Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Communicating emotion and presence -- from a Hole in Space to Cuba's public-access hotspots

How about a Hole in Space between Havana and Miami? Between Jerusalem and Gaza City?

Cuba, one of the least connected nations in the world, has recently created 35 public-access, WiFi hotspots around the island. While 35 hotspots is a drop in the bucket, this opening is a start and it has been noted in many articles and blog posts.

Miami Herald photo
Most of the coverage of the new hotspots has been lackluster and redundant, but an article in yesterday's Miami Herald stands out because it stresses the human and emotional impact of these access points. The article describes people showing a new baby, a woman talking with her husband in Miami or a little boy telling his father he loves him. Baruch College Professor and Cuba scholar Ted Henken is quoted in the article as saying:
Cubans are living out some of their most personal moments — family reunions and introductions to new babies and spouses — not in the intimacy of their own homes but in public plazas and parks.
Raúl can relax -- the people are using the Internet to communicate with loved ones, not to organize political rallies.

This reminds me of an often overlooked, pioneering project. In 1980, artists Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz created a "Hole in Space" by connecting larger-than-life displays in New York and Los Angeles with a satellite feed. It was the mother of all video chats, demonstrating that electronic communication could convey presence and emotion.

Check out the following five-minute excerpt from a video documenting the event:

If you liked that, watch the full half-hour video:

Hole in Space was created more than a decade before we saw the first, simple version of the World Wide Web and Rabinowitz and Galloway were artists, not computer scientists. Products begin with a vision. In this case, Rabinowitz and Galloway had the vision and built the engineering prototype demonstrating its value. As the saying goes "demo or die."

Hole in Space was only one of their projects. For an overview of a quarter century of Rabinowitz and Galloway's work, see the Electronic Cafe International archival Web site.

Today, video conferencing is ubiquitous -- it has even reached Cuba -- but our video chats are on small screens. I'd love to see "Hole in Space, 2015," using today's technology. Large, public advertising displays are common and they can be linked over the Internet. Wouldn't it be cool to punch a lot of holes in space?

Where would you put the displays? For a start, how about one between Gaza City and Jerusalem or between Havana and Miami? Kickstarter anyone?