Separating noise from signal:: The ethnomethodological uncanny as aesthetic pleasure in human-machine interaction in the United States

Eitan Wilf*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Because ethnomethodology was founded in cybernetics, it institutionalized the idea that interactants strive to maintain interactional order and compensate for disorder through negative feedback mechanisms such as “repair work.” This idea informed a key strand in the study of human-machine interaction in the United States, especially the idea that humans are inclined to repair the gaps in machines’ behavior and thus sustain the feeling that they are interacting with intentional entities. In some situations, however, humans prefer to expose and even exacerbate machines’ interactional incompetence. Such a preference manifests the aesthetic category of the uncanny, here theorized as the sudden awareness of the material foundations of one's immediate world, an awareness that emerges when those foundations become “noisy” and begin to reflexively point to themselves.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)202-213
Number of pages12
JournalAmerican Ethnologist
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 2019

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
throughnegativefeedbackmechanismssuchas“repair motion. Syrus was the result of a research project funded by work.”Thisideainformedakeystrandinthestudyof the National Science Foundation on robotic musicianship. It was de-human-machineinteractionintheUnitedStates,especially signed to have a “neck” that could bob in synchrony with the music theideathathumansareinclinedtorepairthegapsin it played; a “head” at the end of the neck, equipped with an “eye” machines’behaviorandthussustainthefeelingthatthey that consisted of a motion-sensitive camera that could track and fol-areinteractingwithintentionalentities.Insome low the movements of the human musicians playing with it; and situations,however,humansprefertoexposeandeven four “arms” that could hover horizontally above the marimba bars, exacerbatemachines’interactionalincompetence.Sucha each arm equipped with two mallets. Its nonhumanoid machinery preferencemanifeststheaestheticcategoryofthe remained hidden by the marimba; thus all that could be seen of Syrus uncanny,heretheorizedasthesuddenawarenessofthe by the musicians playing with it, as well as the audience members material foundations of one’s immediate world, an facing it, were its neck, head, eye, and arms.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 by the American Anthropological Association


  • United States
  • animation
  • cybernetics
  • ethnomethodology
  • human-machine interaction
  • robotics
  • uncanny


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