Uncanny valley vs. the Aeron Chair: maybe international auxiliary languages will eventually achieve the latter

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

On Auxlang we often talk about a phenomenon known as the uncanny valley, usually used in robotics where:

when robots and other facsimiles of humans look and act almost like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers.
That is, up to a certain point people enjoy objects that look like humans (a cartoon of a human for example), but as soon as it approaches a certain level of realism but without being completely convincing, it creates a sense of revulsion. A talking mannequin, a zombie, a human-looking robot but with jerky motions and a rubbery-looking exterior, etc. On Auxlang we often theorize that the same phenomenon might occur with a lot of auxiliary languages, which look almost real but not quite. However, this may not necessarily be an unwinnable situation.

For Christmas I got a copy of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, a book basically about the instinctive judgments people make in short periods of time and the difference between the instinctive judgments of untrained vs. trained people. One part of the book deals with products, and one of them is the story of the Aeron Chair, which looks like this:

In Blink, Gladwell tells about the initial revulsion people felt for the chair when they first saw it because it didn't look like what they thought an office chair should look like: something regal and executive looking. The story he tells about the chair looks like it could be a complete parallel with auxiliary languages. Here are the relevant parts:

In May of 1992...they took prototypes of th eAeron to local companies in western Michigan and had people sit in them for at least half a day. In the beginning, the response was not positive...where 10 is perfect, and at least 7.5 is where you'd really love to be before you actually go to market...the early prototypes of the Aeron came in at around 4.75...people would look at the wiry frame and wonder if it would hold them, and then look at the mesh and wonder if it could ever be comfortable.
(then a bit here about consecutive improvements in design and now they're just about ready to put the chair on the market)
...Just about everyone thought the chair was a monstrosity...the comfort scores got above eight, which is phenomenal. But the aesthetic scores started out between two and three and never got above six in any of our prototypes...
(now about presenting the chair to groups of facility managers and ergonomic experts)
This time the reception was downright chilly...one facility manager likened the chair to lawn furniture or old-fashioned car-seat covers. Another said it looked as though it came from the set of RoboCop, and another said that it looked as if it had been made entirely from recycled materials.
(then skip ahead to the part where they decided to go ahead with the chair as is without changing the overall design)
They went ahead, and what happened? In the beginning, not much. The Aeron, after all, was ugly. Before long, however, the chair started to attract the attention of some of the very cutting-edge elements of the design community...(list of awards here)...and in Silicon Valley, it became a kind of cult object that matched the stripped-down aesthetic of the new economy. It began to appear in films and television commercials, and from there its profile built and grew and blossomed. By the end of the 1990s, sales were growing 50 to 70 percent annually, and the people at Herman Miller suddenly realized that what they had on their hands was the best-selling chair in the history of the company. Before long, there was no office chair as widely imitated as the Aeron. Everyone wanted to make a chair that looked like the exoskeleton of a giant prehistoric insect. And what are the aesthetic scores today? The Aeron is now an 8. What once was ugly has become beautiful.

Any proponent of auxlangs should recognize their own preferred language in there. The only thing an auxlang needs to achieve success is to attain some sort of cult status that makes it popular through the back door, and eventually it will be thought of as beautiful as well.


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