[iDC] An encounter with the limits of the tele-presence paradigm (and what may be learned from it for connected learning)

Eric Kluitenberg epk at xs4all.nl
Mon Jul 18 23:30:28 UTC 2011

Hello IDC'ers,

I've been asked to expand somewhat on my introduction and the concerns that I would like to bring to the Mobility Shifts conference, and would like to follow up on some things I hinted at earlier in my introduction. The main scope is to raise some critical issues about certain assumptions in telepresence practices and research, based on the ambivalent outcomes of the radical ElectroSmog festival format (march 2010), and indicate possibly valuable insights that may be gained from that for tele-connected learning (even though they do not originate from a strictly educational context).  

As I've mentioned we will be with a couple of people in New York City on October 9, to present the new issue of Open, Journal for Art and the Public Domain #21, "ImMobility - Exploring the Boundaries of Hypermobility", at artist Tania Bruguera's long term project Immigrant Movement International (links below). The Im/Mobility issue of Open, for which I acted as guest editor evolved from a festival organised in March 2010 called ElectroSnog -  International Festival for Sustainable Immobility" - a festival conducted entirely in the remote, highly international, but with a ground rule that no one was allowed to travel beyond their regional context, while all events had to take place in at least tow locations simultaneously. 

The interconnection between all events and places was mediated entirely over the internet with rather common techniques (video chat skype/ichat, live video and audio webcasting, and re-streaming in virtual theatres in second life), but tied together rather uncommonly into a dizzying real-time, and almost cross global electronic festival environment (which mostly worked fine technically). Locations were distributed over 5 continents, more than twenty countries, and covered a 20 hour time-zone stretch, convened with many partner organisations in these locations. In New York Eyebeam organised and hosted a number of events, in collaborations with local artists / arts groups such as Not An Alternative, Michael Mandiberg, Jon Cohns and others. 

Thematically the festival addressed the question whether new communication technologies could help to seriously reduce physical and motorised mobility by facilitating viable alternatives to physical encounter, and thereby enable a different life style less determined by constant speed and mobility that we termed 'sustainable immobility'. Thus the format of the festival intended to offer a practical model for the problems it raised. Furthermore, we were also irritated by international events on green technologies that continuously fly in all participants from all over the planet to discuss 'green stuff', a long-term unsustainable practice.

Content-wise the festival was a rich interdisciplinary meeting, and series of discussions and more hands on projects, while the radically distributed nature of the event, especially when more than three locations were linked up simultaneously, was dizzying and fascinating for those 'actively' involved.
Documentation of the webcasts and different projects can be found here: www.electrosmogfestival.net/documentation/

However, the audience dynamics of the festival were deeply problematic and revealing. While the radical approach of the festival attracted considerable attention beforehand, particularly on-line, events were generally poorly visited. In Amsterdam, the central node and interconnection point of the ElectroSmog festival, surprisingly those events with strong local representation attracted most audience in the theatre space, which was set up as a spectacular multiple screen electronic theatre. The most dispersed and most deeply tele-connected events attracted almost no audience at all - while these were really interesting from the point of view of the intended experiment. It made us understand that the traditional function of 'encounter', so crucially important to public gatherings such as festivals, was somehow not captured in these tele-connected exchanges.

Meanwhile, both in terms of content and level of exchange, particularly the highly tele-connected events, discussions, and connected conversations were clearly the most interesting. If one would just go by the archived webcasts, one might get the impression of a successful and often engaging series of connected conversations. But the 'public' aspect of these gatherings never really happened.

What we found (quoting from the text "Distance versus Desire" I wrote in response to these outcomes) was that: "(..) remote connection works excellent in an active network. In situations where connections were established between active contributors to a discussion or project, exchange was often very productive and the experience rewarding for all participants. But when attempts were made to integrate a public of relatively passive observers, the traditional ‘audience’, the experience broke down.
	Remote connection also did not bring people together locally. The overwhelming sense of all festival events was that in the (remote) communicative process all nodes of the network must be active ‘throughout’. No real sense of co-presence between local audiences in different sites (even though they were often visible and audible to each other) came about, while locally audiences seemed little inspired to physically show up at the networks' nodes to witness a process they could also follow from the comfort of their home via the webcast."

To find an explanation I identified three elements that could explain the failure of the tele-connected experience: Encounter, Belonging and Identification.
Again quoting from Distance versus Desire: "Still, more important for the ultimate failure of the telepresence ideology is that it denies the libidinal drive for encounter, belonging, and identification that is so important for a successful staging of a public event such as an arts and culture festival.There is also a sobering lesson for curators that excellent content and contributors as such do not translate into public success. The desire for sharing the space with others and with the influential in a particular social circle or figuration, is a much stronger motor it seems for public appeal. Remoteness, one of the themes in the festival, cannot be so easily transcended in the telepresence scenario as hoped for."
(Full text is a.o. here: www.electrosmogfestival.net/2010/11/28/distance-versus-desire-clearing-the-electrosmog/ )

The assumption here is that the drive for encounter is primarily libidinal and that the denial of the desire for actual encounter, sharing a space, being part of a social figuration is to some extent displaced by communication technologies by conjuring up a largely phantasmatic image that covers up the lack of the affordances of physical encounter. The communication devices and connection technologies are, however, never able to displace this desire. entirely  The remaining surplus desire actually serves to intensify the longing for encounter rather than diminish it, leading to a point of crisis where the phantasmatic image of tele-connection breaks down and people quite literally start up the engines of their cars.

Our findings that communication technologies did not bring people together in distant encounter, while sharing the physical space did was also concurrent with findings of mobility researchers we talked to in trail events before the festival, a.o. from the Technical University Delft, who found in studies of interdependence of communication technology and mobility that in regions where communications densities are highest, also (motorised) mobility is most intense - i.e. communication technology does not lead to less but to more physical mobility.

While this conclusion spells out the complete failure of the ElectroSmog festival concept, it also brings up difficult questions for tele-connected learning environments. We know that learning is greatly facilitated by relationships of trust and identification, by a feeling of deeper connectedness. Scale of class-rooms and direct and face to face exchanges between students and teachers are crucially important in that. Smaller scale exchanges generally produce better outcomes than large scale and 'distanced' settings. Having taught myself both for rather large auditoriums (up to 180 students) as well as for closely knit MFA programs, where we had no more than 12 students and multiple tutors, I know how important the direct nature of exchanges is.

Equally, the observation that active connections - working in networks of communication that are active throughout - are essential for tele-connections to work, points to issues of scale. The notion of a passive audience following but not actively engaging in the process seems to lead to little else than a disconnect.

I am perfectly aware that there are many practical situation where using telepresence and tele-connection technologies makes a lot of sense. And I also understand that the economics of the education system drive towards larger scales all the time, which has often been an argument for distance education. I've also been discussing such issues for years with colleagues who are quite deeply immersed in that field. However, I think that it is necessary to look much more critically at the assumptions made about tele-presence technologies and how they might fail, or be successful in a communicative and educational context.

I would finally like to distinguish between "hard telepresence" and "soft telepresence", analogous to hard and soft AI. The hard variant insists that the full scope of human experience involved in physical encounter can be replaced by a teleconnection (by advanced interfaces, full immersion, HD quality projection, virtual walls (Cisco) and so on), while the soft variant simply looks for practical solutions that work in specific contexts, without the illusion of wanting to replace the 'real' thing.

I'd be happy to discuss your comments and questions a bit on the list this week!




More information about the iDC mailing list