The Telepresent – Steven Wilson (1997)

We looked a lot at things with arial views, using the “god trick,” having a view from above in an unnatural manner that gives us insight into what we might never be able to see without the power of flight. The arial imagery comes from birds, planes, drones and satellites, and looks down upon us. What about the view at ground level? This got me thinking about Steven Wilson’s project, The Telepresent. 

The Telepresent actually looks and is interacted with like a present. It’s gift wrapped and you give it to someone else when you are done with it. It is equipped with a laptop, wireless modem and camera (all hidden in the box) which periodically take pictures and upload them to the web, so web viewers see what the present sees. Web viewers can also send the present text which it will speak to the holder of the present, but I’m more interested in the idea of the imagery. Also, it has a GPS locator so the viewers can see the current location of the present.

So, rather than viewing from above for an inhuman perspective, this project, still using satellites for location and up/downloading the data, is giving viewers a very human perspective that they wouldn’t see without this kind of a project. A quote from wilson’s page about it sums up the experience nicely:

Eventually the telepresent will unpredicatably wander the world through networks of friendships and gift giving. It will chronicle its travesl as it goes, showing whatever each recipient thinks is important or interesting – providing a small window on the world’s diversity of personal lives and cultural niches.

It’s a really interesting project that deals with human networks, access, freedom, mystery, as well as surveillance, solitude, and economics, all of which are discussed further on the site I linked above (and here). A video documenting the project along with some interviews with participants if you are interested:

Now this was 18 years ago. Technology for remote sensing gets more and more advanced, reaching farther out into space and getting us more and more previously impossible perspectives. Social media is sort of the opposite direction, where we are seeing more and more into personal lives, but in a very composed manner. How might we use technology like The Telepresent to see an inhumanly human perspective on human culture and society? And where is the line with privacy in all this? Just some things to consider.

-Ben Breidenthal


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