Questions of Scale: Telepistemology and the Missing Referent


Session Title:

  • Theories of Digital Art

Presentation Title:

  • Questions of Scale: Telepistemology and the Missing Referent



  • The lack of reference for the sense of action and movement that “virtual” networks linked to”actual” spaces bring into being raises questions for telepistemology. This paper confronts the instabilities of scale (and thereby of time and space), that these networked environments engender. The extremes of spatiality — the miniature and the immense — are the new terrain of electronic media artists. In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard discusses scale, first in miniature, and then in all its immensity.”The cleverer I am at miniaturizing the world, the better I possess it. But in doing this, it must be understood that values become condensed and enriched in miniature”. Immensity, on the other hand “is the movement of motionless man. It is one of the dynamic characteristics of quiet daydreams”. All this talk of scale has profound implications beyond the realm of geography. “Philosophers, when confronted with outside and inside, think in terms of being and non-being”. Thus the transmutations of the miniature and the immense into the mutable datascapes of the computer have an effect on our epistemology, our ontology and our phenomenology. A group at the University of Tennessee measured perceived passage of time in relation to changes in scale. Researchers had subjects investigate 1/6,1/12 and 1/24 scale models complete with representations of furniture and inhabitants. They were asked to move scale figures through the environment, and to picture both them and themselves doing things appropriate to do within that space. They were asked to indicate when they had been in this scaled down “lounge” for a half an hour. Researchers found that “the experience of temporal duration is compressed relative to the clock in the same proportion as scale-model environments being observed are compressed relative to the full-sized environments”. 1/12 scale of 30 minutes is therefore 5 minutes, 1/24 is 2,5 etc. This kind of empirical data speaks to the both the opportunities and challenges of creating electronic spaces without a referent. These kinds of experiments both support and invert the postmodern “space-time compression” that David Harvey notes in The Condition of Postmodernity. I will discuss the importance of the miniature’s condensation, and the oneiric qualities of the immense as they relate to electronic environments — those spaces built without concrete referents. The work of artists like Ken Goldberg and Eduardo Kac who have been effecting actions in the real world over the net will be juxtaposed with the accomplishments of those like Marcos Novak who have been building virtual worlds entirely distinct from the hardscapes of built environments. Playing with scale brings both confusion and promise to the electronic arts. To manipulate scale is to make visible the flux and transformations of digital environments. Scale is part of the gnosis of telepistemology.