Jessica Helfand | Essays

On Identity

The “uncanny valley” is a theory in aesthetics suggesting that the close but not identical visual reproduction of human qualities can result, for certain viewers, in feelings of physical revulsion. The more lifelike the features, the greater the chance that certain spectators will experience unpleasant triggers—primary among them being an unbidden, sudden fear of death— which is experienced involuntarily but suddenly and deeply, like whiplash. Lifelike yet robotic, the avatars that populate movies and video games and even our homes are the destabilizing products of a fertile, if ultimately myopic, imagination: they’re designed to “resemble” the human form, a caricature of the normative.

Consider, for a moment, the manufactured identity of the bespoke adult mannequin—the sex toy—designed to perform, let us say, on cue. Clad in silicone, powered by Bluetooth, these anatomically idealized dolls can now open their mouths to speak, revealing lips and teeth and soft, fleshy tongues. (In the world of the uncanny valley, where unexpected anxiety about one’s own mortality is experienced like a full-on sensory tsunami, this raises the concept of petite mort to new and worrisome levels.) Such futuristic design interventions propose that robotic performance can be tweaked and torqued against an imagined spectrum of anticipated human needs. The very idea hinges on an assumption that we humans are somehow inadequate, and that we can choose to amend these inadequacies through certain sly design interventions, a questionable maneuver—machine-managed appearances, porn as progress—clearly no longer merely the domain of science fiction. “It has become appallingly obvious,” wrote Einstein nearly a century ago, “that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”

In design parlance, the word “identity” generally refers to a brand: someone else’s brand, which, with a designer’s guidance, comes to be governed by a recognizable set of coordinates that collectively frame its essence and ensure its individuality. A corporate identity system or program extrapolates this from, say, a basic logo or wordmark to something more far-reaching and powerful: that same logo should work on a business card and on a truck, in print and online. Successfully executed, it becomes the formal fulfillment of a company’s philosophy, representing its core values, its very intention and spirit—its public face, if you will.

Such efforts tend to succeed admirably in the face of business practice, but where individuals are concerned, the options are less clear, making a sense of personal dislocation perhaps inevitable. Surely this is the case for any well-known person whose photo has been published without permission, for those who are victims of privacy leaks and system hacks, or for anyone unfortunate enough to experience both of these together. We are all a function of that amorphous, distributed gestalt that has, of late, manifested through our online profiles—all of us capable of being reverse engineered by the very components that delivered us to that public stage in the first place.

We can—indeed, should—be mindful of what we show the world, how we show it, perhaps asking ourselves with some systematic regularity why, indeed, we need show it at all? To the degree that we self-publish, we cede control to a larger community of friends, as well as strangers, co-conspirators, even enemies. We will, in all likelihood, each have 3D printers at the ready in the not-too-distant future, poised on the precipice of that as-yet-unknown future orbit, ready, if nothing else, to print out our own bones. Indeed—we can. But that doesn’t mean we should.

Jessica Helfand's book Design: The Invention of Desire, will be published on May 24 by Yale University Press. It is available by pre-order on Amazon. Signed copies are available through the Design Observer Shop. 

Jobs | June 14