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March 11, 2008

Traveling without moving using zombie processes

I'm running ths story again because the > Pixelache Uni final programme has just been publshed.

* * *

OK, so you know and I know that air travel is simply not sustainable. But we do it anyway because we are hypocrites (I took 78 flights last year) and also because substitutes for mobility, such as videoconferencing, simply don't afford the same quality of interaction. Despite decades of development (the first videophone was launched by IBM in 1964) tele-hugs are simply not the same as the real thing.

But what happens if people like me stop being hypocrites and/or, during some near-future eco-political paroxysm, which I'm sure will come, air travel is banned or curtailed? In that case, we'll have to make to do with mobility substitutes - and find ways to improve the experience.

The reasons why channels such as videoconferencing are so dissatisfying are complex - but the issues are not new. Philosophers have been perplexed by the relationship between body and experience for 2,000 years, and Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote a whole essay about "kissing the picture of one's beloved". Latterly, cognitive scientists such as Andy Clark have explained in some detail the ways that our brain, body, and world "are united in a complex dance of circular causation and extended computational activity. The biological brain is populated by a vast number of hidden 'zombie processes' that underpin the skills and capacities in which successful behaviour depends". These unknown, and possible unknowable aspects of consciousness are also why game designers talk about the "Uncanny Valley" that a player enters, no matter how high the resolution of the interface being used, when starting a game.

Zombie processes will feature in an event we are helping to organise at Pixelache University in March. Our host is Pixelache's Rektor Juha Huuskonen . I am preparing a paper for the event called "The Face to Face Meeting in The Age of Digital Reproduction". (It's 70 years since Walter Benjamin wrote 'The Work Of Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproducton' and I will ask whether we might design virtual encounters more effectively if we were look more to iconography, ritual, and the poetic imagination - and less to brute bandwidth). Joining us will be media artist Daniel Peltz, and the son of a pilot and an air stewardess, now design entrepreneur Andreas Zachariah.

Before you start barfing, yes I will fly there. But I'm committed to reduce my flights by 90% within ten years - so for me this subject is serious and practical. Saturday 15 March, Kiasma Theatre, Helsinki. You need to register here.

Posted by John Thackara at March 11, 2008 08:24 AM


Beg to differ, but it's been 71 years since Walter Benjamin wrote the article. He died while trying to escape to Spain in WWII.


Posted by: Lawrie Hunter at January 23, 2008 09:56 AM

John, you are quite accurate in saying that air travel is the single most environmentally damaging activity most of us engage in. Finding a suitable alternative is vital to sustainability, but is also quite antithetical to the way business is done in our world.

As Benjamin said in the work of art [...]

Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.

It is difficult to see how we will overcome this through any virtual experience, though certainly the art of film can be quite immersive. And broadly democratic and potentially revolutionary, which was Benjamin's primary interest.

An editing note: I believe it has been 73 years, not 25 years, since Benjamin's work was published. Though I may be wrong...

Posted by: Hugh Graham at January 23, 2008 07:22 PM

Is it airtravel which is the problem, or is it travel in general? I highly doubt it would be more efficient for 200 passengers on a 737 to drive the same distance in separate vehicles.

Posted by: K at January 27, 2008 06:00 AM

However long it's been since Benjamin's paper, I'd love to read your paper John!

In terms of adopting the virtual experience, I can't see mass-adoption without some sort of public policy change. I think it's more about forcing the brain to rewire itself because it simply has no choice. I've seen Robin Chase (of Zipcar/GoLoco fame) speak twice in the past few months. She presents the most compelling case for the need to change our travel habits - and she'll also tell you that 10 years is too late to fend off environmental hazards.

So perhaps, instead of saying that you're committed to reducing your flights by 90% within ten years, a better goal would be to cut your 78 annual flights by one-third in 2008 and then try to turn that 'uncanny valley' into a desirable location.

Posted by: Chris Flanagan at January 29, 2008 08:32 PM

I said it at DoTT 07 and I'll say it again... there's never been a substitutional relationship between telecommunications and travel. They are complementary technologies for mobility. One getting better drives demand and development of the other. I'm sure there will be advances in videoconferencing and other telepresence technologies over the next decade. But as soon as they become portable (like the mobile phone), the cat's out of the bag, and we have to start all over again.

Posted by: Anthony Townsend at January 29, 2008 11:53 PM

I do not believe that anyone in the future will prefer interacting with other people through technology rather than flight. In a business setting this might be efficient, but not in personal settings and espeically for vacations!

Posted by: Curtis at March 13, 2008 12:35 AM


I hope you'll make the paper available online - it sounds like a really interesting exploration of the issue. There is a clear paradox as to why our interest in dialogue and other rich social processes has intensified as we have also become more engaged in virtual worlds.

Responding to one of the comments above, Hugh Graham is just plain wrong about the comparative ecological impacts of plane and car travel. A single trip from Europe to the US by plane emits 2 tonnes of carbon - the same as the average annual driving distance in the UK. (People drive more than 3,000 miles per year on average).

But, as you observe, the alternative is about reduction, not substitution; quantity has an impact, and so does our speed.

Posted by: Andrew Curry at March 13, 2008 09:38 PM

John and all,a couple of remarks,
the problem of air travel, though heavy on the rich westerners conscience, is esoteric in terms of "the other 90%". This doesn"t mean that it need not be addressed, but the discussion seems to me at times disproportionate to the general picture.
In my mind a truly sustainable solution has to involve a completely different technological attitude. A lot of birds travel thousands of kilometers twice a year, that is nature. Could we fly more like them? does that mean catching thermals and gliding? does it mean developing a new type of "engine", does it mean slowing down?
in my opinion virtual meetings and real life meetings will never be interchangeable. A good handwritten letter (especially if it contains a bit of drawing as well)is still more communicative, emotional and intimate than a video conference. We can of course ignore some of our physical and emotional needs, we do that all the time.
Travelling should not be restricted, it is a very basic human drive and need, it has been instrumental in every aspect of human life, from pure survival to agriculture, science,Art and all other aspects of human culture.
It is the vehicle that should be redesigned.

Posted by: ido bruno at March 19, 2008 07:41 AM

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