"Telezone" builds on many of the ideas of Ken Goldberg's earlier "Telegarden" (1995) also at the Ars Electronica Center, and allows a community of people to collaboratively create architectonic structures--and by extension social structures--at a distance.
Gerfried Stocker, Ars Electronica Center
The TeleZone project is of special importance for the Ars Electronica Center in more than one respect:
First and foremost, it is a successful example of the integration potential of the Ars Electronica Center. If you look at the list of the persons and institutions who made this project possible - university institutes, technical college courses, the Telekom, the company Wittmann, a project manager who is both an expert in robotics and a student of philosophy, graphic artists, architects, programmers - it almost seems to be a textbook example of the synergy of art, science and research which is demanded ever so often, as well as of the combination of different fields of competencies which are required when faced with the task of dealing with the challenges arising in connection with the new digital technologies.
Apart from the above, however, it is also a prototypical experiment setting for investigating the modern information society based on these technologies.
"Software code - more than law - defines the true parameters of freedom in cyberspace. The question of what the architecture of cyberspace should be is not a neutral question. We need to think about it in political terms."
This observation by Lawrence Lessing, lawyer and professor at Harvard, puts a crucial issue into words. Which norms and conventions will determine the way we will live together in a world defined by global acceleration and networking?
The most fascinating novel aspect about the Internet, its cultural and economic potential lies in its publicity, the way in which - unlike in any other medium in the past - not only passive consuming is possible but active participation on a broad and general scale. Each participant may act as transmitter or recipient, whatever pleases them more. Owing to this simple technical fact the Internet becomes a lot more than merely a modern information medium - it develops into a strong infrastructure for a community.
Telepresence (in simple words, the possibility of becoming noticeable at a location where one is present only via a network connection) is among the most important but also among the most difficult tasks which we will have to deal with on our way towards a functioning information society. The main question is how we will transfer into the cyberspace the manifold social conduct and communication techniques which have been developed, learned and practiced in the so-called real world for ages and ages, and which new techniques can be developed.
This question is of vital importance not only for a handful of computer and internet freaks. Everyday we transfer an increasing number of our social interactions to the world of the electronic media, and everyday we become more and more aware of being embedded in a highly technological environment. Think of our hospitals, of the global financial and stock exchange system, which on the basis of its global digital network has become the central vital nerve not only for western industrialized nations, or think of teleworking, telebanking, telelearning...
How and by which coordinates are we going to find our way in this environment, how will we establish a friendship, how do aversions develop, and how confidence? How can we create a common basis - and how provide for a certain distance? Both differentiation and individuality are essential elements of social processes also in the virtual world.
And not least, TeleZone is also a model project of a new kind of museum didactics which involves the strategy of conveying contents by making the visitors part of the exhibition.
The starting point of the project was a telephone conversation of several hours with Ken Goldberg, the Californian artist and expert in robotics, during which we discussed the possibilities of a successor project for the Telegarden. We were trying to find a similarly suitable model for society and social responsibilities - comparable to the robot in the garden - and Ken came up with the concept of a project combining the Internet and architecture. He had already dealt with similar structural approaches in a number of projects and wanted to realize these ideas in a larger-scale project involving a robot controlled via the Internet. I got immediately attracted by the possibility to extend the scope of the architectural experiment by allowing for the development of an "Internet city". This would be the model we had been looking for, serving the purpose of investigating the social processes among people who only know each other via computers and networks, but also as the ideal interface between the local visitors of our museum, i.e. those who are actually physically present, and the telematic visitors, i.e. those who are telepresent, virtually present, via the Internet.
In the TeleZone project, the city is a metaphor by which concepts for an Internet society can be compared to present and past experience. Cities developed as geographical conglomerations of common needs and have always served the purpose of creating social networks by way of spatial concentration. At all times they have been the centers of power, capital, knowledge and culture. 20th century cityscapes are determined by industrial machines, the acceleration of traffic, transport and communications systems, and the speeding-up of decision-making and business processes, which is decisive in competition. The digital city - as a model for describing common processes within a global telematic society - does not any longer exist in the form of extensive residential areas, industrial plants and skyscraping office towers but in software programs on computers all over the globe.
In a telematic information society, the individual's participation in the public life is not a matter of streets or squares, does not depend on geographical unity, but on media competency. Even more so than its geographical predecessor, the digital city as the "polis" of cyberspace will essentially serve as interface between the individual and society, between private life and publicity, a social construct where identity is established by cultural correlation.
TeleZone is a project of Ars Electronica Center and Telekom Austria AG and is supported by Wittmann, Roboterbaureihen und Automatisierungsanlagen.