Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology
Book Review by Alexander Halavais

Volume 52, Issue 7, May 2001. Pages: 598-599.

Book Review: The Robot in the Garden: Telerobotics and Telepistemology in the Age of the Internet. Ken Goldberg, ed. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press; 2000: 366 pp. Price: $35.00. (ISBN: 0-262-07203-3.)

``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 environments.

``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 (, 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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