Oliver Grau on 29 Jul 2001 20:00:47 -0000

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[rohrpost] Betr. Telematic - Telepresence...

Liebe Listige,

gern moechte ich zu dieser Thematik folgende Rezension eines amerikanischen 
Kollegen weiterleiten:
(ausnahmsweise english)

Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology
Book Review by Alexander Halavais
Volume 52, Issue 7, May 2001. Pages: 598-599.

``The Robot in the Garden, a collection of essays on the epistemological
concerns encountered with the rise of telepresence technologies, has the
potential to become a central work in an emerging field. The aim of the
anthology, which is called out in its introduction, is to play a role
analogous to Benedikt's Cyberspace: First Steps; that is, to identify
critical points of reference (p. 5) and sketch the foundations on which
future debates will be built. Although it seems clear that telepresence
and telembodiment are becoming an area of increased scholarly and
technological investigation, with luminaries like Jaron Lanier bringing
popular as well as academic attention to the area, it is too soon to tell
whether epistemic concerns that are raised by these technologies will
garner as much attention. Regardless of the amount of future attention it
receives, this anthology provides a worthy addition to such studies.
``The range of contributions offered in the volume is impressive, as is
the diversity of approaches to epistemological questions. Fourteen
chapters are divided thematically into three parts: philosophy; art,
history, and critical theory; and engineering, interface, and system
design. These chapters are joined by two introductory essays and a reprint
of Merleau-Ponty's 1945 work The Film and the New Psychology. Each chapter
gives treatment to concerns raised by a particular subset of applications
of communications technology, technologies that allow users to not only
observe events at a distance, but to effect change in distant
``The paradigmatic demonstration of this sort of technology is the
Telegarden, created by editor Ken Goldberg. The Telegarden, first put into
use at the University of Southern California in 1995 and now located at
the Ars Electronica Museum (http://telegarden.aec.at), allows remote
gardeners to view a garden over the web and to plant seeds and water the
garden using a robotic arm controlled via the web page. The project raises
a number of questions, chief among them whether the garden is real or a
simulation. Such questions, hardly a rarity in discussions of the
relationship between knowledge and new networked media, lead to concerns
of how new telerobotic technologies affect our knowledge of distanced
environments. Goldberg provides a superb brief introduction to the
technologies that make up telerobotics and some of the theoretical
concerns raised by this set of technologies. As he notes in the first few
sentences of the book, telerobotics takes the long-examined issues of
knowledge at a distance brought about by telescopes, microscopes, and
other technological media of discovery, and adds an important dimension by
examining action at a distance (p. 1).
``It is then slightly confusing when Thomas Campanella trains his
discussion on web cameras in the second introductory chapter, Eden by
Wire: Webcameras and the Telepresent Landscape. This survey of web cameras
and their relationship to other technologies and theoretical concerns
calls out both the promise and problem of the remainder of the book: the
essay draws out a number of related threads in the history of visual
technologies, the social context in which webcams are used, and some of
the theoretical problems raised, but fails to unite these into a cohesive
conceptual whole.
``The five chapters that follow discuss philosophical issues raised by
telepresence. The first of these, by Herbert Dreyfus, moves the discussion
firmly into a theoretical plane by introducing telepistemology and how it
relates to traditional questions of knowledge. Dreyfus suggests that the
issues raised by mediated reality - whether or not the events experienced
through the attenuated channels provided over the internet are really
occurring or are forgeries - are reminiscent of long-standing debates over
the Cartesian assertion that all experiences are mediated by our sense
organs. As our experiences are increasingly technologically mediated, he
wonders whether this will cause a resurgence in such questions, and
whether the increase of mediated experiences might bring into relief more
embodied experiences. Introduced by Dreyfus, and carried through in each
of the philosophical chapters, is the claim that new telepresence
technologies move epistemological concerns out of the abstract world of
philosophers, and into the lived experience of a large number of
people. Because more and more of our experiences are mediated, and because
the internet is especially fertile ground for hoaxes and counterfeits,
epistemological concerns are increasingly critical to the real
world. Though quite abstract at times, the essays provide good insight
into some of the theoretical concerns at hand.
``The second series of essays take a critical and cultural approach,
looking at how art, often at the cutting edge of telepresence, uses new
perspectives afforded by these technologies to challenge cultural and
perceptual conventions. Several of the chapters detail installations and
performances ranging from controlling the actions of humans remotely, to
making video available from the perspective of a bird or a doll. While
this is done in an attempt to illustrate issues of embodiment (central
here as in the more philosophical work), in reviewing these works,
something is lost. Many of the installations can be accessed over the web,
providing a better feel for the work, but since they are often related to
the interaction between mediated and physical reality, the reader/surfer
can only experience half of the piece. Too often the chapters in this part
of the book fall into cataloging and reporting rather than
criticism. Within this grouping, Oliver Grau's chapter (History of
Telepresence: Automata, Illusion, and Rejecting the Body) is the most
enlightening, in its engaging the history of the intersection between
images, automata, and the body. He concludes that the desire to overcome
physical distance, to project ourselves outside the constraints of our own
physical bodies, has always been a powerful motivation for both art and
technology (p. 242).
``The next four chapters are grouped under the heading of Engineering,
Interface, and System Design. While each of these essays touches on
design, the rubric barely constrains the breadth of these chapters. Blake
Hannaford's chapter is a stark departure from earlier parts of the book,
and provides a brief look at the technical considerations for designing
telerobotic systems. While certainly accessible to the non-engineer, and
an engaging and interesting introduction to problems of designing such
systems (the discussion of time delays and of scaling are both
fascinating), it is at first difficult to reconcile this with the earlier,
more theoretical work. John Canny and Eric Paulos present a discussion of
their telembodiment projects; among them, blimps that allow web surfers to
move through an environment and interact with others. The discussion is
really less about design than illustrating the ways in which such
embodiment affects how we know about the world and our social
interactions. Neither Judith Donath's chapter on Tele-identity nor Michael
Idinopulos' chapter on Transparent Interfaces are strictly about design in
the narrow sense, but treat, respectively, how identity is constructed
among real and artificial participants in a world and the relationship of
mediation to skepticism. What all of these do share is a clear link to
existing systems, and a further exploration of the potential consequences
of these systems.
``The Merleau-Ponty essay serves as an appropriate capstone to the
anthology. The essay discusses the ways in which the motion picture is
constructed as a gestalt and suggests that it reflects how we are
naturally bonded to our environments in inseparable ways. In his
introduction, Goldberg notes that one of the reasons for the inclusion of
this essay was as a precedent for a mating of the technical and the
philosophical. Indeed, few of the other essays reach the same level of
integrating philosophical and technical issues, or showing how these
concerns inform one another. However, it may be unfair to expect either
this level of depth or closure in a volume that openly aims at encouraging
debate and further work.
``In these aims, the volume does quite well. Anyone interested in larger
issues of critical and humanistic approaches to information and
communication technologies will, no doubt, find the essays in this book to
be both informative and thought provoking. It performs two very valuable
tasks. First, by calling attention to a set of technologies that are both
very new and also show every sign of rapid diffusion in the short term,
the book challenges us to turn questions of theory to more concrete and
immediate social challenges. Interest in virtuality and reality is
addressed here in a much more direct way, as the interface between the
real and the imaginary is central to telerobotic technologies. Second, the
book provides a tentative cannon, a set of introductory readings that begs
for both criticism and development. It is certainly not a substitute for a
more thoroughgoing theoretical grounding, but any reader interested in a
theoretical approach to new media technologies that manages to connect at
a practical level will not be disappointed by The Robot in the Garden.''

Alexander Halavais
New Media Research Lab
University of Washington
School of Communication
Box 353740
Seattle, WA 98115

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