Neither Here Nor There

“Is anyone going to get this?”

Today involved a lot of grumbling over my keyboard at the office, not because I disliked the task at hand so much as I questioned the utility of it. This, of course, is a consequence of that inevitable malaise at the end of a project, the recognition that this will soon be out of one’s own hands and into the hands of another. As an intern especially, these kinds of projects become especially lost in the ether of future interpretation and manipulation; who knows what will become of the dozens of new help documents I’ve created? They may be useful for new training (that’s the goal, anyway), but will they actually improve the experience of using the software? More importantly, will they actually enact change?

This question of whether distance help can actually – well – help is a really interesting one to consider especially in light of the growing ubiquity of online education. After all, that is perhaps the larger goal of this project: to create a kind of “online educational” system for new users of this software. Granted, the content of this kind of online educational system is very different than that I’m developing for UCOE (and that, inevitably, changes the approaches for delivery of said content), but theoretically, the concerns are very similar.

I guess I’m jazzed by this idea of what can be enacted from a distance because I’m slowly working my way through Lev Manovich‘s The Language of New Media and found myself especially interested in his chapter on what he coins “Teleaction.”

(On a sidenote, there will definitely be more posts about this book in the future, because it is really thought-provoking and awesome and I happen to love Manovich’s writing, too).

Bigger picture: Manovich’s text is all about trying to understand how new media objects differ from – well – text-based objects (i.e. “old media,” if you will).

Back to the more focused picture (and hey, isn’t it interesting that I’m invoking the logic of the visual to explain an abstract thought?): To Manovich, “teleaction” is one of three “operations” essential to understanding how new media functions. The prefix “tele,” of course, means “distance,” so, naturally, any word with the prefix “tele” attached to it is going to indicate something that is either performed or located at a distance.

Anyway, Manovich argues that “teleaction” has only been made possible through new media objects (like telephones and televisions, of course). But, hey, here’s something unique that our computers do: it projects telepresence. 

That is, with a simple Internet connection, we perform actions from a distance that necessarily impact what other people do. Manovich discusses the example of military decoys controlled by remote operations, but I couldn’t help but think of virtual classrooms, places where teachers transmit lectures over a distance, necessarily affecting the kinds of changes (i.e. the transmission of knowledge) that have traditionally been affected in a present space. Of course, one could argue that since the age of the printing press, knowledge has been transmitted from a distance. However, to me, it seems that online education marks a distinct change in ontological mindset: when we read, we know that learning is unilateral (we are but receiving information), but when we attend a lecture or become a part of a class we are (hopefully) engaging in a bilateral process, one where we are not but passive recipients, but also users of information, learners making changes (or at least reaching conclusions and solving problems) based on the information received.

The way Manovich puts this is far more articulate than the way I’m expressing it: “The ability to receive visual information about a remote place in real time allows us to manipulate physical reality in this place, also in real-time. If power, according to Latour, includes the ability to manipulate resources at a distance, then teleaction provides a new and unique kind of power – real-time remote control” (169).

TL;DR? Isn’t it compelling that in the twenty-first century we can affect change from a distance so quickly and easily?

The question now is: how do we affect that change responsibly and effectively? How do we not just assert presence in another place instantaneously and affect unilateral change, but also continue to encourage conversation?

This may seem somewhat tangential to the conversation at hand, but I also cannot help but think of the cool ways in which musicians interacted with Chatroulette when for all of a fleeting second, that was the hottest thing on the Internet. For those who missed this blip on the Internet radar, Chatroulette is a webcam chat service that users would log on to with the intention of talking to strangers. One would simply log into Chatroulette and be connected to another stranger also using Chatroulette. If a user on one end was not enjoying the conversation with the user on the end, he/she could simply “skip” to another user and see yet another floating face from any part of the world logged into Chatroulette.

This was a really provocative idea. To be able to talk with people instantaneously from all over the world provided the potential to make some great conversations and see what other people’s lives are like. Unfortunately, Chatroulette became well-known for the ubiquity of – well – shall we say inappropriate exposure?

That said, one of my celebrity crushes, Ben Folds, did one of the coolest things ever with Chatroulette: he logged into Chatroulette during a concert and improvised songs about the people who appeared on Chatroulette with him:

Anyway, Ben Folds completely reclaimed Chatroulette and turned it into exactly what it was intended to be: a conversation between people that had the potential to affect change. In concert, Folds responded to whatever the person on the other end did; the lucky ones who happened to be on Chatroulette at the same time that Ben Folds was are just tickled pink by the fact that their every movements and words change what Folds sang. Sure, this kind of “change” is not exactly cultural upheaval, but it’s exciting to see the way in which someone (effectively) manages to use this power of telepresence to make some kind of impact (even if it’s just an entertaining impact).

To bring this back to the work I’ve done this summer: I can only hope that the way I’ve transmitted information (hopefully over distances to future users of this software) can not only be an effective way for people to learn, but also promote greater inquiry into and understanding of the kinds of tools they’re using.

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