Only Half the Story – Rethinking the Relationship Between Digital Ethnographers and Their Devices*

Franziska Weidle**

"Digital cinema is pre-computational"
“Digital cinema is pre-computational” – from Quelic Berga’s presentation at ECREA 2018; author of original image: DRs Kulturarvsprojekt; title: Steenbeck 16mm flatbed ST 921; licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0; changes by Quelic Berga.

In their initial post to this blog series, Monika Palmberger and Philipp Budka highlight, among other things, that “the incorporation and integration of technological devices and apps as ‘research tools’ have the potential to contribute to new modes of collaboration by ‘democratizing’ the relationship between researchers and research partners”. In a STS or even new materialist spirit and building on previous conversations, I would like to devote my response in this blog post to such “research tools”. In order to explore more explicit collaborative research methods in digital ethnography, it is my contention that we first need to question how we treat and incorporate digital devices into our research practices.

Our digital blind spots

The focus on tools comes natural to me as a visual anthropologist trained in the theory and practice of ethnographic filmmaking (e.g. Weidle, 2020; Weidle, 2019; Näser & Weidle, 2017; Brasier, Hansen, Munro & Weidle, 2018). After all, the intention to make a film is strongly tied to technical equipment and one’s “skilled engagement” (Grasseni & Walter, 2014) with it. It not only raises awareness of the tools used in the creative process but the relationships between ethnographers as filmmakers and their technologies. Small portable cameras such as action cams or smartphones, for example, allow for a different kind of access to the field, movement, perception and aesthetic quality than a film camera mounted on a tripod (see for example Murphie’s (2014) analysis of Leviathan). In times of ubiquitous and pervasive computing, these relationships between bodies and things are deeply saturated by the digital. Non-fiction filmmaking is a case in point. Steered by “a sense of dissatisfaction” (Ocak, 2012: 960) with the dominant mode of representation, documentary’s formal tradition has been marked by innovation (see Uricchio, 2017) and an early adoption of new technologies to experiment with presumably better ways of mediating empirical realities. Correspondingly, an increasing number of filmmakers in this area is turning towards interactive media such as i-docs, games and VR environments (see Weidle, 2020; Weidle, 2018).

But what does this deep digital saturation mean exactly for these relationships between filmmakers and their tools? On a basic technical level, it means they are driven by not one but two mediation processes. While we as users usually engage with the surface appearance that mediates what we generally refer to as “content”, the technical infrastructure automatically processes data across and between different computational layers. Thus, it mediates between the scale that makes sense to us as humans and that which “makes sense” to the machine. “Beyond mediating individual user’s stored experience, the transmission of media […] itself mediates the situation of the user in the regime of networked computation“, to use media theorist Mark Hansen’s (2010: 181) words. Digital media, to put it bluntly, not only mediates content but also the technical conditions for this very content to be mediated. Yet, this “double-layered mediation” (Weidle, 2020: 59) is characterized by an interesting paradox: While the intuitive design of software interfaces tends to amplify the role and alleged control of the user, we have never been further removed from actually operating our devices (see Weidle, 2020: 59-62; 142-147). Back in the early days of computing, (mostly women) programmers directly run the machine by rewiring cables and flipping switches. Nowadays, programmers have become users of software themselves and computers “increasingly read and write without us” (Chun 2005: 27).

This digital blind spot that stems from the naturalized obscuring of the machine and how it implements commands, however, does not come without risks. Many software-based technologies used in ethnographic research give the impression of manual control – whether you cut, copy and paste film clips, interview excerpts or other digital data structures on screens. Yet, what do we truly control or manipulate in this environment? Unless we are versed in lower-level programming, we are likely to only be scratching the surface. The idea of manual control is part of what anthropologist Tim Ingold (2000: 178-87) describes as “the building perspective” in contrast to “the dwelling perspective” . This perspective captures a deterministic approach to making, well-established in the Western tradition, that imagines things to emerge through projecting preconceived intentions, ideas, and conventions onto inert matter. It comes as no surprise, then, that software interfaces suggestive of such an approach are instrumental in constructing a particular mode of engagement with digital materiality. A mode that imagines the digital as manually controllable, static, immaterial blank canvas. In the field of digital ethnographic filmmaking, this becomes visible in what media scholar Adrian Miles (2007: 10) coined “the material hegemony of film and video”. Due to their baseline of 0 and 1, digital materialities allow for a non-linear movement between one digit and the next. Still, audiovisual data is fixed in linear timed-based sequences ready to be played back in a media player on the web… or on a reel running through a projector.

Working with, not doing to

So what is risky about these digital blind spots is the way they influence how we imagine our relationship with tools (the very term is problematic because it reduces the role of technology to that of a mere “assistant” (e.g. Favero & Theunissen, 2018)) and the conventions that stem from that. If we truly seek to democratize the relationship between us and our partners, my contention is that the first step required is to de-hierarchize our relationship with our devices. After all, we are still clinging on to a notion of authorship that centers on human agency as the leading force in the mediating process while this is clearly only half the story. Following and adding to Palmberger and Budka’s call for more “explicit collaborative research methods” and the deliberate inclusion of digital tools and devices, I argue for a more explicit collaboration with “the space and boundaries created by software infrastructures“ (Hsu, 2014) – a dwelling or working with them rather than doing to them (Ingold, 2011: 10).

A more conscious and explicit relationship with the devices of our research has at least three immediate implications:

(1) It reconfigures our role as ethnographers asking us to take a step back from our interpretational sovereignty and attribute some authorial control to the operations underlying digital mediation. This reconfiguration evolves alongside “the lived experience of enskilment (and deskilment)” (Weidle, 2020: 142) – a process crucial for letting go of old metaphors and re-discovering native computational principles such as modularity and automation but, more importantly, the slippage between command lines and their execution (see Dourish, 2016).

(2) It asks us to shift from a building to a dwelling perspective on making, which allows us to also move from othering to “togethering” (Ingold, 2011: 226). Rather than creating accounts of the world, we can adopt different modes of engagement with the world such as designing (e.g. Gunn & Donovan, 2012), curating (e.g. Favero 2017), improvising and rule-making (e.g. Weidle, 2019).

(3) The resulting research practice moves beyond representation and towards a mode of doing digital ethnography that is truly anchored “in the present of practice” (Vannini, 2015: 4) and open for speculations about the future. In that sense, we might think of the “design studios” Palmberger and Budka describe as open-ended research encounters between us and the human and nonhuman facets of the world, where the hard lines between theory and practice, process and output are slowly but surely dissolved.


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Thanks to Monika Palmberger, Philipp Budka and Suzana Jovicic for inviting me to post to the “DEI Dialogues” series and for sharing their valuable thoughts on this text.

* This contribution builds on the questions raised by Monika Palmberger and Philipp Budka in the first post of the blog post series “DEI Dialogues”.
Preferred citation: Weidle, F. (2021, January 28). Only half the story – Rethinking the relationship between digital ethnographers and their devices. Digital Ethnography Initiative Blog.

** Franziska Weidle, PhD, is a visual anthropologist, ethnographic media-maker and learning designer from Germany. Her academic and creative work focuses mainly on digital knowledge practices, including documentary, serious games learning design and education for sustainable development. In her dissertation Of Trees and Clouds (2020) she investigated established and emerging software regimes in documentary and ethnographic filmmaking. Currently working at the Brandenburg University of Technology, she is part of the interdisciplinary research project “Learn&Play” to develop a serious game for engineering mechanics.

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