For the purposes of my ethnographic experiment, I chose to focus my observations on human-machine interactions. More specifically, I turned my attention to interactions between humans and small drones, otherwise known as unmanned aerial vehicles, used for recreational photography. As my site of observation, I ventured out to a conservation area in Ottawa with my main interlocutor, referred to as Ben for the purposes of this exercise, who is the owner and controller of the drone, to take some aerial footage.
My first approach, titled ‘Arrival Scene’, aimed to tackle what James Clifford explains as the privileging of vision as a primary sense to acquire information in ethnographic writing and the resulting partiality of truth. Acknowledging this challenge and perhaps hoping to convey a different partial truth, I chose to take a more sensorial approach. Focusing on different sensorial perceptions, including not only visual perception but also auditory and haptic perception, I aimed to convey the overall sensorial experience of the setting in my writing through description. This involved experimenting with how to translate sensorial experiences into writing (i.e. by using onomatopoeias). The rich description featured in this approach thus aims to be transportive, allowing readers to easily imagine the setting and the consequential interactions which unfolded.
I also chose to be more reflexive by situating myself, as the anthropologist, within and amongst the interaction between the visitors to the conservation area and the drone. By choosing to write in the first person, I explicitly acknowledge the partiality of truth stemming from my own sensorial experience, as opposed to stemming from a bodiless voice of authority. The sensorial approach to ethnography seemed to lend itself to this ethnographic voice in particular, by maintaining the subjectivity of experience.
Finally, the title ‘Arrival Scene’ pays homage to an ethnographic tradition of describing the arrival of the anthropologist on site. Consistent with my choice to situate the anthropologist within interactions with my interlocutors, I sought to draw attention to how the anthropologist happened to inhabit this collective space which formed the setting of my observations. Furthermore, by choosing to do so, it also drew attention to the process involved before the drone even physically takes flight (i.e. choosing a spot to film, setting up the drone, etc.). By including this process in my description, I capture interactions between Ben and the drone itself, as well as interactions between Ben and the public, and the drone and the public. I also chose to situate the drone itself as an actor with affective capacity in these interactions, as opposed to conceiving the drone as an extension of its controller. I believe it reflected more accurately the ways in which some visitors referred to the drone- as if it had an agency of its own.
My second approach, titled ‘Thoughts from the Field’, uses the format of preliminary analysis. In this sense, ethnographic observations are not read in a particular narrative arc (i.e. introduction, development, denouement, conclusion) or chronology but rather are read as stand alone observations with some preliminary analysis. Through this approach, I hoped to convey what may emerge after one initially looks through their raw ethnographic observations. Through this process of preliminary analysis, data is organized thematically, highlighting initial impressions from the field and the prompting of deeper meaning of the events observed- what are the implications of what was observed? Notes are thus grouped in way that highlights areas that may be fruitful avenues for further inquiry. I hoped to emulate a sort of running conversation with myself. It is, by no means, meant to be authoritative. Though the entanglement of myself, as the anthropologist within the interaction amongst my interlocutors is made explicit, I did choose to write in third-person. This seemed to more effectively convey the analytical tone by implying a sort of ‘stepping out’ of the self to conceive of the interaction from a different angle. To be consistent, I included ethnographic observations that were included in my first approach
I chose this format to also illustrate Clifford’s idea of the partiality of truth. This preliminary analysis is in no way an objective portrayal of how things ‘really’ were. I agree with Clifford in his questioning of whether that is even possible, or necessary. Rather, these prompts illustrate a particular way of understanding the setting, conveyed through a particular analytical angle. It also demonstrates the implications, whether they are intended or not, of choosing to take note of certain observations while choosing to disregard others. At a sort of early phase, this decision shapes the emphasis of the ethnographic data and the consequential writing up of ethnography.
The focus of my second approach is shaped around dialogue- in particular the dialogue involving Ben as the main interlocutor. I found that a really interesting dynamic that emerged was that between Ben, the controller, and the drone itself. By focusing on how interactions unfolded with Ben as its centre, I found that I was able to convey a particular story about the relationship between humans and machines, even through preliminary analysis.
Approach #1: Arrival Scene
We cross an open field and start to climb up to the overlook. The sun hangs low in the Sunday afternoon sky- we don’t have very much longer until the sun sets. “The golden hour” Ben explains, slightly out of breath. “It’s the perfect lighting. Everything looks… prettier, more serene”. Our footsteps reverberate across the field as we trudge through the dried vegetation, making crunching sounds with each step. Blades of tall grass brush against our legs, the white fluffy heads of dandelions and dried seed heads stick to our jeans. Crunch crunch. Swish swish. We keep climbing higher. It’s warm for early November. Looking around though, the dried and colourless landscape acts as a nagging reminder that winter is only a few weeks away. Eyes closed, I take note of the warmth of the sun on my skin. “Better soak it in while you can” I say to myself, pausing for a second.
We reach the top of the overlook; the vast expanse of field below extends before us. Seems quiet at first, except for the sounds of us catching our breath. It is peaceful up here. The outline of the city peeks out above the tree line. I can see the highway in the distance before I can actually hear it. My attention turns to the distant hum of traffic that acts as white noise. Listening closer, the natural crescendos and decrescendos of human conversation break the illusion that we are alone. I take notice of the varying collectivities of visitors scattered around the conservation area in varying formulations. Hikers, dog-walkers, couples out of for a stroll, families entertaining small children, older patrons exercising - it is indeed a rich tapestry of human activity. Turning back to the activity at hand though, I ask “so what do you think?”. “I think this is a good spot” Ben says decisively, setting down his backpack. He unzips it to reveal a strange, almost futuristic-looking machine, sitting snuggly in reinforced, protective packaging. He pulls it out and sets it atop a flat rock. Swoosh-click. Swoosh-click. Swoosh-click. Swoosh-click. Four propellers spin and lock into place. This small flying machine is equipped with a high definition video camera, vision sensors to avoid obstacles in its flight path and a controller to navigate and track its movements. It is elegantly designed, portable and aerodynamic. He clicks the power button. Lights blinking, camera spinning, melody singing to indicate start-up, the drone jumps into life. Beep, beep, beep, beep- the drone calibrates to sync with his controller. I look around- our fellow visitors seem unaffected by the new presence that has suddenly joined them in this collective space.
The propellers start to spin, so fast that they are only a blur. “Here we go!” he announces. His excitement is contagious. The vegetation underneath the drone, once standing tall now bends over from the force of the propellers’ movement as the drone ascends into the clear blue sky. It hovers several feet off the ground, camera turning, acquainting itself with its surroundings. Its ability is impressive. VROOOOOOOMMMMM - the motor roars and echoes into the valley. The visitors have now certainly taken notice; all human activity seems to have stopped as everyone in the vicinity turn their attention to the sky. The drone ascends higher and higher. The sound of the motor seems to demand attention, breaking the serenity and peacefulness of the environment as it tears through the sky. Fingers pointing to trace its movement, murmurs of curiosity resounding, the crowd looks around trying to identify the owner of this strange intruder. We have been spotted. An audience starts to form, congregating to witness a real-life drone in all its glory. I feel like I am on display, despite not actually being the one who is controlling the drone. The novelty of the machine is apparent. “Is that a drone?” someone asks excitedly, “I’ve never seen one before in person!”. The drone flies further and further away, the sound of the motor becoming more subdued. 1 kilometre, 2 kilometres, 3 kilometres away. Its white body disappears into the blue sky. The atmosphere, however, remains charged with curiosity. A group of young adults approach Ben, posing question after question about the features of the drone. Each new detail they learn seems to impress them even more. One man revels, “it can fly up to 500 metres high?? You are kidding! That is so awesome!”. Ben invites me to take a look at his phone, and I am transported to a world as perceived by the drone, akin to a bird’s eye view. The sun casts a beautiful shade of gold across the fields (I now understand what he meant by the golden hour!). Ben shares “I like flying places that I can’t normally see for myself. Like for example, what if I wanted to know what’s over the hill there? Normally, I wouldn’t know unless I hiked out there. Now I just have to fly out there. It’s kind of neat- the drone offers a completely new perspective, a different way of experiencing the world”.
Ben hits the ‘return home’ button. The drone is en route, set to follow an automated flight path. I feel anxious by the relinquishment of Ben’s control but also curious about testing the ability of the drone’s mechanism. We wait in anticipation of its return. I can hear it before I spot it in the sky. Vroooooommm. The sound of the motor grows louder and louder. VROOOOOOOMMM. The crowd grows more and more excited as they spot it flying closer and closer. Young children chase after the drone, as if engaged in a game of tag. “There is goes, there it goes!” they scream excitedly. The grass starts to bend over again, and I can feel the gust of the propellers on my face as the drone descends. The crowd marvels as the drone lands atop the rock once again. “That is so cool! It is so much smaller than I thought” someone muses. The propellers cease their spinning and the drone goes to sleep. The crowd starts to fragment; the main event is over. They return to their intended Sunday afternoon activities as we pack up our things. The lifeless drone is returned to the safety of Ben’s backpack and we trudge through dried vegetation once again to return to his car. The sun is about to set. I contemplate how the landscape almost seems untouched, how quickly it seemed to return to its original state. No evidence of the drone was left behind, its presence seemed to disappear as quickly as it emerged. Limited to the few minutes of flight… or so I thought? As we pass a couple whom I recognized from earlier, I overhear them whisper to one another “So this is our future eh? There is no escaping technology, not even out here”. Though no physical evidence of the drone remains, its implications echo across the valley. Ben muses “that’s the 21st century for you!”.
Approach #2: Thoughts from the Field
Sunday, November 6th, 2016
Conservation Area, Ottawa, ON
B: Ben- owner and controller of drone
V1- V5: Visitors to conservation area
YC and B walk up to an overlook in search of spot to start flying the drone. Choose a spot where one can see the brief outline of the city and a road. Sun is not long from setting, beautiful lighting.
B: “The golden hour. It’s the perfect lighting. Everything looks… prettier, more serene”
Conservation area is occupied by small crowds, scattered throughout. This includes families with children, people walking their dogs, couples, people exercising.
B starts to set up his drone. He pulls it out of his backpack. This machine is compact, all white body. It has a video camera attached. Process involves: 1) finding a flat surface upon which to take off (chooses a rock); 2) Spins 4 propellers into place; 3) clicks the power button to initiate start-up (melody plays); 4) attaches phone to controller; 4) calibrates drone to link to phone connection (beeping); 5) confirms that this is not a ‘no fly zone’; 6) propellers start to spin, motor drones; 7) take off. The force of the movement and the sound it makes is startling and impressive. YC notes the interesting juxtaposition against the calm of the conservation area, seems to really illustrate the somewhat constructed opposition of nature and technology (original state vs. advanced state)
B: “We are close to the airport but I think we are just on the outskirts of the ‘no fly’ zone”. He reassures YC. “We should be fine- there is no one out here”.
It is interesting that B is willing to only abide by the regulations of the ‘no fly’ zone so long as there is a possibility of being caught. Regulations regarding drone use are still preliminary, and not yet quite fully developed. B seems to regard them as unnecessary, assessing for himself the safety of his flight.
A small crowd has congregated around B. Visitors gesture towards the drone, tracking its movements in the sky. It is hardly indiscernible when close by, the motor is quite loud and resonates across the valley. Small children excitedly run after the drone, looks like they are playing a game of tag. They seem to chase after the drone, as if it has an agency of its own.
V1 and V2: “There is goes, there it goes!” The children scream.
They seem completely unaware that B, the controller of the drone, is standing right beside them. They are completely encapsulated by the drone’s actions.
Most people seem to be excited by the presence of the drone. One young man approaches B. He looks curious.
B: “Every time I fly my drone, I make new friends.” He says jokingly. “I guess it is a great way to meet new people.”
V3: “How high can you actually fly this thing?”
B: “Well typically up to 500 metres. However, if it was not for the airspace regulations, I could fly up to about 2 kilometres, maybe more if I add some range extenders”. B responds, proudly.
V3: “It can fly up to 500 metres high?? You are kidding! That is so awesome!”
Ben beams. YC notices how he seems happy that his new acquaintance is impressed. He almost seems to take credit for the features of the drone, identifying with them as being core to his identity. Perhaps this is associated with the actually owning of a drone, a somewhat rare and novel commodity. Perhaps it is more though? There is something in the way in which Ben refers to his drone, with how he interacts with his drone that seems to imply a particular dynamic that is unique to this relationship, as opposed to another commodity.
B: “I like flying places that I can’t normally see for myself. Like for example, what if I wanted to know what’s over the hill there? Normally, I wouldn’t know unless I hiked out there. Now I just have to fly out there. It’s kind of neat- the drone offers a completely new perspective, a different way of experiencing the world”
YC notes that the drone seems to act as a mechanism that allows him to extend his sense of self. A form of becoming machine. Through the drone’s ability to fly at greater distances than the human eye, B is able to maximize his sensory abilities, overcoming his anatomical limitations of visual perceptions. There is blending of man and machine. B assumes the visual perceptual experience as exhibited through the drone’s camera as his own visual experience. He is able to see what the drone sees, in real-time. Offering a bird’s eye view of the world, the drone allows a version of B to ascend so high that human life is almost imperceivable, reduced to such a small scale that B himself cannot even be spotted.
B: “Every time I fly my drone, I am just amazed. Amazed at its ability. That’s the 21st century for you!”
V4 to V5: So this is our future- there is no escaping technology. Even out here”. YC notes that perhaps not everyone is excited by the presence and use of drones.
The implications of drone use for recreational purposes has not quite been developed yet. Not just in the sense of regulation, but also in terms of understanding in a sophisticated way the affective capacity of the presence of drones on human behaviour. This implication of “there is no escaping” seems to imply that there is possibility for humans to return to a zone of no technology. Is this even possible? Does the affective capacity of technology not transcend its physical being? Humans are already changed by its immanent presence, and so is technology. We seem to be engaged in a trajectory of constant movement, humans becoming more machine, machines becoming more human. It does not seem to be a unilateral direction of influence. What are the broader implications of this?
This exercise taught me how to navigate the process of writing ethnography, in a very practical way. It allowed me to better understand the conscious decision-making that is involved in the process of writing, and made me aware of the almost infinite potential of ethnographic data. I almost naively believed that ethnographic data would sort of speak for itself- that a narrative, the right narrative, would emerge almost organically out of any ethnographic experience. By going through this exercise however, it made be realize that this is not always the case. Even in instances where a particular narrative may seem to emerge organically, it made me, as a writer, pay closer attention to the sorts of active decisions that I had made along the way, even though I may not have necessarily been paying attention to them at the time i.e. the sorts of observations I chose to note, etc. This realization became most apparent when trying to write in my second approach. I found it really difficult to step back from my first approach, which seemed to unfold more naturally in its writing, and to look through the raw ethnographic data once again to consider ways in which it can be presented differently to shed new insight. I believe this really grounded in a very concrete way the idea of partial truths- that no ethnographic account is complete, and does not necessarily need to be so. The ‘objectivity’ of a particular subjective experience can still be a useful form of knowledge, and can be complimentary to other ethnographic accounts.