Page 99 of my dissertation begins with a passport photograph taken of me in 2016, juxtaposed with a purikura photograph taken in the same year.
Purikura, a colloquialism for “print club” (purinto kurabu), are photo booths that allow users to take photographs, edit the photographs using a stylus and touch screen, and receive instant prints of these photographs. The term may also refer to the instant prints themselves. The image caption reads:
“Standard passport photograph of the author taken in 2016 (left), juxtaposed with a purikura photograph taken in the same year (right). The purikura photograph was taken with its default filter and editing options. Note that the author’s skin has been lightened, her curls have been smoothed, her eyes have been enlarged, and her facial and bodily features have been slimmed down.”
In the paragraph that follows the images, I propose that smartphones and Social Networking Services (SNS, the localized term for social media) such as Instagram constitute portable purikura:
“Smartphones and visual-centric SNS such as Instagram constitute portable purikura. The filters, stickers, and editing features on Instagram are not unlike those found within the process of rakugaki. Most importantly, smartphones and SNS have become enveloped in the media ecology of purikura. Manufacturers of purikura such as Makesoft offer their own smartphone apps that ease the process of saving digital copies of purikura and sharing these copies on SNS. In conversations with young women, I learned that it was not uncommon to ‘research’ potential poses and editing strategies for purikura on Instagram. This saves stress and time during the actual practice of taking purikura. The prevalence of hashtags on Instagram such as #purika pose (#purikura pōzu; #プリクラポーズ) and #purikura editing (#purikura kakō; #プリクラ加工) demonstrate reliance on user-created content as a source of information and inspiration for creativity. Purikura is becoming even more convergent.”
Page 99 embodies one central argument of my dissertation: while digital technologies offer different and “new” modes of being social, this “newness” is not always “new.” Chapter Two, where page 99 is located, demonstrates how “new” mediatic assemblages involving SNS and smartphones are extensions of past and ongoing forms of gendered socialities and economies. I draw connections between historical and contemporary forms of consumerist play among Japanese girls and women: purikura culture, instabae (Instagenic) culture, the Discover Japan tourism campaign of the 1970s, and contemporary “photogenic travel” campaigns.
The intersections between “old” and “new” media constitute only part of the larger story of my dissertation. While page 99 focuses on play, my dissertation also discusses themes such as intergenerational tensions regarding the (mis)use of digital technologies. My dissertation, Mediating Me: Digital Sociality and Smartphone Culture in Contemporary Japan, examines the intersections of SNS, smartphone ownership, and shifting notions of sociality and selfhood among young people in Japan. I ask: How can the digital serve as a lens for understanding change and continuity in contemporary Japan, especially with regards to gender and identity? I conducted fieldwork in Japan between August 2019 and August 2020, and remotely between August 2020 and October 2021. Through an integration of interview data, media and literary analysis, and ethnographic vignettes called “Mediations,” I emphasize that perceived norms and moral standards centering on digital embeddedness are constantly (re)negotiated. In each chapter, I examine particular user groups and moments, such as digital activism among Black Japanese youths during the global Black Lives Matter demonstrations of 2020. The process of (re)negotiation became especially apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, which coincided with my fieldwork. My dissertation also highlights the indispensability, promises, and ethics of digital ethnography.
While page 99 only captures one practice within the fabric of digital sociality in contemporary Japan, it highlights an important reminder: the dynamics that accompany digital sociality can be applicable to past, present, and future technologies, practices, and visualities.
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 Communicationbefore 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?
My answer left you like a glutton without food—unsatisfied. Before you could request thick ethnographic details, I handed you page 99 of Endangered Words and Invulnerable Worlds: Spatial Language and Social Relations in Cheran, Michoacan, Mexico.
The text appeared straightforward about general trends in Cheran. Still, you couldn’t shake the notion of being stranded in an ethnographic labyrinth. So, you read it and reread it. Being the scholar you are, you decided to immerse yourself in Cheran’s P’urhépecha. Only there was no rabbit hole, just the whole text—Endangered Words and Invulnerable Worlds.
In the text, you found that theoretically, I argued a spatial language-based cultural model explains many of the properties of social relations. The part-whole model is simple like a slice of pizza out of a pie, a cigar from a set, or birds of a feather flocking together. After reading the ethnographic evidence—from emic sociological characteristics affecting face-to-face communication to people ascribing behavioral patterns onto families to large-scale ritual events of greater complexity—you remembered page 99.
Nodding in deep thought, you began repeating like a mantra, “part-whole.”
Reflecting on your initial impressions, you realize what you perceived as a tortuous reading experience was a plunge into ethnographic clarity—a simplified diagram of a complex phenomenon. I saw it in your eyes and asked, “Now do you agree with my answer?”
“Yes,” said you.
…He is like that, so all Santiagos are predisposed to behave in such a manner. They are like that…
While thinking through the ways people in Cheran identify individuals as recapitulating kin or groups as possessing traits displayed by individuals, it helps to consider emic conceptualizations of kinship dynamics…the people of Cheran view individuals as intimately tied to their kin groups. The link between an individual and a family is inextricable. One cannot exist as an atom who makes herself or himself independently of background. When someone encounters an individual…others generally explain that individual’s behavior as recapitulating a family trend. It is quite common to find people explain this dynamic along the lines of “they are like that.” The “they,” generally, refers to the house ergo nuclear family, which in turn, often reflects the patrilineal lineage.
The aforementioned kin dynamics make sense when considering folk views of the town’s composition. Most people claim that they all know each other. The elderly restrict themselves by qualifying their statements along the lines of “I know those of my generation but not younger folks (of various generations).” Even this statement might be an exaggeration. Cheran has a population of over 20,000…
Niku T’arhechu T’arhesi. 2021. Endangered Worlds and Invulnerable Worlds: Spatial Language and Social Relations in Cheran, Michoacan, Mexico. University of Michigan, PhD.
Jessica Winegar: The study of sports has been somewhat marginal in the field of anthropology. Why do you think that is, and in what ways does your book show its importance to understanding major social events such as revolutions?
Carl Rommel: This is an intriguing question, because in many ways, sports is really a total social fact. Huge spectator sports, such as football (soccer), bring together a range of sociocultural spheres, including economy, ritual, performance, religion, emotion, gender, global media, mega events, and politics. Still, with the exception of a small number of recent works (such as, Guinness & Besnier 2016, Kovač 2022, Carter 2008), sports has indeed been marginal in the field of anthropology.
Now, I am not exactly sure about the reasons for this marginalization, but I have a few ideas. First, I think that spectator sports for a long time came across as too modern to a discipline primarily interested in the primitive and exotic. Hence, while Clifford Geertz went to thickly describe the local practice of cock fighting on Java (1973), it was left to sociologists to analyze spectator sports as an exceptional realm of excitement in bureaucratically organized western societies (Dunning & Elias 1986). More recently, as ostensibly modern social phenomena such as mass media, science, and development have been made central foci of anthropological exploration, sports might instead have looked too ordinary: a popular pastime for the masses without any true epistemological or aesthetic depth. I would also not rule out a measure of latent snobbism. At least in some contexts that I know, academics self-identify as ‘people who don’t like sports.’ Anthropologists with such opinions might not only opt to research more supposedly worthy topics. They also do not possess the background knowledge necessary to penetrate the world that a huge spectator sport assembles. To be able to properly discuss the game with one’s interlocutors, one needs to master information about a large corpus of players, coaches, clubs, matches, and tournaments. While that is no easy task for any anthropologist taking on a whole new sports universe (as I did in Egypt), it is likely even more daunting for a scholar who is not a sports person in the first place.
As for the second part of your question, I think that my book shows that sports can provide unique anthropological angles on a revolution’s who, when, where, and what. First, my story about Egypt’s Football Revolution introduces a completely new cast of revolutionary characters: television pundits, players and coaches, club officials, representatives of the football association, and more or less organized supporters. Second, my study of football gives the revolution an alternative timeline. It shows how supposedly non-political football events (matches, tournaments, television talk shows) constituted key moments in a revolutionary transition that began to take shape already before January 25, 2011. Third, my story recasts the revolution’s spatiality: the football revolution that I chronicle took place at stadiums, in television studios, and in coffee shops just as much as in Tahrir Square, the Egyptian Parliament, or the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood. This shift of focus, finally, provides an alternative account for what the revolutionary struggle was all about. I analyze the revolution first and foremost as a contest over how Egyptian football men – and Egyptian men more generally – should feel, act, and behave. My ethnography of the world of football recasts the revolution as a revolt that set out to transform emotions, masculinities, and ultimately the Egyptian nation.
Jessica Winegar: Taking football seriously has indeed given us a better understanding of the depth and breadth of the revolutionary process in Egypt, and the important ways that this process was gendered through notions of masculinity as related to politics and nation. I would love to hear you riff on how these insights from football in Egypt could be useful to those studying protests and revolutions of the past 15 years – which have seen an intensification of such political action worldwide.
Carl Rommel: I’d like to answer this question by returning to the revolution’s who, when, where, and what. The way my book suggests alterative answers to these questions could arguably be useful in other settings ripe with protests and revolt too. Because, a truly revolutionary situation is never merely a moment when activists raise demands limited to representational politics and try to push them through the vested institutions of the nation-state. When studied carefully, a revolution always reverberates in spaces that might look somewhat marginal, and through events that both precede and succeed canonized timelines. You might also find actors who may not come across as political at first glance, but who are actually key players. And you might identify a revolutionary battle over whom the taken-for-granted and normal we are or should be. In my Egyptian case, this contested normal we was a national and gendered we. Football provided a central stage for carving out normal Egyptian masculinities before, during, and after the 2011 Revolution. In other situations, the established we that the revolt has to take on could just as well be a classed or racialized we. For instance, who is the normal and white middle-class woman?
What my research illustrates – and what could be useful to consider elsewhere – is that processes that define who are normal and who are not are complex and a long time coming. Normalized subjectivities surface at the intersection of media, popular culture, spectacle, investments, legislation, and more. For a revolt to be truly revolutionary, it has to provide alternatives to such entrenched scripts. My ethnography illustrates both how and why this is possible and why it is difficult to pull off. Because processes of subjectivation are long-term and multidimensional, they take on an inertia that is difficult to fully obliterate. The counterrevolution is always likely to gain momentum from never fully eradicated ideals for how to be, feel, and behave normally. In Egypt, as elsewhere, revolutions are fragile projects, and they most often fail. One reason is that they are up against potent powers vested in distributed assemblages of institutions, discourses, ethics, pop culture, and media technologies.
Jessica Winegar: Do you think that fun can be a revolutionary practice? What would your soccer fans have said at the time, and what would they say now?
Carl Rommel: Oh yes, absolutely, this is one of the central arguments that I make in the chapters that deal with Egypt’s so called Ultras supporters. The Ultras were a new type of football fans who started to appear at Egyptian stadiums in 2007. Inspired by Ultras groups in North Africa and southern Europe, they introduced a new style of fandom that grew influential in the years leading up to January 2011. As the ethnographic research that I conducted with the Ultras shows, the new fan groups’ success was to a large extend a result of the fun and freedom that they generated in the stands. Through bold chants, flags, choreographed displays, graffiti, and firework, their novel way of supporting their teams attracted tens of thousands of young men. Almost immediately, this subculture was spotlighted as a security threat by the Egyptian police. Consequently, the Ultras found themselves forced to confront the security forces and defend their right to do their thing – that is, having fun in their own way – inside and outside the stadium. In 2011 and 2012, this experience of taking on the security state through organized violence proved vital for the revolutionary struggle. The Ultras’ subculture of fun and freedom became a central force in clashes and street fights.
But the Ultras new way of having fun was also subversive for another reason. As I discuss in the book’s first two chapters, Egyptian football had constituted a realm of fun also before the Ultras entered the scene. To make a long story short, Egyptian football experienced an unprecedented boom in the late 2000s. Fueled by victories, media, and popular culture, the nation was swept away by a football craze that was mobilized successfully by the Mubarak government in a pretty classic bread-and-circuses manner. Rather than a fight for or against fun, therefore, the revolution inside Egypt’s national game was at the heart a conflict between two different ways of having fun: one older, media-driven and closely related to the political and economic establishment; one younger, more international, and vehemently opposed to the media. As such, while my book demonstrates that fun can be a revolutionary force, it also shows that fun is not revolutionary by default. Football’s unmatched ability to generate fun could just as well be reactionary. It all depends on the context, and how the fun is mobilized and by whom.
As for what Ultras would say about this today, it is difficult to know as the supporter groups are currently in disarray. In the years since the 2013 Military Coup, the Ultras (like most revolutionary groups in Egypt) have been crushed by the counterrevolution. Many leaders are or have been in prison. Others live abroad. While Egypt’s biggest group, Ultras Ahlawy, was formally dissolved in 2018, other groups still exist, but their activities are scattered. When talking to (former) Ultras today, they tend to look back at the revolutionary years with a great deal of nostalgia. They tell me about a period when they had an incredible amount of fun at the stadium. And they tell stories about demonstrations, clashes and sit-ins that all but revolutionized Egypt. Whether Ultras connect these stories about fun and revolution, I am not sure. Possibly such an analysis is more exciting for an anthropologist than for the people who live the (counter-) revolution’s twists and turns. Still, everyone knows that one reason for why their revolution was crushed is that the regime has banned fans at most Egyptian football games over the last ten years. As a result, it has been impossible to keep generating fun at the stadium. And without fun, there has been no way to recruit new members, and hence no way to keep the revolutionary momentum going.
Jessica Winegar: And it is hard to keep revolutionary momentum going within the straitjacket of proper nationalism that requires a kind of seemingly apolitical stance. I think readers would be especially interested in your argument about that bind in the book, in part because I see it playing out in other contexts. Can you briefly recap that central theoretical point?
Carl Rommel: So, the notion of siyasa (politics in Arabic) pops up in several chapters in the book. Overall, I show that while siyasa comes with many different connotations for my interlocutors, it almost always elicits a sense of unease. One reason is a long-standing tension between siyasa and idealized notions of Egyptian nationalism. To put it brief and simple, we might say that whereas a true nationalist works for the common interests of the whole people, being political (siyasi) by definition means serving partial group interests at the expense of some other citizens. Since the foundation of the Egyptian nationalist movement in the late 19th century, therefore, nationalism and siyasa have been understood as inherently antithetical. One telling example is the way nationalist leaders, such as President Gamal Abdel Nasser, have strived to appear non-political (Roussillon 1996).
Being Egypt’s indisputably national game, football is a realm where this tension is particularly recognizable. In my book’s chronology, it surfaces for the first time in the wake of two World Cup qualifiers between Egypt and Algeria in November 2009. I portray these matches as the culmination of the football hysteria permeating late-Mubarak Egypt. This was both the moment when the regime used football most actively to shore up support and the time when things began to crack. After Egypt lost the second game and missed the 2010 World Cup, criticism against the sport’s ‘politicization’ proliferated. Instead of bringing people together, commentators argued that the national game was breeding fanaticism and politics. After January 2011, such ideas became even more commonplace. Football now looked like the cause of a range of problems grouped together under the rubric of siyasa. In the final chapters, I examine ethnographically how these debates impacted on supporter attachments. As the national game became mixed up with politics, many Egyptian men found it increasingly difficult to care about it.
Tensions between siyasa and nationalism play a key role in my story of the Ultras too. Journalists, club officials and people in the football association recurrently blamed the new fans for being political, that is, for serving their own interests rather than those of the whole people. The Ultras were well aware of these labels. In 2011 and 2012, the fans were keen to prove that they were properly nationalist, for example, by not taking parts in supposedly overtly political demonstrations and street fights. Indeed, I argue that the Ultras’ football revolution was most powerful precisely when it came across as respectable, nationalist, and non-political among the general public. Paradoxically, their political success was a consequence of their ability to stay outside the realm of putative politics. In the long run, however, it was not possible to push for revolutionary demands while at the same time maintaining an apolitical profile. From early 2013 onwards, the Ultras were caught up in events that made them look increasingly political, and which saw them lose a great deal of popular support.
The book’s conclusion suggests that this double bind faced by the Ultras was an impasse plaguing many revolutionary factions in Egypt. To understand this point we must first realize that the Egyptian revolution was a nationalist revolt first and foremost. Nationalism constituted a taken-for-granted meta-framework; liberals, Islamists, socialist, and the Army all claimed that they were fighting for the true interests of the whole people. While this was no doubt a reason behind the revolution’s initial success – appeals to nationalism could be recognized and supported by millions of Egyptians – it also imposed limitations. As the Ultras exemplify, it can be difficult to combine being a proper nationalist with fighting for the interests of particular subsections of the national collective, for example, a particular class or gender. I am convinced that this is a factor to consider when we try to understand why the Egyptian revolution was stifled. It is not at all easy to stay strictly non-political in a revolutionary situation that by its very essence requires bold action, violent resistance, and demands calling for radical transformation.
Jessica Winegar: This working with and through local conceptions of politics (siyasa) is fascinating. What advice would you give junior anthropologists working on politics in other contexts, then?
I guess my suggestion would be to be a bit less concerned with how anthropology defines politics and a bit more interested in what the people we work with understand to be political and not. In my analysis of siyasa I take cues from an article that Matei Candea wrote in 2011. Candea notes that while anthropologists since the 1960s have been very good at discerning politics in all thinkable sociocultural fields (the politics of gender, the politics of the body, clothing, taste, language, knowledge and so on), politics itself has rarely been examined. Candea proposes that anthropologists should study the political as an ethnographic category. His ethnographical material from schools and educational administrators on Corsica analyses in detail how politics is understood locally, how the political and non-political are divided up, and how such boundaries become an important part of reality.
My book demonstrates the potential of studying politics as an ethnographic category in revolutionary situations. Conducting my research in a period when siyasa seemed to be everywhere in Egypt, I documented how football people understood and delineated the political, as well as how it generated a visceral sense of unease. This empirical focus facilitated an analysis of the variegated work that the political does. It allowed me to pinpoint how too much politics forecloses previously strong emotions. As one interlocutor expressed it, ‘everything has become politics; there is no fun left.’ It also made me show how the political functions as a derogatory label: how it could discredit and marginalize actors from the national we; and how it could render a whole sport suspicious and problematic. I would imagine that similar analyses would be of interest in many contexts around the world. Which phenomena or individuals are political or not can never be known in advance. It is a fluid field ripe with contestations that must be studied ethnographically. Such ethnographic attention to emic notions of politics does not only provide valuable insights about what the political is, how it is debated, and how it feels. As I hope that my book demonstrates, it could also provide a fresh entry point for analyzing conflicts over resources, power, and hegemony, a ‘politics of politics,’ as I call it at one point in the conclusion.
On page 99 of my dissertation, I end a section that traces a series of Chinese newspaper reports on a pregnant woman’s long-winded quest for the so-called “birth permit.” It is then followed by a new section that reflects on how the media represents her experience as a sign of bad bureaucracy.
There is very little novelty in complaining about bureaucratic red tape in China. Yet, I was compelled to create a whole dissertation chapter titled “Documentation and Its Bureaucratic Discontents” for the following three reasons. First, the pregnant woman’s story was just one example of countless media reports that raised the “documentation difficulty” issue at the time. If frustration about bureaucratic paperwork is old news, why was the media churning out this old news at that specific moment? Second, Chinese news media would normally avoid directly criticizing the Party-State government. Then how and why were the media openly criticizing the bureaucracy in these reports? Third, I wanted to understand the implications of problematizing documentation issues as specifically a bureaucratic failing. Provided that these legal documents are consequential for urban lives well beyond the realm of bureaucratic spheres, what discourse and practices does such problematization enable and/or foreclose?
Page 99 addresses the second question by underlining how the Chinese media, which strives to meet demands from both the Party-State and the commercialized media market, “assumes itself to be the mediator between the state and the public” (p. 99). Ultimately, this chapter argues that this role is one reason why the media is able to criticize the bureaucracy: by domesticating documentation practices as sites of bureaucratic reform, it creates the representation of a nation-state that is moving forward. In doing so, the media “mediates the imagination and legitimacy of the state and its bureaucracy” (p.99).
Overall, I do not think page 99 meets Ford’s test. My dissertation traces how people speak of and handle the banal and copious evidentiary documents (for example, ID card, certificates, and permits) in their everyday lives. In doing so, it demonstrates how such documents critically condition people’s mobility and their understanding of urban citizenship in contemporary China. Even though page 99 maps out key discourses through the lens of institutionalized media, it does not leave space to consider how such institutionalized discourses might unfold in the realm of everyday speech and practices. In fact, most of what became page 99 of the dissertation was written before my extended dissertation fieldwork.
Dodom Kim. 2022. Documenting Uncertainty: Bureaucratic Evidence, Media Practice, and Migrant Citizenship in Southern China. University of Chicago, PhD.
Page 99 of my dissertation is part of my methodology section and connects testing research moments to the topic at hand: the use of the dating application Tinder in Cape Town (South Africa). I recruited participants via the app itself and Page 99 is the build-up to a turning point that had me reconsidering what it means to relate via the app – whether it is with potential dates or research participants. It describes how I had initially embraced the idea of Tinder as a tool which I could use to impose myself less upon potential people, at least as compared to more traditional approaches. Rather than approaching people physically and selling my research, they could look at my research profile describing my intentions and showing a couple of pictures of me and decide whether they were really interested in an engagement.
However, I found myself confronted with two challenges. One of them was that the profile triggered much more interest than I had anticipated, forcing me to think about selection criteria. An abundance of interest to participate in an ethnographic study was not something I had previously encountered (I was used to a slow build-up of connections) and I had assumed more hesitance, especially given the occasionally surfacing swindler scandals linked to Tinder. The page in question describes how I felt accelerated but, at the same time, overwhelmed just looking at the list of ‘options’. I wrote:
Tinder does not only create the illusion of an unlimited number of possible connections (given the ‘right’ settings, appearances, and investments), but matches also carry the promise of a certain kind of experience, namely one that is inherently intimate. The idea of being ethnographically intimate with a variety of people and being able to create these experiences made me feel excited and numb, powerful, and paralysed at the same time.
But before I could figure out how to deal with this challenge, something else happened: I was indefinitely blocked from Tinder. After eight email exchanges, I still did not have an explanation as to why and was merely told to look at the community guidelines, which left me just as clueless. The experience made me ponder my premise that approaching people online was somehow less intrusive. While it is quite likely that I was banned not because of user complaints but by Tinder’s content regulators, I was still left wondering how my presence on the app had been perceived by those who had swiped left (not interested) on my profile. It also made me think about the enticing acceleration that the idea of ethnographic intimacy with a variety of people had triggered in me, mirroring the addictive swipe logic that is meant to keep users going from profile to profile rather than meaningfully engaging with their matches. The challenging-but-persistent search for meaningful experiences on Tinder is grappled with in the remainder of the dissertation.
Leah Junck. 2021. Down the Rabbit Hole: An Ethnography on Loving, Desiring and Tindering in Cape Town. University of Capetown, Phd.
I wasn’t expecting my p. 99 – right in the middle of my methodology – to be particularly revealing. But as luck (or indeed Ford Madox Ford) would have it, on p. 99 we land midway through a description of my participants that speaks to the crux of my thesis:
Most of the students came from the same sub-caste, one that represents the vast majority of the population of the area around the branch. I have chosen not to disclose the name of the caste, as they are heavily concentrated in one particular area of Delhi – where my branch was located – and revealing this would make the branch potentially identifiable to those familiar with Delhi. I understand that this has scholarly implications, as my writing on this caste cannot be cross-referenced if it is kept anonymous, but this is a sacrifice that I am willing to make in the interest of protecting my participants’ anonymity. With regard to the positioning of the caste, there is great disagreement over which varna (the four main caste subdivisions) they belong to, with some claims that they descend from the Kshatriyas (second ‘highest’ caste) and other arguments that they are from the Vaishyas (the ‘third’). While their ancestral descent may be disputed, in Delhi this caste group have been labelled as OBC (Other Backward Classes) by the government as the caste is deemed socially, economically and educationally ‘backward’. Interestingly, this classification is not ubiquitous across India. In some states, this caste has been allocated ‘Scheduled Caste’ (SC) status by the government, a status reserved for the most oppressed peoples, usually those from the Dalit communities. Parallel to this, in 2008, there was civil unrest in another state of Northern India as this caste group rallied to be re-classified from OBC to SC, which would grant them further quotas for government jobs. While they may not be the most socially oppressed caste, there are widespread negative stereotypes in circulation of them as thuggish, uneducated and uncouth. There was a rumour circulating in the branch while I was there that Dominos no longer delivered pizza to that area as the delivery boys were too afraid. Although a facilitator informed me that this was not the case (Dominos were allegedly refusing to deliver as the road names were not marked clearly and they struggled to find addresses and deliver in the 30-minute timeframe that was promised by the pizza chain), the rumour was a clear indication of the types of assumptions made about this caste group (both by members and non-members). A Google search of the caste brings up links to a question posted in a forum asking why this caste is so feared in Delhi. Most of the responses chastised the caste members for being ‘unintelligent’ and only capable of responding to issues with violence, but one member of this caste took this as an opportunity to attempt to quell such stereotypes…
The aforementioned branch was one of several hundred branches of a non-profit English and employability training programme in North India and was the primary site for my ethnographic exploration of social mobility and English. Specifically, I was interested in the material, discursive and affective consequences of English speakerhood as a deeply embodied phenomenon enmeshed with wider historical processes and structures of inequality. As p. 99 suggests, caste – and its intersection with class, gender, race, colonialism – became the bedrock of my analysis.
Listening to the experiences of the students such as those described on p. 99 unearthed ambivalent feelings about their investments in English. On the one hand, they were deeply committed to pursuing a language that they had come to understand as their key to not only jobs but prestige, pride, (upward) marriage, and modernity (see also Highet 2022); on the other, there were recurrent moments of despair as they wondered whether this language framed as a resource could really live up to its promises; whether their transformation into an English speaker – a figure built upon colonial, class and caste stratification – could really help them counter their marginalisation and stigmatisation.
This is evident in the Domino’s rumour that I chose to illustrate the constant, dynamic presence of caste in these students’ lives, and which shows how the discursive ‘castelessness’, in Deshpande’s (2013) terms, of the middle classes obscures what is in practice a deeply consequential element of social organisation. In later chapters, I return to this to argue that this ideological ‘castelessness’ is a key part of what propels the discourse of social-mobility-through-English, as it reframes social mobility as an individualised pursuit, open to anyone, if only they try hard enough.
The problem, I argue later, is that these remain politically very difficult conversations to have, particularly in the current climate of rising suspicion of anything ostensibly ‘anti-national’; it is partly for this reason that I took the steps mentioned on p. 99 to protect my participants’ identities. This raises difficult questions – questions that I continue to grapple with – about the ethical and political challenges at stake in critical research and in our engagement with projects of social transformation.
Satish Deshpande. 2013. “Caste and Castelessness: Towards a Biography of the ‘General Category.'” Economic and Political Weekly. 48: 32–39.
This blog post offers us an opportunity to reflect upon the process of creating this book and ask questions that are often lost in the minutiae of editing and writing, questions like: why was this project important? What were we doing that was different from usual practices in publishing? What guideposts can we leave for others trying to do similar work? From these discussions, we have recognized the importance of the intertwined nature of ethos and process. Even while editing the book we spoke about this and therefore included our guiding principles in the book introduction. In hindsight, our perspective on these issues has broadened. There are three core themes that have emerged, at times consciously planned and at times organically manifested: (1) the crucial importance of egalitarian collaboration; (2) the centrality of an open process; and (3) the value of interdisciplinary conversations.
As is common in anthropology, each of us began our independent work on these topics in our own individual ethnographic research, coming to parallel conclusions about the role of language in community-building. Though we may be energized by the relationships and understandings that immersive ethnography can afford, we have found the research process itself can at times feel solitary in nature. Out of this dilemma, we sought out a collaborative relationship from the inception of this project.
The project began with a conference conversation, and like so many of that breed, it was a bit awkward at first. At the 2018 National Heritage Language Resource Center (NHLRC) quadrennial conference, Jesse attended a panel Netta had co-organized with Sarah Bunin Benor, where Netta discussed her concept of metalinguistic community (based on her ethnographic research on Yiddish heritage language socialization). Despite remembering feeling nervous, Jesse found the concept powerful and struck up a conversation.
We continued to correspond after the conference and later that year Jesse asked Netta if she would be the discussant on a panel about the metalinguistic community concept at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association that year. While the NHLRC meeting was the first germ of this process, the panel was the productive beginning. It was in a post-talk brunch among the panelists that the book was first proposed with considerable interest. In retrospect, this was a pre-pandemic process that today makes us appreciate the physicality of those conferences and the types of sociality they permit.
The importance of collaboration – understood as a meeting of equals – also guided our editorial process. Instead of the inherently hierarchical and at times callous process of blind, anonymous peer review, we utilized open peer review that treated each author as an expert capable of editing and critique.
Authors were each assigned one of their fellow author’s chapters to review and provide feedback on (including our own!), and so everyone was both critic and critiqued. The authors responded well to this process and appreciated the feedback, even building productive relationships and discussions with one another. This peer editing was followed by a second round of feedback by the two editors, with particular attention to ensure coherence of voice and harmony across the volume.
Our process assumed the existence of collegial generosity, balancing of humility with expertise, and a desire for mutual aid. We were not disappointed by the volume authors. In addition, we were able to collaborate with Netta’s research assistants throughout the project, which allowed for new perspectives that enriched the eventual product. Across the board, the project authors, panelists and other collaborators have been enthusiastic in their willingness to participate in the process and we found that transparency in the process facilitated their accountability and the product overall.
Openness of the Project
For us, openness and collegiality are fundamental to successful academic communities, and our commitment to this ethos manifested in particular practices that we engaged in. We have found that at times the norms and practices of publishing in academia can be unnecessarily opaque to members of academic communities. In this project, one of our goals was to experiment with alternative, more inclusive strategies. For us, ‘openness’ is a broad term referring to a preference for transparency over opacity among ourselves and with authors regarding process and positionality.
Our collaboration began with a panel organized for the 2018 AAA conference, for which we posted an open call for submissions to public message boards and listservs dedicated to heritage languages and linguistic anthropology. We received a strong positive response from this strategy and had more submissions than we could include in the eventual book.
This inclusive approach continued as we transitioned into preparing the edited volume. While we invited the original AAA 2018 panelists to participate in the book project, we knew that not all would be able to stay involved and we would have additional spaces in the volume. We returned again to public listservs and messageboards to request submissions and tried to be as transparent as possible about our process, including anonymizing submissions. We also reached out directly to Wesley Leonard, whom we both greatly respect, to author an afterword – his contribution was the only one not solicited through a more public process.
Selecting chapters was an exciting process given the range of submissions we received. It was also challenging in terms of achieving diversity in a number of ways, including type of language community (diasporic, indigenous, minoritized), global region, language family and, of course, without sacrificing originality and quality of writing. We were to keep the submitters appraised of this process as it occurred through periodic emails.
Another element of our desire for transparency came in our request for positionality statements from each author. Instead of beginning with a traditional abstract, our chapters open with each author introducing themselves, their relationship to the community with whom they work and any details about those relationships that they wished to share. The goals here were not only focused on our ethical commitments to the participants in our respective research projects — but also revealing to the reader a behind the scenes glimpse of how research is done and how ethnographers and participants relate with one another. Our goal, which continues even into this blog post, has been to demystify our process to open up our practices to a wider audience.
Our work has been deeply interdisciplinary from the start. Part of this came from our own diverse training: Netta’s academic background is in applied linguistics, linguistic anthropology, and teacher education. She has long been interested in the social justice and social change implications of long-term ethnographic engagement with communities. More recently, she has combined these different interests in an approach she and colleagues have termed applied linguistic anthropology. Jesse came from a cultural anthropology background studying nationalism and religion, but found himself increasingly drawn to language as he realized he had stumbled into a context of language standardization with ethnographically rich processes and ideologies. We brought together our respective theoretical and methodological training to the project, while also bringing in an interdisciplinary ethos – meaning that we respected different perspectives and ways forward in the project.
As we included more authors, these perspectives continued to proliferate and mutually enrich one another. In retrospect, we believe that having the text’s north star focused on the broad concept of Metalinguistic Community allowed for many types of authors to productively contribute through the lens of their different ethnographic realities. Simultaneously, these varied disciplinary and theoretical perspectives were accompanied by a wide geographic range of field settings.
Though there was consistency in terms of the chapter positionality statements and length, the structure of each chapter became intimately connected to the particulars of a given context – for example, including translations, transcripts, additional historical background, in-depth examples as suited to the foci of each other. Therefore, our job as the volume editors became to synthesize this range of rich material into a cohesive text.
Looking to the Future?
As we look to the future of our book, we hope that it will help to spark conversations among academics and language activists about what constitutes community in relation to language. Our goal is to create an intellectual environment that recognizes a broader range of possible forms of success for envisioning language communities. In our minds, these case studies not only describe communities but also provide paths forward for how to plan for the future of their relationships to their particular language.
In an ideal world, the book would contribute to an academic dialogue, in terms of undergraduate and graduate courses, scholarly exchanges, and minoritized language education. For example, we hope that metalinguistic community (and case studies thereof) become a model that is taught alongside other community-focused concepts in linguistic anthropology (for example, speech community, linguistic community). We look forward to other scholars adopting these concepts and building up this work in new and exciting directions, as the book itself has already done.
Embodying the collaborative nature of this book, we have both become advocates of a concept proposed by Wesley Leonard in our afterword: metalinguistic futurities. For many of these languages and communities, there is an intense attachment to the past. Our hope is that the past is not where the story ends. We see our work as part of a bridge to envisioning new futures where minoritized languages become equally understood as pathways to understand and experience the future.
In addition to content-specific impact, we hope that our text will become part of a larger movement in many areas of the academy to shift towards new forms of research and knowledge sharing that center collaboration, openness, and interdisciplinarity. We understand the democratizing of knowledge to be a task of all disciplines and would be pleased to see our work as part of that more recent turn in academia more broadly.
At one Quantified Self event, Dave offered a particularly striking comparison between automobiles and bodies, one, he says, his father, a car aficionado, failed to fully appreciate to his own peril. His father’s failure, Dave explained, drove his own interest in digital self-monitoring. His father loved cars and, according to Dave, spent more time in the garage than with his own son. When he became older, he discovered blood in his stool, went for a colonoscopy, but never made use of the information. Eventually he died of colon cancer. ‘He understood the car in a way he never understood his body,’ Dave lamented. ‘He had such a dissociated experience with his own body … and I thought, my god, how is it that we can have sensors and devices in our cars to understand how this thing works and when it will break down, but we have so few things that we know about our body?’”
My dissertation and forthcoming manuscript focus on the promises and failures of digital connections. This work draws on two years of ethnographic fieldwork with developers of wearable computing who participate in the international forum called the Quantified Self (QS).
Pundits and critical scholars tend to interpret QS in one of two ways: as a digital trend with worrisome social effects or as a “community” of digital enthusiasts who are operating on the margins of neoliberal health policies (see Lupton, Deborah. The Quantified Self. Polity Press, 2016 and Nafus, Dawn and Neff Gina. Self-Tracking. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016). The passage I quote from page 99 of my dissertation, above, features commentary a QS participant that on the surface exemplifies this take that QS is a community of digital enthusiasts.
This popular and academic framing, however, remains disconnected from the realities of digital entrepreneurialism and the role QS has played within it. I propose to viewed QS as an “interface” in Branden Hookway’s sense (see Hookway 2014). As an interface, QS is not only a screen that brazenly puts contemporary digital enthusiasm on display. It’s a prism that constructs as it refracts digital knowledge and offers alternate perspectives on the dynamics that power wearables entrepreneurialism.
I found that QS primarily attracted digital professionals like Dave who, since the forum’s inception in 2007, have taken on the bulk of the labor associated with organizing and managing QS as an enthusiast community. In these settings technologists do not just approach QS as a cultural found object. They enfold QS into narratives of digital representation that obscure from view the way they vary their positions on data depending on context and audience and how they knowingly operate in the gaps in knowledge, in the spaces between certainty and truth (see Grinberg 2021).
I also evaluate the way the language of enthusiasm that shapes QS as a community disguises the transactional nature of this forum. For technologists navigating an increasingly flexible and insecure work environment, QS offers vital opportunities for networking, reputation-building, and credentialing. In this capacity, QS also acts as one of a growing cadre of contemporary mechanisms that continues to press worker sociality and desire into service of tech-capitalism. Ultimately, this project focuses attention on the way seemingly masculinized innovation that is moved by rational actors is in fact shaped by feminized free and affective labor. While the digital connections and forms of community QS represents are reputed to be enduring and strong, the ties it fosters are revealed as fleeting and strained.
Maximilian Jablonowski: While reading your book, one learns about your “transformation in a drone hobbyist”; from the thorough preparations in advance of your first flights with your drone Jay until you finally becoming an experienced drone pilot and drone videographer. Where did your interest in drones come from? Was there a particular event that sparked your curiosity in the new technology? And why did consumer drones, recreationally used drones in the “context of play”, as you’ve put it, strike you as a particularly relevant and timely field of research?
Julia M. Hildebrand: The connection between communication and transportation has always been a fascinating topic for me. Not only do these practices and concepts share some history but communication and movement continue to be entangled and disentangled in compelling ways. Think self-driving cars, Pokémon Go, and, of course, the consumer drone. I remember the moment when I decided to “zoom in” on the aerial medium. I had been looking for a project that would allow me to bring together media and mobilities research, when I watched a Netflix travel documentary about the U.S. Midwest. Suddenly, I saw this breath-taking shot in which a flying camera follows a car drive down Route 66 into the sunset. This aerial view and its movement were so unlike that of a helicopter, a balloon, or other airborne devices. I realized this was a drone. It would be the perfect platform on which to critically explore contemporary configurations of communication and transportation.
My attention to drones for play emerged out of the lack of empirical data for the popular recreational practice. There is a strong body of literature on the military drone and more and more scholarship is looking into the commercial drone. I was surprised to find so few studies on the hobby and artistic drone, when the U.S. alone counted almost 1 million hobbyists that seemingly logged 1.5 million hours of recreational flight every month in 2020. Plus, the hobby drone was becoming increasingly contentious with public narratives focusing on its capacities for spying, surveying, stalking, disrupting, and harming others. Nonetheless, recreational users have remained enthusiastic about the flying camera.
How do hobbyists adopt consumer drones and what do those practices teach us about contemporary forms of media and mobility? Exploring these questions through interviews, participant observation, and auto-ethnographic research allowed me to both fill gaps in drone scholarship with data on recreational and artistic uses as well as advance frameworks in critical media studies, mobile communication, and mobilities research. While many discourses position drones as predominantly weapons, neutral tools, or mere toys, I make the case for approaching consumer drones as mobile media with much potential in the hands of everyday users.
Maximilian Jablonowski: Swiss drone researchers Francisco Klauser and Silvana Pedrozo have diagnosed a dramatic lack of empirical research in publications about drones. Even though the situation has somewhat changed since they made their assessment back in 2015, your book is certainly one of the most or, I would even say, the most methodologically advanced and empirically deep study in the field of drone research. You have developed “auto-drone-technography” as a concept and “drone-logs” as an epistemic tool for exploring the complex assemblage of communication, spaces, and mobilities that are brought together by drones. Could you tell a bit about these methodologies? How did they help you to approach drones, both as field of research and as technological objects?
Julia M. Hildebrand: The drone, which in my case is a DJI Mavic Pro Platinum model, allowed me to combine my aerial video recordings with personal audio voice-overs. Those “drone-logs” became an analytic diary of sorts in which “we” (the drone and I) captured the drone’s “sky videos” along with my own “ground audio.” That juxtaposition produced several interesting findings; by themselves each recording would have been less eye-opening.
I first recognized this as a unique opportunity for data collection and analysis when I followed one of my study participants on Facebook. They livestreamed an afternoon drone flight session but forgot to turn off their smartphone microphone. As a result, while watching the live-stream, I heard the remote pilot’s soft breathing. They eventually noticed this and turned off the mic. Yet, that moment in which the far away, machinic, aerial view was combined with the very intimate, human practice of breathing was extraordinary. The pairing of the two different recordings made each stand out more. This inspired me to juxtapose my own voice-overs, which were self-reflective and analytic as well as spontaneous, with the respective drone visuals.
By introducing the practice of “auto-drone-technography,” I want to emphasize the value of studying the moments in which the human meets the technology, where the organic entangles with the machinic in unexpected ways. In such instances, one can teach us about the other and vice versa. Rooted in auto-ethnography as the systematic exploration of personal experience, auto-technography emphasizes the role of technology in how we experience the world. The flying camera as a medium is special here insofar as it reminds us of the larger picture, the importance of taking a step back, zooming out, and looking back at ourselves. The positionality of the drone pilot and the researcher more generally become central through the civilian drone lens.
Maximilian Jablonowski: You have not only developed a methodology for researching about drones but also for researching with drones. You and your drone Jay became a “hybrid-researcher,” forming a connection you describe as not only epistemic but also affective mobile companionship. You even describe your interaction, or, as you’ve also put it in reference to Karen Barad, your intra-action with the drone as a dance. How did this connection inform your research about drones, which relations and affects did it make possible? What did you learn about drones through dancing with Jay?
Julia M. Hildebrand: Something I did not anticipate in this research was the agency that my drone “Jay” would take on. We would become a “hybrid researcher” in the production of drone logs. However, not always would the machine and I be in “sync.” Particularly when I was learning about a new feature, it seemed as if we first had to find each other, read each other’s cues, figure out our joint processes of moving and communicating. We are an uneven couple that was learning to waltz together.
In the book, I also describe the insightful moment when Jay froze on me one afternoon and I was left without control over the drone hovering just a few feet above me. “He” was set to actively track me and so he independently “followed” me for another couple of minutes until the battery eventually drained. This experience was amazing, amusing, and frightening.
The engagement with the mobile medium can cover a range of affects from fear about crashing or losing the drone, to exhilaration about the view one just accessed, frustration about the technology “needing” something (a new battery, a software update, a clear gesture from the user), and joy in the playful inter- and intra-actions with the flying bodily extension.
My interviewees and participants echoed those observations. Evident was also that this unusual mobile companion did not need relatable features to appear as a “pet,” a “friend,” a “baby,” a “witness,” or, in my case, a dance partner. It was mostly “his/her/its” movement and the minimal agencies that the intelligent flight functions would afford.
Maximilian Jablonowski: In addition to your auto-drone-technography, you also did extensive ethnographic research among drone users. In more sensationalist media coverage, but also in some academic work, drone users are often portrayed as irresponsible young men who don’t care for the safety or privacy of the people around them. In your research, one gets a very different impression of this community. Your interviewees are very diverse with regard to gender and age and highly aware of the risk and the power that comes with flying drones. Can you tell a bit more about this community? Who are consumer drone user? What motivates them, which backgrounds do they have? Which skills and literacies do consumer drone users have or develop and what does drone flying mean to them?
Julia M. Hildebrand: The community in general is more diverse than what the public discourse implies. Naturally, an affinity to new gadgets, video gaming, and aviation is what many recreational drone pilots have in common. Yet, there is also a large segment of hobbyists who come to the practice through photography and videography. In this community, the technophile meets the traveller, the gamer meets the photographer. In addition, older generations interact with younger ones and next to the stereotypical young white male, I was happy to also discover a notable group of women as well as people of colour flying drones for fun and work. Among my interviewees, for example, were a former female jet pilot in her sixties, a mother in her twenties who vlogs about her drone racing, and a man of colour in his forties who otherwise works long hours in a nursing home.
Many of them use the hobby as a form of relaxation and escape. It takes them outside and can feel like a release. Others enjoy flying their drone(s) with their children and grandchildren. Of course, all of my interviewees referred to the awe-inspiring aerial view of consumer drones. It is those breath-taking images of familiar and unfamiliar landscapes that keep hobbyists interested in the practice. And this, despite the barriers that exist for this hobby.
The price of drone gear, for example, is significant when one is looking for reliable and advanced systems. The most popular devices for recreational drone flight lie between $300 and $800 USD not including additional batteries, propellers, SD cards, and so on. Less expensive options are available, especially in the toy section, but can be harder to fly with less safety and lower image quality. The costs, hence, certainly prevent a lot of people from entering the hobby.
In addition, even when consumer drones come with sense-and-avoid functions and smart flight settings, they can be difficult to operate at first. It takes practice along with an understanding of geographical conditions, aerial regulations, and, most importantly, attention to surrounding human and nonhuman mobilities from bystanders to birds. A hobby pilot participates in aerial traffic and bears significant responsibilities which many of my interviewees were sensitive to.
Maximilian Jablonowski: You are conceptualising consumer drones as fundamentally productive devices; they open up new and hybrid spaces, afford new skills and perspectives, enable connections and communication. I want to focus on the probably most obvious product of consumer drones, namely still and moving images. With regard to their image production, I think there’s the gravest misconception in current drone research, because concepts of drone vision, of what drones see, are almost exclusively considering the perceptive practices and capabilities of military drones, implicitly assuming that all drones, no matter who’s using them for which purposes, make us perceive the world in the same way. Drawing on German philosopher Walter Benjamin, you’re conceptualising the consumer drones’ vision as being “auratic”. Could you explain what this means? How is this auratic way of seeing distinct from the imperial aerial gaze that is commonly associated with military viewing practices? What does it mean to ‘see like a consumer drone’, as you have put it?
Julia M. Hildebrand: My exploration of the consumer drone gaze is meant to complement the literature on the military drone stare. Although the technologies share the name and a military background, it is important to also note the differences in how a military operator collects drone footage and how a hobbyist uses their flying camera. Beyond the top-down, ordering forms of surveillance, the consumer drone allows for creative, spontaneous, and playful explorations of three-dimensional space. The hawkish drone stare is reductionist and possessive. The consumer drone gaze is primarily about artfully opening up alluring geographies and the user’s own positionalities.
Benjamin’s concept of aura helped me describe and analyse this phenomenon. In the original German text, he defines aura as “Erscheinung einer Ferne, so nah sie sein mag” (W. Benjamin, 1963: 15), which is translated as “phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be.” The original sentence may also be understood as a “vision/ emergence/ appearance /emanation” of a “remoteness/ faraway place/ foreign space” however “near/ familiar” it may be. This impression of remoteness is front and centre in recreational drone flying as even familiar everyday spaces begin to appear unfamiliar, auratic.
This auratic and playful quality of the consumer drone gaze exists alongside the imperial drone stare. Hence, drone scholarship benefits from a clearer delineation between those different types of contemporary “drone visions.”
Maximilian Jablonowski: Since consumer drones started to get more and more popular, there’s a debate among scholars, but also within the interested public what their rise to popularity means with regard to airspace as a public, but still highly restricted space only available to few and privileged stakeholders. As I have perceived the debate, there are mainly two positions, a more optimistic and a more sceptical one. Some, especially people who have a commercial interest in drone use, argue that consumer drones will democratise airspace, making it available for new communities which until now didn’t have the skill or the permission to access it. This democratisation will open up new opportunities for recreation, but also for commerce. That’s why others, among them myself, are worried that commercial drones could lead to a partial privatisation of lower airspace. Amazon’s proposal to reserve the space between 400-500 ft. above the ground to high-speed drone traffic is a first indication in this direction. This could finally have the effect that airspace dwellers like birds and insects and people on the ground will experience increased noise and pollution from above, infringing on their health and well-being.
On the final pages of your book, you make a very interesting case for an “individual right to aerial space”. How is this idea related to the controversy whether drones democratise or privatise airspace and why do think this right is important?
Julia M. Hildebrand: This question is increasingly relevant as public agencies such as the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Global UTM Association, but also private, commercial stakeholders “map” out desired unmanned traffic management approaches and spaces. In the U.S. context, the commercial sector is clearly privileged in those plans and conversations. The commercial drone market and investments into it continue to grow with major opportunities for especially the energy, construction, and agriculture industries. Aerial space is needed for commercial drones to safely map and survey, inspect, take images, and yes, make deliveries for Google, Amazon, and Walmart. The FAA already recognizes Google’s Wing and Amazon’s Prime Air as small drone airlines.
Recreational uses are at best secondary if mentioned at all in such plans and visions. It is unclear to what extent the hobby will be considered as lower airspaces get reassigned. In the book’s conclusion, I argue that consumer drones are unique points of entry into an educational hobby and often profession that combine technology, aviation, and science with communication, creativity, and the environment. The auratic vertical gaze, the freedom and release experienced by users, the distinct personal affective mobilities, and the “drone-mindedness” that can increase geographical awareness and environmental literacy are worth preserving through what I understand as an “individual right to aerial space.”
Without more insights into how and why recreational users adopt consumer drones and an understanding of its merits, we cannot adequately map out future unmanned aerial traffic. We run the risk of shutting down social, cultural, artistic, and educational opportunities for people outside of aviation and commerce to discover everyday geographies anew in a clearly regulated and governed but, nonetheless, shared aerial space.
Benjamin, Walter. 1963. Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit.