Clowns Are Scary, So Is the Internet

Benjamin Donnelly //
Let’s face it: clowns are absolutely terrifying.  There’s just something about the crazy hair, the white face paint, the large red nose.  The unnatural appearance of a clown has the ability to chill even the best of us straight to the bone.  But why is this?  What is so terrifying about something meant to fulfill a nigh-fundamental human need?  As a human construct, humor is so clean, so simple, so useful.  There is nothing terrifying about humor.  At least not in its least perverted forms.  And clowns are generally assumed to be humor inducing in their machinations.  What is so terrifying about the clown?

We know for example, that the stereotypically “scary clown” can even be scary while attempting to do funny things.  This implies quite clearly that there is something deeper in our subconscious minds’ evaluations of clowns beyond just their behavior.  It’s not that we think they are necessarily dangerous for their behavior.  We don’t like them for how they look.  We fear clowns because of something much more esoteric.

It turns out, that this effect has been studied to resolution.  Not with regard to just clowns; but actually, with regard to everything that we deem to be “creepy.”  Truly, although fear can be said to encompass a collection of related emotions.  The perception of being “creeped out” is something divorced from traditional fear.  It is something particular, something unique.  The effect that is used to explain the origins of the “creepiness factor” is something known as the “uncanny valley.”  Here’s how it works.

Looking at a graph of anthropomorphology and creepiness, we can clearly see the effect in action.  As something becomes more and more human, it slowly becomes less and less creepy.  That is, until it hits a sweet spot prior to reaching human.  At this point, where the object in question appears to be “somewhat human” but “not really” is where we find the majority of “creepy” items.  This is the “uncanny valley.”  The name being derived from the graph.  If you’re interested in learning more about this effect, there is an awesome Vsauce episode on this exact subject:

So now that we’ve established what is creepy, the next logical question is “why are those things creepy?”  There are multiple explanations for the exact origin of this effect throughout the course of human evolution.  That being said, it is generally accepted that this effect’s origins can be traced to evolution, and not to some random cultural or socialized source.  As such, it is reasonable to assume (based on the axiomatic principles of evolution) that this effect does serve a particular purpose in the grand scheme of human survival.

Which brings me to the internet.

It’s not that the internet is actually creepy like a clown.  If you feel yourself getting the heebie-jeebies every time you open up a web browser, perhaps it’s time that your change your homepage to something other  Here’s the thing.  By the principles of evolution, we know that emotions like fear serve a purpose.  They exist to keep us safe.  They are ingrained in us, because it’s just impossible for one human to learn all the things they need to be afraid of in time to save themselves from all the dangers of the wild.  And so, our instincts prevail.

But we have a very real problem.  A very tangible problem.  A very destructive problem.  The virtual predator-prey relationships on the internet are horrifically one-sided.  As I’m writing this entry, the US government just today has come out publicly say that the recent OPM breach has affected at least 21.5 million people.  That is approximately 1/15 Americans.  This is just the news coming out today.  If you watch the headlines at all, you should know that this is the norm.  Things like this happen all the time, albeit usually on a slightly smaller scale.

This is insane.

But this is reality.  This is currently what we are dealing with across the world, with regard to the state of cybersecurity.  Our banks are vulnerable, our infrastructure is vulnerable, our government is vulnerable.  Everything is vulnerable.  And yet, we still trust banners which read “secure connection.”  We still trust the implications of claims of extensive security.  Why?  Why do we still believe these things?

If this type of attack happened in “meat-space” (the physical world) our instinctual responses would make us all mad as hell.  Think about it.  Let’s say someone rode around the United States, and slapped 21.5 Million Americans on the mouth (something decently akin to having your social security number stolen).  There would be riots in the streets.  There would be vigilante mobs roaming at random, hunting for this man.  You can bet that a lot closer to 300 million Americans would want to slap him back.  But a breach of this size in cyberspace, and besides a few choice words about certain elected officials, most people just move on with their lives.

The root of problem we’re seeing with regard to the discrepancies between these two responses lies in the fact that we have no “virtual” instincts.  We have things as specific and esoteric as the “uncanny valley” to guide our actions in the physical world.  But we have not yet had time as a society and species to catch up with the realities of the danger that the virtual world offers us.  We simply, do not care.

We need similar instincts in the virtual world, and if nature won’t provide them then we must train ourselves to remain safe.  In a similar way to the way things which are “almost human” give us the greatest feelings of creepiness.  We should be as equally concerned with products, sites and services which are “almost secure.”  The things which promise security are the things far more likely to cause us damage.  You’re not in a great danger of being compromised in your affairs if your Reddit account is compromised.  Because if you know how to use Reddit properly, you know that your account is basically entirely public.  But when your personnel file with OPM is compromised, you might be in deep $#!%.  When we trust others with our information, we give up a piece of our own agency.  With our information in the hands of others, we allow their negligence the capability to hurt us at will.

We need to re-evaluate the ease with which we share that which can hurt us.  We need to evaluate the amount of trust we place in others.  We need to pay close attention to claims of “security” in practice because they are almost always followed by demands of “so give us things.”