[VBbuilders] Fwd: Distance versus Desire - Clearing the ElectroSmog

Franz Nahrada f.nahrada at reflex.at
Wed Dec 1 09:34:17 CET 2010

Dear Globalvillagers,

I rarely do crossposts, but this piece from the IDC List by Eric
Kluitenberg  is directlly connected to our cause and contains some
worthwhile news and much more than that. I touches a central premise on
which the idea of Global Villages is built - the assumption that "hot
telepresence" is possible.

(see: http://www.globalvillages.info/wiki/wiki.cgi?GlobalVillages/Welcome

You would think at the beginning that this piece would start up with the
same mainstream yawning that we meet whenever we advocate the Global
Villages patterns.
But no, it turns into a positive attitude, takes the issue serious and
highlights the role of constraints - while eventually argueing against the
possibility of a drastic shift to a new localisation supported by global
networks of "telepresence" (however you want to call it)

But even using the language of "forced life in a local village"
undeestimates the possibility of having it all handed over to a grand
design effort like we have done with so many things in our gadget world.
If we had spent a fraction of the ingenuity that is built into the car
rather towards the oikos or much better the village and metavillage (the
regional meshwork of interconnected and coordinated activities which gives
us the regional equivalent of an urban fabric) and the mothercities (the
global hubs that enable decentralisation) we would be better off today -
in a consistent world with lots of choices.

Its not too late, but much more urgent to find the solution - and we have
some gains in knowledge and lots of great tools that can really help us.
Yet we are not there, thats undisputable. But we have broadened our
designer base, teaming up with ClearVilage and others.

so I fullheartedly agree when Eric writes:

"With car use, air travel and motorised transportation not diminishing in
the developed economies this system of hypermobility out of control seems
to approach its limits rather sooner than later, and virtually all
counter-strategies so far seem entirely ineffective."

When he concludes it is all depending on existing activity and active
participation, we agree. More than that, we claim that we are close the
solution to the problem he states - in the development of a true
synchronicity of learning and working circles connected by videobridges. 

Some of us here in Austria made all the described experiences and failures
ourselves (maybe have not enough documented them), that were nicely
repeated here (see below), but we think we might have the clue. its a
hybrid solution, but of a special kind. It needs dozens of patterns to be
combined in the right way to work. I am very grateful to the extensive
layout of the problem. Lets be more focused on outlining the solution!

Eric gave me permission and wrote: 

"Great - by all means. I posted it to stirr up a bit of discussion."
"Also curious about your proposed 'solution'!"
"The text was distributed now because we just finished the documentation
from the ElectroSmog festival, and you can find that at:
www.electrosmogfestival.net/documentation "

Stay tuned to see if our efforts to convene the globalvillagers in May2011
in Berlin will succeed. I would love to have Eric there.

all the best


----- Original Message by Eric Kluitenberg -----

Dear IDC members,

This short essay was written to reflect on outcomes of the ElectroSmog
fesrtival (March 2010) and the telepresence conundrum. It seemed relevant
to some of the concerns of the IDC list and after some consultation with
IDC's chief of operations I decided to post it here.

best wishes,


Distance versus Desire

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
hypermobility 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 hypermobility 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
hypermobility 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 hypermobility 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

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 up 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 of 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

Dilemmas after the crash of media and before the crash of hypermobility

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 hypermobility 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)

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 hypermobility.
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 


1 -  An overview of documentation resources from the festival can be found

2 -  Alvin Toffler, The Third Wave, Bantam Books, New York, 1980.

3 -  www.gowestproject.com 

4 -  See for Nevejan’s research on Witnessed Presence:

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