Money to Burn

by David Pescovitz


"Simulation threatens the difference between true and false; between real and imaginary."

—Jean Baudrillard



"Nothing is real."

—The Beatles

As a kid, my big brother shocked the hell out of me when I asked him for 50 cents for a soda and he ripped a dollar bill in half and laughed hysterically. My only retort was: "That's illegal!!! I'm telling Dad!"

I was right. It's a federal crime to destroy real money. But how do you know if something is real, especially if you're not the one holding it?

That's the conundrum raised by Legal Tender, a World Wide Web telerobotic installation from Eric Paulos, Ken Goldberg, Mark Pauline, John Canny, and Judith Donath. Legal Tender is an exercise not in epistemology, but telepistemology in an age of mechanical reproduction.

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"When perception is mediated with electronic images that purport to be live, the term "telepistemology" might describe the corresponding study of what we know and how we know it," writes Goldberg and art curator Sue Spaid.

Upon entering Legal Tender you are shown two $100 bills visible via what you are informed is a remote videocamera. One bill is said to be quite real, the other allegedly counterfeit. You are assigned a small sector of each note to conduct an experiment on. A robot arm apparently under your control will puncture, rub, burn, or stain the bills. Based on the results, it is up to you to consider the authenticity of the bills. And the authenticity of the entire tele-robotic laboratory. And the crime you may or may not have committed by participating.

The idea for the piece surfaced after Paulos, Goldberg, and Canny had independently constructed Web sites that enabled users to physically access real robots (The Telegarden, The Mercury Project, and Interfacing Reality). Even after the scientists worked so hard to create a realistic sensation of moving the mechanical systems, doubting Thomases were not appeased. After all, Web cameras had become novelties of debate as several of the voyeuristic devices positioned on fishtanks and toilets were revealed to be fakes, dependent on prestored digital images.

"In our previous work, we were inundated with 'hpraise' for our valiant attempt to trick Internet users into believing that they were actually controlling a real robot," says Paulos. "This came as a shock to most of us as we had gone to such great lengths to insure the users that they were actually controlling a real robot. We realized that there was no real single element that could convince users of the believability of a system on the remote end."

Hence Legal Tender, a Turing Test of telerobotics.   </end>

David Pescovitz is the co-author of Reality Check (HardWired, 1996). He enjoys both science and pseudo-science, the Big Bang and Bigfoot.