Elizabeth Ellcessor on her book, In Case of Emergency

Interview by Volha Verbilovich

New York University Press

Volha Verbilovich: Emergency media are cultural and temporal. In Case of Emergency develops these definitions, revealing the history and modern practices of emergency media use. Why did you choose this object of study?

Elizabeth Ellcessor: I wrote my first book [Restricted Access: Media, Disability, and the Politics of Participation, 2016] about digital media accessibility, particularly the legal and bureaucratic context for things like alternate text and accessible forms. I’ve written on closed captioning, the forms of accessibility that are fairly well known at this point, if not always implemented. But one thing I just totally left out of the book was that regulations for disability access are treated differently in emergency contexts than in normal media production. For instance, we don’t have sign language interpreters for pre-recorded hour-long dramas. However, we do have live sign language interpreters for something like a press conference about evacuation in the path of a hurricane. Right? When you have an emergency situation, the legal requirements shift. You have to have access at these moments. In my first book, I just put it in a footnote like “nothing I’m talking about applies to these other situations”. So, I had it in the back of my head anyway. One thing that really propelled it forward was when they started rolling out “text to 9-1-1 services”, initially in Vermont, and Indiana, where I was living at the time. What was interesting about that rollout was the way they promoted “text to 9-1-1” as primarily an accessibility feature. You can imagine lots of people wanting to use it, right? For example, young people who are more comfortable with text than voice calls. The ability to send a picture to 9-1-1 seems useful, the ability to send your location via text seems useful. But instead, we were seeing this real emphasis on treating text messages as if they were an assistive technology to replace phone calls. That raised many questions for me about how these lines between “access for some” versus “access for all” are being drawn. And also, how disability and accessibility were being used as, not exactly excuses, but as displacements, preventing the kinds of critiques of an emergency media system that is, in many cases, pretty far out of step with consumer technology. So, I started there with one specific case study. And I published that in the International Journal of Communication before the book. And then I just started digging into it. What are other sorts of emergency media out there? How are they technologically situated? And how does that reflect certain cultural assumptions about the way the world works?

Volha Verbilovich: Thank you very much for the rich overview of the different types of emergency media: alarms, alerts, maps, 9-1-1 calls, and reports, that was really amazing to read. Speaking about access as a category and an experience, what could ethnographers and other scholars learn from the disability studies’ accounts about access?

Elizabeth Ellcessor: I think disability studies perspectives on access, or what Aimi Hamraie describes as “critical access studies”, are interesting for a range of fields. I assume that treating access as a self-evident, good thing like “oh, we need to increase access to XYZ” which also often means everything will be sort of “solved” is a techno-solutionist perspective at the best of times. But it also fails to account for access as more than just having something. When we talk about access, we often need to be talking about skills and contexts. And that often gets left out if access is talked about at all. We have scholarship that often glosses over this experience of access entirely. Film studies, for instance, have traditions of scholarship in which we talk about spectatorship or reading the film without acknowledging that how we watch the film matters and that not everyone is watching it the same way. I think it opens the door to bigger conversations if we don’t take for granted that everyone is doing this task in one way. Then it becomes easier to ask questions: what does it encompass? what has to be there? what is sort of flexible? I think it opens a lot of interesting possibilities. Access is a moment where we really see just tremendous variation.

Volha Verbilovich: Considering the limitations of access, you speak a lot about the racialized discourses, sexism, and ableism of the emergency media. How do the different types of emergency media create these discourses? Could you mention the examples you address in the book?

Elizabeth Ellcessor: I’ll talk about one I didn’t expect to write about, which was maps. Maps weren’t something that I had in mind at the beginning. It came from doing the work and talking to people about what kinds of safety technologies they were using or were familiar with. And then thinking backward from that: “oh, a lot of people are using “find my phone” to see where their family members are. A lot of college students are using Snapchat to see where their friends are and make sure everyone gets home safe at night.” So, then I started thinking about other ways that we use maps to understand issues of safety and risk, which are tied into ideas of emergency. Talking about weather maps and COVID maps grew out of that. So, there are two other ways in which we use maps to understand whether or not we’re in an emergency situation and how does that kind of graphical representation of the world influence our decision-making?

One thing about what we could think of is the rise of maps in the GPS era, seeing maps used in all kinds of apps and safety features. Uber has something where you can now ask someone to watch your ride on a map, so they know if your Uber gets waylaid. These features are really interesting. They promote a kind of ubiquity that we should always know where something is, and we should always be able to double-check and have that information available. It actually has the effect of making the lack of information interpreted as a sign of danger or emergency. So, if you become accustomed to relying on these features, know where things are, what is happening, where your friends are, and who got home, and you suddenly don’t have that? It creates a really different emotional stake than we would have had 20 years ago, and no one had this information. My mother never knew where I was at college! And it didn’t worry her because that wasn’t a sign of potential danger. But when we interviewed current college students, many of their parents are using maps to see where they are and to ensure they are okay. And when they can’t or are not where they’re supposed to be, they get phone calls because parents worry. It’s a really different mediation of risk and danger that I don’t think was on my radar before this.

Volha Verbilovich: In the book, you address the surveillance of care as a category that describes these developments. And you also reflect on the infrastructural media activism practices. To what extent do you think the infrastructural media activism could mitigate data-driven surveillance of care?

Elizabeth Ellcessor: I think that there’s a way in which we equate surveillance with care. Thinking through intentional ways to care about people in our lives without subjecting them to constant surveillance is something that we can do. And I give the example of college students seeking their friends on Snapchat. Some don’t do that, and they only text each other at a set time. So, they have moments of contact but not constant tracking. It also cuts out, in many cases, the third-party technologies that are doing the mapping and tracking. Rather than hand over your location data to Snapchat, you’re texting your friend: “I will text you at 1 am, letting you know”. So, you have some intentional moments like that. And then you also have people who are, in some cases, using mapping to highlight other kinds of needs and emergencies, taking this representational system that we’ve come to understand, and using it to map things like safe spaces, trans bathrooms, housing markets. I saw one project essentially based on the idea that the emergency was not simply COVID; the emergency was the housing crisis as rents were raised and people were struggling. Therefore, they had mapping of average rents and changes in rents in various locations as a way of signaling that something was happening. So, here’s the map that will produce some of that effect of emergency and maybe draw attention to an issue.

Volha Verbilovich: One of the key findings of your research is that emergency and emergency media are fundamentally racialized. To what extent is this argument specific to the United States cultural context?

Elizabeth Ellcessor: It’s a good question! I’m very much an Americanist. So, I certainly know the US context best. And I do think that some elements are specific to US history and the way that the legacies of slavery impact the legacies of the prison system and impact the way that we think about emergency and policing. These things are all part of the same story. I would be surprised if you don’t see similar historical dynamics playing out in other countries. The various racial or ethnic divides might look different, but I think you do see a similar kind of valuation at play in a discourse of emergency where some people are constructed as the core of the nation and the most valuable, and some people are not, whether that is a matter of ethnic minorities or immigrants or both. People who are intended to be protected by emergency systems are often those who are most privileged and centered within the given context. I use my colleague Jennifer Rubenstein’s definition of emergency in the book pretty heavily. She is a political scientist who studies international development and peacekeeping. She was writing about the emergency in the context of global human rights violations and how, in those moments, receiving aid becomes a matter of being intelligible to the institutions that provide that aid. So if you want to look into that in a more detailed way, I would absolutely recommend her work as a jumping-off point to very different contexts.

Volha Verbilovich: What was the most challenging part of doing emergency media research? How did you find ways to fix those challenges or take a lesson from them?

Elizabeth Ellcessor: I think my biggest challenge in this project was, honestly, the scope. It could have been about many different things. And it is, like you mentioned, full of many different examples. I was trying to pull together something that was broader than a simple case study. And that addressed a lot of common-sense things that people would expect from a book about the emergency. So, I wanted to ensure that some of the things that we all, in a US context, expect to be there were there while still being able to include interviews with users of these systems, with workers. We didn’t get to talk a lot about this. But I find that talking to people who work in emergency media was central to my understanding of how it functions, whether those were 9-1-1 operators, emergency managers, or scholars of disaster. Focusing on how people who are “in the weeds” with this understand it, versus how a broader culture understands it, was very helpful in finding key dynamics and pressure points. I’m obviously situated in media studies, so I’m going to write a book about media. But a crucial part of the book for me was coming to understand that media are literally mediating the circumstances between the emergency and the resources at stake. And in that process, the media systems become a kind of pressure point, they become a place where small changes have big effects and where the agency of workers can actually also have big effects. On the one hand, it should lead us to value their work, and, on the other hand, it should lead us to think more intentionally than we often do about what those jobs are, who is doing them, and how they’re valued or not valued, and how they are being changed. As we see AI technologies brought into these systems, what are we losing when we lose that expertise?

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