You, Me, Spot, and Zoom: Puzzles in Presence and Intercorporeality
Nov. 2, 2023, 3 p.m. UTC // Nov. 2, 2023, 3 p.m. in UTC
During the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the world shifted almost overnight to using web-based telepresence and teleconferencing tools. We moved our academic conferences online; we moved our university classes, as well as those of our children’s schools, online. We even tried to move things like live music and shows online. But there was enormous backlash to all of this, in part because there’s something special and important about being in a shared space for certain kinds of activity, particularly cognitive work. Mediating systems like Zoom seem to create a feeling of remoteness that in-person interactions do not. This makes some sense, since we are in fact remote when we’re on Zoom. In what might seem unrelated, many people, including those who understand exactly what the systems are capable of, report feeling as if they are in the presence of another being when interacting with social robots, like Spot from Boston Dynamics. This, too, makes some sense, because social robots are designed to elicit precisely this reaction in us; to draw us in, to make us interact as if they are beings like us with capacities like ours.
In this talk, I suggest these are two sides of the same under-explored phenomenon. I look to make sense of why certain robots (or even other objects-as-social-actors) invoke feelings of strong presence in us, whereas most/many telepresence technologies leave us feeling less-than-present. I engage the presence literature, both in enactivism and telepresence studies, as well as looking toward phenomenology (intercorporeality), social cognition (participatory sense-making), and human-robot-interaction (sociomorphing) work to help make sense of the apparent paradox in which live (but technologically-mediated) interactions with other humans lack presence, while interactions with non-living things often invoke presence in us.