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Saturday, May. 02, 2009 - 3:23 a.m.

In the 1970s, the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori was studying how humans respond emotionally to robots, and posited the 'Uncanny Valley' theory. This theory argues that as robots appear (or behave) more like humans, the more we are drawn towards them. But when the robots appears too life-like or uncanny (to the point that one almost mistakes them for being human), one recoils in disgust. This sudden aversion to the robot is the 'Uncanny Valley'.

In real terms, we like the Honda Asimo robot much more than say, an industrial welding robot arm that builds cars, but the life-like robotic receptionists/ models/ children that the Japanese are starting to build just creep us out. The verisimilitude of life frightens us.

Then I was thinking that this same hypothesis applied beyond robots. The Macau Venetian Casino is an alleged replica of Venice. Three man-made canals run in the shopping centre, complete with gondolas, steered by a mixed-race crew of serenading gondoliers (who seem to know only'O Solo Mio'); one was an African-american-looking person, but to the management's credit none of them were Chinese. I think a five minute ride, which goes under artificial bridges of painted bricks, beside false three-storeyed facades of Venetian houses, and beneath a painted blue sky and white clouds (spotlights brighten and darken them according to time of day!), costs around HKD$100.

I have never been to Venice, and I only know it from photographs and film, but this place just evoked within me a singular emotion - that of wanting to depart. Perhaps it is the deliberate attempt to invoke contrived emotions (in this case, Venice = romance) via false architecture. I must report though, that there were many tourists who were sufficiently impressed by the novelty of it all to pose for photographs under every false wooden alcove, or artificial lamp-post.

Then from Venice (Macau) to Singapore. Many things disturb me about Singapore, but two stand out: the verisimilitude of democracy, and the verisimilitude of life. No one can deny that we possess the democratic institutions of regular elections that result in representative government. But there is this miasma of discomfiture, a culture of silence and a real fear of (imaginary?) ruling party-reprisal. I accept that democracy is an ideal, and that gerry-mandering and pork barrels are inherent, as long as the electorate has a short attention span, but does political life have to exist the way it exists in Singapore?

It is the same thing with life. Again, we have houses, cars, food. But the only time you have to spend with your chidren is on weekends, where you take them out with the maid (a false parent) on an outing to Sentosa (a false beach), or to an air-conditioned (a false atmosphere) shopping centre like Bugis Junction (false shophouses), to have lunch at pseudo-Japanese eataries while kneeling on tatami mats made in China. And you wonder, is this all life has to offer? Historically, revolutions occur during times of famine - the corollary of which is that people do not think, as long as they are busy consuming.

Adjectives are the most damning. How many words make you think of Singapore: artificial, affected, contrived, labored, insincere, hollow, feigned, theatrical, false? I love this country; I'm just not sure what is it exactly that I love.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life... I wanted to live so sturdily and so Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life... to drive life into a corner to know it by experience and be able to give an account of it in my next excursion.



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