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“Distance versus Desire” by Eric Kluitenberg

Distance versus Desire* by Eric Kluitenberg:

Clearing the ElectroSmog

The desire to transcend distance and separation has accompanied the history of media technology for many centuries. Various attempts to realise the demand for a presence from a distance have produced beautiful imaginaries such as those of telepresence and ubiquity, the electronic cottage and the reinvigoration of the oikos, and certainly not least among them the reduction of physical mobility in favour of an ecologically more sustainable connected life style. As current systems of hyper-mobility are confronted with an unfolding energy crisis and collide with severe ecological limits — most prominently in the intense debate on global warming — citizens and organisations in advanced and emerging economies alike are forced to reconsider one of the most daring projects of the information age: that a radical reduction of physical mobility is possible through the use of advanced telepresence technologies.

ElectroSmog and the quest for a sustainable immobility

The ElectroSmog festival for ‘sustainable immobility’, staged in March 2010 [1], was both an exploration of this grand promise of telepresence and a radical attempt to create a new form of public meeting across the globe in real-time. ElectroSmog tried to break with traditional conventions of staging international public festivals and conferences through a set of simple rules: No presenter was allowed to travel across their own regional boundaries to join in any of the public events of the festival, while each event should always be organised in two or more locations at the same time. To enable the traditional functions of a public festival, conversation, encounter, and performance, physical meetings across geographical divides therefore had to be replaced by mediated encounters.

The festival was organised at a moment when internet-based techniques of tele-connection, video-telephony, visual multi-user on-line environments, live streams, and various forms of real-time text interfaces had become available for the general public, virtually around the globe. No longer an object of futurology ElectroSmog tried to establish the new critical uses that could be developed with these every day life technologies, especially the new breeds of real-time technologies. The main question here was if a new form of public assembly could emerge from the new distributed space-time configurations that had been the object of heated debates already for so many years?

There was a sense of unease when looking back at the bold promises of remoter life and work in the ‘electronic cottage’ that futurologists such as Alvin Toffler spelled out for us in the early 1980s, in books such as “The Third Wave” (the ‘coming information age’ as the third wave, after agricultural and industrial society) [2]. As part of his near-future explorations conducted well before the rise of widespread internet use, Toffler enthusiastically embraced the suggestion that a radical reduction of (physical) mobility would become possible by the rise of ever more sophisticated communication and information technologies and the integration of home and workplace in the electronic cottage. Not only would this transformation, in Toffler’s vision, reap great ecological benefits, it would also initiate a grand revitalisation of the ‘oikos’, the household and the family unit.

The electronic cottage should ideally be a real-time connected living and working space, allowing a new kind of digital artisan / entrepreneur to emerge who would be absolved from rush hour-traffic while being ultimately flexible in making his or her own work and private arrangements. The main advantage of the new work/life unit was its inherent efficiency, where meetings would be arranged solely when strictly necessary and flexible according to need and availability of everyone involved in the process. The main element won back from the congested systems of collective work and travel was time. Time that could instead be invested in the ‘oikos‘, the home, family life, and local social relations, that could help to restore the psychic fabric of society, which had become unravelled through the brutal forces of ‘second wave’ grand scale industrial modernisation. Work and life at home could now be brought into unison again.

Today, however, more than 25 years after these all bold claims, we can observe exactly the reverse trend: Never before have wo/men travelled more and farther. Not least because of their improved capabilities to keep in touch with the ‘home base’ from afar. With advanced communication techniques work has entered the sphere of private life and mostly diminished the space and time for the oikos. The simultaneous exponential innovation of transport technologies and logistics, in particular in the automobile and aviation industry, have had a cataclysmic effect on this ‘fatal’ trajectory. The system of hyper-mobility has quite literally overheated itself, and seems unstoppably heading for a crash. Even more so, it seems to exhaust itself at an exponential rate.

While most people do enjoy living in a global village, few appreciate a forced life in the local village. Rather than moving towards a sustainable immobility, we seem to be heading towards a global ecological disaster scenario. The crucial question for ElectroSmog was whether a critical reconsideration of this idea of a sustainable immobility was possible, both in theoretical and practical terms.

Necessity and failure

The urgency of the search for alternatives for the current crisis of hyper-mobility was illustrated graphically by the opening conversation of the festival “Global perspectives on the crisis of mobility”. In our first video chat with the crew of Sasahivi media in Nairobi we talked about the daily commute in Kenya’s capital. The city has seen a sharp increase in motorised travel in recent years, leading to over-congested roads and unbearably intense rush hour traffic. To avoid the worst the people at Sasaivi traditionally would leave their homes early in the morning, before rush hour, and return only late, often very late at night. During the day roads were simply too busy.

So, how long would a daily commute take? – “about two to three hours”, and what distance would they have to cover? – “about 2,5 to 3 kilometres” (!).

Next we connected with Dutch architect Daan Roggeveen who is conducting the research project Go West together with journalist Michiel Hulshof about the development of new metropolises in Central and Western China [3]. They had just come back from a field trip in Wuhan, and Roggeveen explained that they had found that about 500 new cars were entering the streets of Wuhan every day. We then asked him how many cities of similar size were currently present in China, and he replied about 30, not counting Shanghai and Beijing. In short, by a (very) moderate count some 15.000 new cars were entering Chinese roads daily as we spoke.

We then listened to a short video message by Partha Pratim Sarker from Dhaka, Bangladesh relating similar experiences and being hopeful that new communication technologies could do something to alleviate the stress of the streets. Next up film maker Aarti Sethi from Delhi told us that by her estimate some 1000 new cars entered Delhi roads every day, especially intensified by the introduction of the Tata, the low cost automobile that obviously replaces many polluting motor-ricksha’s, but still.

In a nutshell we received a chilling summary of a global exponential rise of motorised mobility through these first hand reports. With car use, air travel and motorised transportation not diminishing in the developed economies this system of hyper-mobility out of control seems to approach its limits rather sooner than later, and virtually all counter-strategies so far seem entirely ineffective.

The Spectre of Imaginary Media

Imaginary Media are machines that mediate impossible desires. Imaginary media typically emerge in situations where the living environment imposes inherent limitations that one cannot transcend. The desire to exceed these limitations produces beautiful phantasies, and in the case of imaginary media they are projected onto technological systems — both existent and inexistent — that are supposed to realise what an ordinary human existence is unable to deliver. Imaginary media are the techno-imaginary constructs that populate the domain of impossibility.

One manifestation of this desire to transcend the limitations of living experience is the longing for immediate contact across any distance or divide. And it is this desire for a ubiquitous telepresence, replacing the actual presence here and now, more than anything else, that has fuelled the development of new media and communication technologies. This desire is in fact so strong that even in lowest bandwidth environments tremendous investments of mental and emotional energy can be observed, across different technological and historical settings (recent examples are for instance the IRC text chat or SMS text messaging). ‘Signal’ in these case is interpreted as ‘contact’, and a phantasmatic projection of connection and interaction is projected onto the faintest of signals, aided further by the curious emergence of synaesthetic perceptions where minute changes in tone, rhythm or even wording can produce intense bodily sensations and responses.

This intermingling of imaginary and actual qualities of connection-media has obscured the discussions about the benefits and limits of telepresence technologies thoroughly. Regardless if one is talking about mobile phone use, deep technological experimentation in telepresence labs, on-line virtual environments of the Second Life type, high powered tele-work centres, or more regular real-time web applications and video chat systems, it seems very difficult to escape this aspect of the phantasmatic. Critical scrutiny, however, needs to cleanse itself from these phantasmatic distortions if it is to get anywhere with its task of establishing clear boundaries and areas of possibility.

For ElectroSmog the central question was, can we convene a public event, a festival, with everything you might expect from it, where audiences and presenters from a host of different countries and regions of the earth can meet, interact, encounter, exchange without having to travel outside of their locale? Or in even more mundane terms, can an international festival be staged without anybody travelling and still be a viable public event? And while the technologies used worked fine most of the time, the answer to this central question was clearly “No”. However, this ‘failure’ became clear in a rather surprising way.

What the festival showed through its radical approach to this question is 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.

The interesting question here is why?

Could playful interfaces, allowing audiences to interact across different localities have helped to create this sense of co-presence? Certainly it would have helped to create this sense in situations where audiences were actually present in different connected spaces. However, curiously, exactly those programs were generally well visited that showed strong local participation and a minimum (the ‘at least one’ rule) of connected localities. Much can be done to improve the experience, but even in the deliriously transmediated environment of the ElectroSmog central connection node, the theatre space of De Balie in Amsterdam, the energy never entirely seemed to materialise.

The rather inevitable conclusion that must be drawn from this is that the idea of a replacement of physical encounters by mediated encounters is simply an illusion. First of all, this mediated encounter denies the unspoken subtle bodily cues that shape actual conversation.The experience of co-presence in the same space is determined by so many perceptible and sub-liminal incentives that digital electronic media do not capture, that the idea of an immersive experience relies more on the phantasmatic cover of these absent cues and the curious human capacity for synaesthetic perception, than on the performative capabilities of the medium. A digital video-link certainly does not replace these subliminal cues.

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.

It is this libidinal drive for connection, identification and belonging that propels the development of new media and communication technologies. These technologies are greeted with great enthusiasm as long as they are able to conjure up a phantasmatic image of connectedness that is able to cover (u)p the lack of actual presence and (physical) contact. However, this phantasmatic projection is never able to displace the feeling of a lack entirely, and thus a surplus desire remains that needs to be satisfied by other means. The consequence is that an intensified use of communication technology does not lead to less, but instead to an increased desire for physical encounter.

This observation is also remarkably concurrent with what mobility researchers have concluded about the actual behaviour of people in environments deeply saturated with advanced communication technologies. While some effects can be observed that can lead to a moderation of certain forms of travel and transport (tele work, on-line and phone conferences and so on), the indirect generative effects of these communication media tend to create intensified mobility patterns in these same regions (i.e. not necessarily work of profession related).

Communication media serve all kinds of practical purposes, obviously, and also those that can replace the necessity of physical encounter, movement, travel and its associated hassles. There is, however, a point at which the lack presence and contact brings the phantasmatic projection of the technologically enabled communication process to a point of crisis. And this is the moment when people start up the engine of their cars – the moment when the imaginary medium and the libidinal drive meet in a frontal crash.

Dilemmas after the crash of media and before the crash of hyper-mobility

In all this the urgency of our quest for a sustainable immobility is not lessened. The apparent failure of telepresence technologies leaves us stranded with a huge dilemma. Not to act is really not an option given the intensified pressures of a mobility system out of control. But are there any solutions?

Unfortunately there are as yet not too many reasons to be hopeful. The first step forward towards a new more sustainable regime of mobility and connectivity, and a new balance between mobility and immobility, would be not to believe in linear narratives, neither positivistic nor fatalistic. More communication technology does not automatically lead to less physical mobility. But equally, the current systems of hyper-mobility cannot grow at an exponential rate indefinitely. They will encounter new energetic, ecological, and with that also increasingly economic limits. The other observation that mobility researchers generally point to (next to the failure of communication technology) is that price is about the only mechanism that does seem to have a discernible effect on actual (mobility) behaviour.

As currently widely used energy systems (fossil fuels) become increasingly scarce, their price will inevitably go up. This will transform mobility from a right (or a perceived right) into a privilege, constructed along the traditional lines of socio-economic segregation (income, profession, class). The struggle over the privileges of mobility and movement will create a new consciousness about their spatial deployment (who is allowed to travel where and by which means?). This new consciousness of segregation will undoubtedly spark conflict and critical debate.

The second step would be to accept the need for hybrid and therefore ‘messy’ solutions. The economics of mobility will undoubtedly play an important role in shaping future mobility regimes. The exploration of alternative sources of energy and alternative transportation systems and technologies provide another avenue to look for viable escape routes. The on-going refinement of communication tools, media environments, tele-work arrangements and 21st century electronic cottages and other models of sustainable immobility will also play a role in those situations where practical advantages take priority over the libidinal drive for encounter. (Tele-)Presence researcher Caroline Nevejan emphasises that the new communication technologies do not offer us ideal solutions at all, but they will in the future become increasingly indispensable. [4]

The least desirable scenario is that of the crash, the ‘accident-catastrophe’ preprogrammed in current systems of hyper-nobility. Given the tidings from a confused planet rushing at high-speed into a global traffic jam, reported at ElectroSmog, this scenario cannot be excluded from our considerations for now.

Eric Kluitenberg
Amsterdam, November 2010

Notes:

1 – An overview of documentation resources from the festival can be found at:
www.electrosmogfestival.net/documentation
2 – Alvin Toffler, The Third Wave, Bantam Books, New York, 1980.
3 – www.gowestproject.com
4 – See for Nevejan’s research on Witnessed Presence: www.systemsdesign.tbm.tudelft.nl/witness

* This text was written for the upcoming issue in the Acoustic Space series (No.8), co-published by RIXC centre for new media culture in Riga and the Art Research Lab of Liepaja University: “Following the theme of ENERGY this issue will look at different social and cultural aspects of energy in the contemporary human society. It will also investigate the notion of ‘sustainability’ from various perspectives – artistic, scientific, technological, architectural, environmental.” (More info soon at the RIXC on-line store: http://rixc.lv/kiosks/)

The text is an extended version of a talk given at Impakt Festival 2010 “Matrix City”, in Utrecht as part of the Superstructural Dependencies Conference, October 15, 2010.
(www.impakt.nl/index.php/festival/Conferentie_superstructuraldependen)

Distance versus Desire: the video from ElectroSmog Festival on Vimeo.


Nov 29, 18:12
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