The personal website of Chris Coyier

Frank Fairfield and the Uncanny Valley

There is a musician by the name of Frank Fairfield. I can’t say exactly but I’d say he’s about in his mid 30’s. He plays what is commonly referred to these days as “Old Time” music. This style of music pre-dates bluegrass. It’s typically banjos (played frailing style), fiddles and sometimes simple guitar. Frank is one dude, so he plays one instrument at a time on records and when he performs.

Here’s a video of Frank playing:

What is interesting about Frank, is that it doesn’t just reference old time music, pay homage to it, or sorta just sound like it. It sounds exactly like it. If you made a mix tape of actual old-timers playing old-time like Dan Gellert, Fred Cockerham, Charlie Bowman, Oscar Jenkins, Tommy Jarrell… and mixed in some Frank Fairfield even an old time enthusiast probably wouldn’t even notice when the song recorded in 2011 came on.

So that’s Frank, now lets’ talk about robots.

There is a theory in Robot engineering called Uncanny Valley.

The theory is that people love robots. And the more and more human-like they get, the more they love them.

UNTIL — they start looking TOO MUCH like humans. Like when you can barely tell they are robots anymore. Then something crazy happens. Humans HATE them. We totally reject them as strange and unnatural.

Don’t tell me you don’t want to stab that thing in the eye and run for the hills.

Then as they approach 100% perfect similarity, we love them again (like prosthetic hands). That “dip” from love to hate to love again is called the Uncanny Valley.

And back to Frank.

His voice has the shakey-yet-confident tone of an old working man going weak. His fiddling has the timing mistakes and off-centered over-emphasis of phrases that sound like someone who’s only musical training was on country porches. That’s the good stuff. That’s what makes old time sound like old time. He does it perfectly.

And so I’m having that Uncanny Valley reaction to Frank Fairfield and his music. It’s SO MUCH like old time music that my ears think it’s strange and weird and want to reject it.

But I think the more I listen I have a feeling he’ll come out the other side. He’ll be so perfectly close to old time (from time past) that I’ll love him again. And I want to, because he seems like a darn cool guy who plays the same kind of music I like to play and says smart things that I wish I said.