Adelaide and the uncanny valley

The city of Adelaide was built on a plain, a fact of immense geomantic significance that will feature heavily in a future post.  But for now we are interested in a different geographic feature – the metaphor of the uncanny valley.

The uncanny valley is a theory devised by a Japanese robotics professor to explain an odd feature of human emotional responses to robots as they become increasingly human-like in appearance.  Basically, the more a robot looks like a human, the more humans will empathise with it.  However, at a certain point our response to the robot will switch from empathy to revulsion, as the robot becomes human enough to elicit some part of our normal response to other humans, but not human enough to trigger this response fully or completely.  In effect, we are revulsed because instead of looking like a humanoid robot, the robot now looks like a human with something unspeakably wrong with it.

This sense of unspeakable wrongness is the ‘uncanny’ component of the uncanny valley: a trough of human ‘familiarity’ or empathy, as depicted in the graph above.

What does this have to do with Adelaide?

Q: What is wrong with Adelaide ?
A: They didn’t build it close enough to a major city.

The standard joke or critique of Adelaide as more of a large town than a small city represents an ‘uncanny valley’ scenario in which visitors and residents alike are conscious of something not quite right in the South Australian capital.  As far as I know I’m the first to suggest this application of the uncanny valley to the city of Adelaide, but it has promise.

Basically, in its evolution from a settlement to a city, Adelaide is analogous to a robot gradually becoming more and more human in appearance.  We’ve arrived at a point where Adelaide looks like a city, has most of the things other cities have, but still is not yet an actual city.  It sits at an awkward point between ‘big country town’ and ‘major city’, leaving us with the uncanny sense of something deeply askew.  Adelaide is a very big country town with a few peculiarities all of its own, yet we look at it and see a major city – a major city that has something unspeakably wrong with it.

For many people the ‘wrongness’ is deeply hidden, overshadowed by day-to-day concerns.  Even if we can sense that something is amiss, it’s still a challenge to identify and put into words the precise nature of the problem. Future posts will address these peculiarities in greater detail.



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