we now have this technology to alter our facial symmetry in order to make us appear more attractive why doesn’t it work? Is it this idea of the uncanny so creepy that even an aesthetically perfect face breaks the rules of reality? If this is the case, then does Botox, fillers, and facial augmentation achieve to opposite of what it hopes to? Instead of being more attractive, does it take away our human familiarity?

 

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