Teleaction – is this really a word? According to the Russian-born new media theorist Lev Manovich, it is, and Manovich regards this concept as one of the central facets involved in the discussion of new media. Broken down into its root forms, the prefix tele – (derived from Greek) implies the same aspect of distance connected with several other familiar terms. Television is the display of images from a far-away place, perhaps a newsroom, broadcast studio, or sports stadium thousands of miles away. The telephone enables people to speak to each other over a great distance. Likewise, teleaction is used to access media formats over distance. In “The Operations,” the third chapter of The Language of New Media, Manovich attempts to elaborate on this seemingly mysterious term.
Within the heading of teleaction, Manovich includes two separate classifications – telepresence and telecommunication. By telepresence, he refers to the ability to not merely view images over a distance, but also act upon them. Until the development of new media, such an operation was essentially impossible. Manovich uses the illustration of the 1997 movie Titanic, by James Cameron, as one example of telepresence – by means of a special display, the operator is able to be virtually “present” in a location even while being physically elsewhere. In a more advanced sense, Manovich connects this to the concept of hyperlinks on the World Wide Web.
By using hyperlinks, a computer user in Florida can send messages to a remote server in Mexico, France, or Japan with the power to act on the images seen (by making a purchase, for example). To Manovich, the ability to move from server to server across the world is actually of greater significance than virtual reality-based systems of science fiction. The essence of telepresence is the ability to act and manipulate reality through representations, whether simulations in a virtual-reality world or icons on a computer screen.
Manovich’s second element of teleaction, which is familiar to almost all Americans today, is telecommunication – literally, communication over distance. Electronic telecommunication makes teleaction possible – without electronic devices, acting on distant objects is nearly unthinkable. As Manovich says, “Electronic telecommunication leads to a new and unprecedented relationship between objects and their signs.” Thus, electronic transmission of signals, by means of the digitized computer language of binary code, is at the heart of all teleaction. Manovich cites the writings of Paul Virilio, associated with the founding of dromology, to assess the effects of telepresence and telecommunication on the modern world. As the gaps that separate people and events shrink, our perspective on the world inevitably changes, leading to shifts in our understanding of media, perception, and information.