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The Robot in the Garden: Telerobotics and Telepistemology in the Age of the Internet

Editor: Ken Goldberg
Publisher: Cambridge, MA & London, UK: MIT Press, 2000
Review Published: November 2001

 REVIEW 1: Jonathan J. Lillie

The Robot in the Garden: Telerobotics and Telepistemology in the Age of the Internet,edited by Ken Goldberg, consists of eighteen chapters authored by a group of philosophers, artists, engineers, historians, and new media scholars. Most of these chapters are developed within three sections: Philosophy; Art, History, and Critical Theory; and Engineering, Interface, and System Design. The interests of this unique collaboration are focused on the epistemological implications of the development of robots, cameras, and other hardware that can be controlled by operators in different geographical locations via the transmission of signals over the Internet. The book's title refers to one such project where Internet users can plant seeds in an Austrian garden by controlling a robotic arm through a Web site interface. Goldberg, an associate professor at UC Berkley, was, in fact, involved with the creation of the first "robot on the Internet" (xi). For philosophers and engineers alike, this type of distance-mediated experience foregrounds Rene Descartes' insights on how we can know what we perceive is actually true. Was I really making a robot arm in Austria move using the control display on a Web site, or was I being deceived by a series of prearranged images?

As a whole, this work offers an argument for the inclusion of telepistemology, as a subject of inquiry, into the canon of cyberstudies, new media, and artistic discourses. The numerous accounts offered regarding the current status and limitations of telerobotics, although useful as a survey of existing technology, implicitly reinforce the fact that we do not know if future media users will ever be faced with telepistemological issues in their everyday lives. Furthermore, by only looking at a narrow spectrum of issues, this work failed to convince me that many of the points that are raised are applicable outside of philosophic debates. Are we to assume that Internet users do not develop personal and collective rituals and techniques for deciding when and how authenticity and truth become important issues? For these reasons, I do not classify this collection as a highly recommended read, unless you are fond of epistomoligical or phenomenological philosophy or telerobotics. Despite this, I do recommend four essays from The Robot in the Garden for those interested in the broader implications of both telerobotics and telepistemology.

The first group of essays in this work focuses on the philosophical question of what kinds of knowing from a distance are possible. Hubert Dreyfus, for example, in his piece, "Telepistemology: Descartes' Last Stand," argues that Descartes' skeptical challenge in the seventeenth century to the notion of any kind of knowing outside of immediate experience may again be applicable in a telemediated world. In an attempt to apply his concerns to everyday Internet use, Dreyfus concludes: "As we spend more and more time interacting remotely, we may erode our embodied sense of a risky yet trustworthy world that makes physical or human contact seem real. As this sense is weakened, even our daily "local" experience may take on an illusory quality and so seem to be in need of justification. In such a disembodied and dubious world, epistemology might stage a comeback as telepistemology, and Descartes might make a successful last stand" (63).

In contrast to Dreyfus' philosophical suppositions is Jeff Malpas' essay, "Acting at a Distance and Knowing from Afar: Agency and Knowledge on the Internet," which I found to be the best and most accessible chapter in this section. Rather than centering his argument within an historical debate, Malpas foregrounds the ontology of contemporary Internet use: "Indeed, if we examine the phenomenon of the Internet more carefully, what becomes evident is that, far from being detached from location, knowledge, even in the context of the Internet, is fundamentally tied to place and our active engagement of place" (110). Malpas notes that the lack of presence and nearness of objects in cyberspace and the constraints on interactions with these objects or other people via the Internet areobvious. By grounding experience and knowing within the immediacy of the local, this essay gives stability to the unity of mind and body, and in doing so helps to demystify to a certain extent the logical gymnastics of Dreyfus and his telepistemologist colleagues. Thus, Malpas' work benefits from being refreshingly tangible in following the telepistemologists whose union with the futurist rhetoric of teleroboticits and virtual reality seems to mark them as being engaged with a project of technological evolutionism from the start.

Two excellent chapters are also included in the section on art, history, and critical theory. In "The Speed of Light and the Virtualization of Reality," Martin Jay, a professor of European Intellectual History, chronicles how the study of the delayed reception of starlight has raised fundamental questions about experiences mediated at a distance. For Jay, the simulacrum of virtual reality can never be complete, even when the original no longer exists. Trace elements are always left and perceived: "By comparing the world of virtual reality with the delayed light from distant stars, Baudrillard alerts us to the attenuated indexical trace of an objective real that haunts the apparently self-referential world of pure simulacra . . . [t]he temporality of virtuality is thus not pure simultaneity or contemporaneity, but the disjointed time that disrupts any illusion of self-presence" (161).

Machiko Kusahara's chapter, "Presence, Absence, and Knowledge in Telerobotic Art," surveys several interactive, telerobotic art installations. Through the implantation of technologies such as video cameras, microphones, and speakers that allow for different sense perceptions of rooms many hundreds or thousands of miles away from the users or Internet operators, these projects raise questions as to the types of experiences and knowing that are possible at a distance.

From the section of chapters regarding engineering, interface, and system design, robotics engineers John Canny and Eric Paulos ask similar questions in their piece, "Tele-Embodiment and Shattered Presence: Reconstructing the Body for the Online Interaction." These authors are interested in exploring the limitations of computer-mediated sense experiences through the development of Internet connected and controlled robots that serve as surrogate bodies for their controllers. For this purpose two PRoPs (Personal Roving Presence Devices) were created and deployed. The strength in both this essay and Kusahara's thus lies in the authors' willingness to allow exploration into the real interactions between people and sensing machines.

The last chapter that I recommend, one that I found very informative and applicable to cyberculture studies, is Thomas J. Campanella's essay, "Eden by Wire: Webcameras and the Telepresent Landscape." A scholar concerned with urban landscapes, Campanella is fascinated with the power thatwebcams have to allow surveillance of real spaces with complete disregard for distance. By enabling remote observation, webcams also provide the possibilities for several types of telepresence. "Telepresence is reciprocal," Campanella writes, "involving both the observer and the observed . . . the observer is telepresent in the remote environment, and the observed environment is telepresent in the physical space in which the observer is viewing the scene" (27).

Webcams enable a telepresent link from locations as diverse as home offices, high atop Mt. Everest, urban streets, and South African wildlife preserves. Campanella observes that this diversity would not exist if not for the grassroots initiative that individual webcam operators have displayed. This popularity, he ventures, has developed because webcams help Internet users to negotiate a balance "between the 'placeful' physical world and the disembodied, displaced realm of cyberspace" (42). The limited sense of place and presence offered through a webcam-mediated experience of a street corner in New York, as in one example, provides something that those of us who spend hours online are, perhaps, missing. In offering this analysis of how and why people are using webcams -- one specific telepresent technology -- Campanella offers the reader of The Robot in the Garden several dimensions that are missing from other chapters. However, like many of the authors in the book, Campanella seems fully invested in the telepistemic project, failing to note or critique some of the basic economic and social structures and assumptions that it rests upon.

From the beginning, this work suffers from a crisis in genre. The book does fulfill the task that Goldberg assigns to it -- to interrogate the "central issues for the new subject of telepistemology: the study of knowledge acquired at a distance" (3), while describing the objects linked to the Internet (webcams and robots) that enable remote modes of knowing. In taking up this challenge, however, it is unlikely that the true, or only, target audience for this book is epistemologists. Rather, the real target is scholars and intellectuals interested in a diverse range of Internet and new media related topics. To this broader group, in which I include myself, The Robot in the Garden introduces a new topic of concern for our community at large. A claim for legitimacy is being made. It is because of this goal to maintain a thematic focus, I think, that many issues such as the social, cultural, and ethical implications of telerobotics and teleontology are not addressed. Furthermore, is also because of this focus that the work suffers from some repetitive chapters and a lack of creative, accessible, and wide reaching material. Certainly, some of the philosophic writing on telepistemology and descriptions of telerobotic installations make for interesting reading, but on the whole a convincing argument is not made for the relevance of telepistemology in the broader arena of cyberculture studies. And thus, considering the strength of the chapters outlined above, The Robot in the Garden warrants at least a selective reading.

Jonathan J. Lillie:
Jonathan J. Lillie is a Park Doctoral Fellow in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His interests include the cultural uses of Internet technologies, new media, 'information society' discourses, and Web pornography. He is currently developing his dissertation on the theoretical and methodological issues of Web site analysis.  <jlillie@email.unc.edu>

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