Telepistemology, Combat Robots, and Human Pacman

[The following comments were presented during the War and (Computer/Video) Gaming session at the Occupied Spaces Symposium, Roy H. Park School of Communications, Ithaca College, April 8 and 9, 2005.]

First, I want to thank Patty Zimmerann for inviting me to this symposium. Patty played a vital role in my intellectual development when I was an undergraduate student here, and is one reason Ithaca College has a special place in my heart.

Video gaming is not one of my research areas, but I hope I can make a couple of meaningful comments to contribute to this discussion. My focus will be on the role of technology in facilitating knowledge and action at a distance, and how computer games can place that knowledge in the service of destruction or understanding. I should mention that I am publishing these comments on my blog, in case anyone is interested in reviewing some of the resources I will be discussing.

Telepistemology: Knowing at a Distance

Let me begin by making an observation about the role of technology in the development of our understanding of the world, specially our understanding of things that are not part of our immediate surroundings. It used to be that the farther things were from us physically, the more difficult it was to acquire empirical knowledge about them. In other words, geographic distance largely determined what was available for us to know, and to an extent, what we cared about. In that unmediated context, knowledge about and empathy towards a member of my community was greater than knowledge about and empathy towards someone in a distant land I could hardly begin to imagine.

Today, thanks to information and communication technologies (ICTs), geographic distance is not such a big factor in determining what is accessible to our understanding and empathy. This is what telepistemology means: knowing-at-a-distance. Furthermore, technology has enabled not only our ability to know at a distance, but also to act at a distance. Telepresence means being able to commit an act here with repercussions that are felt there, such as petting a chicken.

This is of course redefining our relationship to the world. What is spatially far can become epistemologically or ontologically near (through very different processes of mediation that I will ignore for the moment). Many people refer to this phenomenon as the Death of Distance. I don’t particularly care for that term, as it tends to hide the politics behind this shift. Distance is not dead. The terms of discourse have merely shifted in such a way as to devalue some things and value others. For example, what I call the irrelevancy of the near means that we can develop relationships with what is far at the expense of what is immediately around us. This is what allows us, for instance, to collaborate with peers in a global network while ignoring the decaying state of the communities outside our offices. In this example, poverty in our immediate surroundings has simply become irrelevant in relation to our existence in virtual communities.

Killing at a Distance

So while we struggle to balance our knowing and acting across the near and the far in order to bring about greater understanding and empathy, the history of knowing and acting at a distance to facilitate warfare goes way back. In fact, warfare since the bow and arrow has been all about action at a distance. Weapons have become increasingly sophisticated with regards to maximizing their destructive potential while keeping the soldier at a safe distance, and computer games have played a crucial role in familiarizing us with the types of user interfaces required to manipulate remote-killing weapons.

talon.gifConsider the TALON robot, shown here. It’s currently being tested in Iraq. Its intended use is mostly for what is called explosive ordinance disposal (EOD), but one article (Robot Warriors Are Heading to Iraq!) already talks about mounting heavy weaponry on the TALON. If this future sounds too much like a Terminator movie, you’ll be happy to hear (I’m being sarcastic) that a developer of the TALON says: “For the foreseeable future, there always will be a person in the loop who makes the decision on friend or foe. That’s a hard problem to determine autonomously.” I wonder if once the ‘foreseeable future’ comes and goes, it will become more acceptable to let the machine make such decisions, and tolerate the margin of error.

If the connection between the TALON and video games is not already obvious, I would like to direct your attention to the Operator Control Unit (click image to enlarge): Which one of us brought up in a video game culture would not know almost intuitively what to do with that interface? All you need to look for is the joystick and the red button.

Killing at a distance does not always involve weapons. Knowledge-at-a-distance can have less belligerent but equally destructive ends. Consider what Tolstoy said in his essay Confession, when he lamented that unlike the old days of hand-to-hand combat, nowadays we kill people “through such a complex process of communication, and the consequences of our cruelty are so carefully removed and concealed from us, that there is no restraint on the bestiality of the action” (p. 100). We only have to look at how mass media makes the case for wars by providing us with very carefully orchestrated knowledge-at-a-distances packages to begin to realize what Tolstoy meant.

War Games & Disobedience Games

In the remainder of my comments, I would like to talk about a response to telepistemology that also involves technology, and what alternative role computer games can play. While one branch of technological development has concerned itself with knowledge and action at a distance, another has focused on reintegrating individuals to their surroundings, to the near, in augmented ways. I do not mean to imply that technologies that facilitate telepistemology are bad while those that facilitate embeddedness are good. Obviously, the devil is in the details. I merely want to contrast some applications.

When people find war morally reprehensible, one of the few options they have at their disposal in a so-called democracy is to protest the war. Here, I want to draw attention to the phenomenon of Smart Mobs as a recent example of strategies used to organize civil protest. The phenomenon, described by Howard Rheingold in the book of the same name, involves the use of common tools such as email, cell phones and social network services (such as MeetUp) to organize mass movements in highly effective ways.

What is the connection to video games? Just as we have an arsenal of computer games that train people on the mechanics of killing-at-a-distance, I think we need to start designing games that teach people how to organize against war using new technologies. Some examples are beginning to emerge, such as the upcoming release A Force More Powerful, a nonviolent strategic simulation game produced by BreakAway Games, which according to its authors is “designed to teach political activists how to plan and execute strategic non-violent warfare.”

cbob.pngIn addition to having games that simulate the logistics of activism, we could have games that actually allow for its practice. While, to my knowledge, no such games exist yet, it is easy to imagine adapting the technology behind things like Human PacMan, a game in which human beings play the characters of the popular video game, and the game space is transposed to the player’s surroundings. Another example is CatchBob, a game that involves players using WiFi-enabled PC tablets to coordinate actions between members of a team.

Learning how to coordinate peaceful social movements with the aid of simple and cheap technologies can become a useful skill developed through computer games. But needless to say, the same tools and training can be used by groups with very different agendas. Which brings me to my last point. While it is tempting to fall back on the argument that technologies are neutral, this kind of argument will not take us very far. Technologies reflect the values of their creators, and are applied not in a vacuum but in specific social contexts, so they are anything but neutral. I do believe that technologies exhibit what I call open affordances: one technology can be adapted —within limits— to do something entirely different from what it was originally intended to do. But figuring out where those limits lie, how far we can change the technology before it changes us, is perhaps an even more important skill to develop.

Obviously the games we play shape our epistemologies. Someone playing Kuma War is going to have a very different disposition towards the world than someone playing A Force More Powerful. But I am also interested in the broader, and sometimes less obvious question of the epistemic and ontological shifts brought about by doing anything online. While I think we can design normative ways of knowing and acting at a distance, and use computer games to foster such behaviors, I’m also interested in exploring how these can be balanced with a re-engagement with the near. Or, more precisely, how the near will cease to be defined by space, and how technology —given the right pedagogies— can facilitate the projection of empathy.

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  1. Distance is not dead. The terms of discourse have merely shifted in such a way as to devalue some things and value others.

    This is something that has been on my mind a lot lately. In network terms, closeness and remoteness have more to do with connectivity than with relative geographic proximity. If anything, the term is more about energy expenditure.

  2. Alex, do you mean that communicating with things that are far requires more energy or effort? Interesting. Not sure that’s always the case, though. I’ll have to think about that one.

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