I have to say that my first impressions of the current implementation of our distance learning technology are mixed. On the one hand I'm delighted to be able to participate in this experiment and am enjoying myself immensely, on the other hand, there are some logistical/hardware bugs which make it difficult to realize what I believe to be the full capability of such a system.
The audio compression tends to cancel out the entire signal when it's fed too much information - for example, if people in the room laugh at something someone has said, the audio hardware tends to briefly gate the entire signal, leaving those at the other end wondering what was so funny. This effect is even more frustrating when two or more people suddenly chime in with their own exclamations while another person is speaking. Multichannel audio might solve this.
The video is also far too limited to allow for spontaneous discourse. The P in P capability needs to be expanded to include the class, the person speaking, the person the speaker is addressing and perhaps the moderator. At the Berkeley end, there is a human operator, we have discovered that when one desires to address the class, it is more efficient to signal the operator instead of the moderator.
Some of the other students have mentioned that they feel a little disjointed by the ability of the video to discourage them from looking directly at the person speaking when the speaker is in the same room with them and I tend to agree. This very powerful. In effect, the virtual extension of an immediate spatial relationship has supplanted the normalized social dynamics within the actual physical space that the participants inhabit - I tend to watch the projected image of a speaker even though they may be physically sitting three feet away from me. In such a context, the projected reality begins to replace the traditional concept of the "real". This phenomena creates an environment where the totality of participation, the visceral experience of being in the class, now exists as an abstraction, a projection. The two physical halves do exists independently of one another, but the class itself exists only within the abstracted, electronic projection. Weird.
I suppose that DeBord would see this as yet another example of the power of the Spectacle to suffuse, define and supplant all human experience. Perhaps. However, I feel there are other elements within our virtualized, cross continental geography which far outweigh the disassociative properties inherent within the medium. For example, Since the first class meeting, I have become much more aware of localized patterns of group behavior. Since I don't have many opportunities to physically travel to different places in the country, I've tended to internalize patterns of speech, dress and discourse which are a product of the Berkeley environment in which I live. The first time I participated in a Virtual discussion with my classmates in Ann Arbor, I was suck by the differences in dress, speech and group behavior between the students in Berkeley and the Students in Ann Arbor. On the surface this is no different than having a similar experience with students from say.. Yemen. But I would already expect a group of University students in Yemen to behave differently from their American counterparts. I was not prepared to discover the degree of difference that I found in students from another location within my own country. It's kind of a stupid assumption when you get right down do it, obviously we are shaped by our immediate environment. But all the same, I was struck by the tremendous inherent power of the medium to allow people from varying social perspectives to discover their own difference and commonality in an environment that wasn't filtered in the manner that traditional media representations of the "other" have thus far allowed.