Augmenting and disrupting ethnography

I co-wrote the draft of a chapter, that will no longer be, on the role of digital ethnography in researching social life. Amongst the themes for ethnographic practice that the chapter sought to unpack of domesticating, mobilising and distancing, my area of contribution was on disrupting and augmenting (which may come as no surprise).

Given that this work no longer has a home, I’ve decided to share an abbreviated version of it here so it has a chance to do its work in the world in some form.

Unpacking the theme of disruption will be largely sociological in voice given its articulations of the tensions between social structures, digital architectures and social agency. Consequently, disrupting ethnography is defined as the study of moments of rupture and socio-technical disruption in which communities utilise emerging technology to build alternative architectures of engagement and value exchange that appear to hack and at times break the system. These social moments can be viewed as a collective response to generative tensions through which people seek to collaborate and cooperate on social solutions to structural inequalities. The ethnographer in this space can observe how eruptive events and their associated emergent practices are a response to transformations and instabilities across the broader social fabric.

More extreme examples of such instances include the social tensions leading to Brexit through a politics of exit (Smith & Burrows, 2021) and the polarised political tensions in the US leading to the recent attempted coup in Washington DC surrounding the transition between US presidents. In his work grounded in ethnographic engagement, Arvanitakis (2021) points out that the protestors and rioters believed that the election was stolen. He points to the underlining changing nature of American society including “the fracturing of democratic norms, a changing social contract and the loss of trust in political institutions.” (Arvanitakis, 2021).

As we can see in an ethnography of extremity, these points of rupture or eruption commonly articulate polarising socio-economic tensions and inequalities. In recent times, they also tend to highlight the organising affordances of social media and private messaging systems in the dissemination of ideas and the coordination of activity. While extremity and rupture are co-linked concepts they often point to times of crisis, with the study of crisis events revealing a multitude of private, commercial and governmental agendas opportunistically crowding into the aftermath. In such instances, the ethnographer on the ground must immerse in a polyphony of voices and shift between currents to build insight from the ground up.

However, disruption has a more exceptional intrusion and an ethnography of disruptive moments is also the study of exceptional or fringe behaviours that act as a social critique on normative values. Mayer-Schönberger and Mayer-Schönberger (2013) argue that the massive amounts of data now being harvested and analysed would produce new business models and destroy existing ones; with disruption imminent, and profits assured (discussed in Morozov, 2019, p. 34). This definition of disruption leads us to the advent of cryptomarkets. Cryptomarkets are drug markets in the dark web that function in a manner similar to eBay or Amazon and support user to user commerce through a combination of peer-to-peer (P2P), encryption and other privacy and anonymising technologies. A digital ethnography of the drug user population surrounding cryptomarkets was constituted through digital immersion with no in-person engagement, however other studies in this environment have incorporated in person aspects (Maddox, 2021). Previously, I have argued that as an ethnographer in this space, there become parallels between ethnographic practice and the nature of the environment, often leading to context collapse in which the ethnographer must take on these characteristics in their own practice (Maddox, 2020). In some ways, the ethnographer must become like their population and operate in similar ways, which in turn will disrupt ethnographic practice. 

When I present on this research, however, there is always someone who struggles with the subject matter and to see why I would want to work in such contentious spaces with black market undertones. An ethnographer does not need to be the same as their population but it helps to hold values that overlap with those of your population. Where I intersected with both cryptomarkets and cryptocurrencies populations are an acceptance of the need for people to utilise technologies and collaborate on pro-social solutions to structural inequalities and socially inclusive approaches for diverse populations. Just because something occurs in the dark (web) or encrypted spaces does not make it morally bad in all instances. For instance, Eric Jardine refers to online anonymity-granting systems such as Tor (The Onion Router) upon which cryptomarkets can be accessed, as illustration of the dark web dilemma (Jardine, 2015). He argues that this neutral technology facilitates both Illegal markets, trolls and online child abuse rings whilst providing cover for people in repressive regimes that need the protection of technology in order to surf the Web, access censored content and otherwise exercise their genuine right to free expression. In his most recent work, Jardine and collaborators (2020) observe that only a small fractions of users of Tor are likely to use it for malicious purposes on an average day, illustrating that fear of the dark is perhaps worse than the actual spaces or encrypted and anonymous activity themselves. For many, these are safe spaces that provide the freedom from persecution and appropriate privacy to enact forms of inclusive liberty. This sentiment is perhaps encapsulated in the work of James Bridle (2018, p. 15) as he foreshadows a new dark age in which darkness can be a place of freedom and possibility, of equality, that seems so threatening to the privileged. In connecting this sentiment to a disrupting ethnography we can perhaps further follow Bridle’s call to arms to use this lens to address our inability to see beyond normative practices and the frames of our own life experiences. A disrupting ethnography may assist us to “act meaningfully, with agency and justice, in the world – and, through acknowledging this darkness, to seek new ways of seeing by another light”(Bridle, 2018, p. 12).

Ethnographers are well suited to working with and giving voice to these alternative world views and articulating the resistance to mainstream narratives by marginalized and vulnerable populations. Acting to translate these alternative logics contributes insight into the complexities of socialites. That said, the ethnographer must navigate these complexities first hand during immersion and, in some instances deal with unusual offers. I often observe that it is like stepping out of a world of your own making and into the karmic repercussions of other ways of being in the world. Consequently, the research itself can become embroiled in the outcomes of community actions in unintended ways. One example of this, amongst many, is the work of Bradley Garrett on place hacking (Garrett, 2013, 2014) where his research data was seized by law enforcement to build a case of illegal entry and trespassing against his research informants. 

Permissive and safe spaces for vulnerable populations turn into portals of alternative realities in a very mundane sense as the ethnographer engages in the banal acts of everyday life. This is why ethnography utilises immersion and distancing or reflexive practices such as the structure of immersive practice to enter, experience and exit field or data sites that utilizes both emic and etic lenses to be both a part of and apart from to gain analytical clarity. Within the digital context of cryptomarkets Kowalski, Hooker, and Barratt (2019) illustrate the value of field notes in recording her frustration as she read all the newbie  comments in a forum, giving rise to her use of the concepts of liminality and self-reliance to provide insight into barriers to widespread user adoption of these market spaces. In terms of instances and events of rupture and disruption, from research in dark social spaces (Barratt & Maddox, 2016) we can see that the ethnographer must by mobile and agile to study the dynamic and often mediated nature of people, actors and field sites articulating through digital networked technologies.

Augmenting ethnography

Augmented reality (AR) can be understood as an immersive experience in mixed-reality environments. This section explores how the ethnographic gaze may operate in these environments. Other than a contemplation of time in the immersive present and the field of sensory ethnography drawn through from the anthropological voice and literature, this section becomes more gregarious and is positioned by the way sociology as a practice engages with diverse disciplines from media studies to computer scientists to understand human-technology encounters. To ground this discussion, however, let’s move through some examples of AR so that the conceptual work we are about to do has tangible examples to tether to.

In current research, examples of the possible and actual application of these technologies in everyday life begins with the application of the digital networked nature of the camera in a smartphone. To create a mixed-reality environment, the phone becomes a viewing window through which to access an overlay of information upon physical and virtual objects. An example can be found in the use of smartphones to augment shopping experiences, with ethnographic practice being used to study how consumers use a shopping app in their homes to replicate the experience of trying on outfits (Scholz & Duffy, 2018). This approach appears situated in the material cultures aspect of ethnographic practice. In another example, where auto-ethnographic practice is used, the author developed an AR browser that layered historic photographs of Titanic with the modern day view of the Belfast shipyard in which the ship was built, to investigate the narrative logic of what is seen and understood through the AR browser (Jackson, 2017). In this work, Jackson (2017) argues that such technologies create new methods by which objects are made visible and, in doing so, are bringing about new ways of seeing the world and also a shift in how the world is known. This observation calls for the intrinsic capacity of ethnographic practice to move inside these newly constructed worlds and understand these shifts in ways of knowing. However, a rudimentary search for literature using ethnography to study socialities emerging through these environments brings up sparse results. Consequently, this section documents the types of technologies we may consider and the available conceptual frames of seeing that may connect the intrepid ethnographer to relevant bodies of work.

Let’s re-enter with an increasingly uncomfortable familiarity, the barcoding of and accounting for life. The application of QR code technology extends the role of the camera in the smartphone to enable it to “read” objects and support value exchange through payments, which has been of particular relevance for the tourism industry (McKenna, Cai, & Tuunanen, 2018). This particular technology has become prevalent during the pandemic for its application in contactless engagement to register as “present” in venue to support retrospective contact tracing and as one of the technologies that supports enact contactless payment (Chen et al., 2021; DiMoia, 2021). The Smartphone/QR code technology has been explored to support navigation in cities where people can read the city through their phones(Basiri, Amirian, & Winstanley, 2014), for example finding maps of a building or learning about its history in the form of interactive tourist guides (Fino, Martín-Gutiérrez, Fernández, & Davara, 2013). QR code technology has also been proposed for providing information about spaces in spoken format as an aid for visually impaired people (Elgendy, Sik-Lanyi, & Kelemen, 2019). From these examples, we can start to understand augmented reality as augmenting the experience of the body in space, particularly as we navigate, interact with and experience material environments. 

Taking a step further into a more immersive experience is virtual reality (VR) through the use of a headset rather than a smartphone. Ludlow (2015) highlights that VR is often thought of as a futuristic technology but that many people already have experienced it through playing computer games, engaging in a simulated experience at a museum or viewing a 3D action movie. She describes how VR is a construct of technologies used to create a 3D environment experienced by users through sensory perception, physical movement, and text or speech communication (Burdea & Coiffet, 2003). She also identifies that these environments are a continuum from true virtual reality, mixed-reality and augmented reality that ranges from fully immersive experiences in a wholly artificial world to the incorporation of some elements of an artificial world into the real world to add information (Milgram, Takemura, Utsumi, & Kishino, 1995).

While headset technologies, such as the Oculus Rift for 3D immersion or the HoloLens for 360 degree holographic virtual experience, act similarly to the smartphone as a viewing window, they often seek to immerse the user into a visual environment. Part way through the immersive continuum are smart glasses and eye tracking technologies, exemplified through the failed Google Glasses experiment. Rauschnabel, Brem, and Ivens (2015) define these smart glasses as internet connected wearable computers that are worn like glasses or that mount on regular glasses to display information in the user’s view field. Integrating technologies to capture material objects, such as GPS, microphone and a camera, overlays of information are presented through a prism positioned in front of the user’s right eye to display virtual information. In this sense, the wearer is seeing a mixed reality that blends what the left and right eye sees. Virtual headsets, however, capture both eyes and immerse the wearer into a virtual environment within which they can move and engage, both visually and haptically, whilst also moving their body in space. 

Within the applications of VR technologies to capture objects and translate them into immersive and interactive environments, there are strange configurations of time, memory and location that can emerge that must become a consideration for ethnographic perspective. An example of experimentation in the provision of VR experiences can be found in the research on digital cultural heritage, archeology and gaming engines (Rua & Alvito, 2011). Often a spatial model is generated through a game engine that renders a historical context, object or environment in 3D and allows the user to move through and /or interact with it. Such VR experiences can also be used for training purposes within industrial contexts (Lin, Ye, Duffy, & Su, 2002) and in the treatment of spatially-related vision impairment (Greuter et al., 2020). Further examples of fledgling applications of AR technology are linked with the development of 360 degree photography and video in which a static or dynamic image is captured of an object or environment. This environment can be experienced through a specific 360 degree facility or, again, by using our phones as a viewing window through which to explore a spatialized and dynamic image. Through this viewing window of the head set or the phone we are transported into another context that we can move through visually, interact with and listen to through an accompanying audio soundtrack. These visual, interactive and sonic features can be combined to create an immersive experience that is very immediate, in the lived sense, that may play with and entangle our sense of time and memory within and across sociotechnical encounters.

Reflecting on this, it seems that the immersive experience of augmented realities parallels the notion of being present in the moment. Drawing on the thread of time and memory gently waving its tendrils through this chapter, one way to consider this AR mediated moment is as a sensory immersion in the experiential now. We refer to this experience in time and memory as an immersive present that evokes past, present and future selves through encounters with objects and people in mixed-realities. Consequently, an augmented ethnography would study people within an immersive present, a present that incorporates spatial social and object-based profiling within mundane life practices. To further this argument, it seems timely to delve into the world of media theorists and consider an experiential definition of AR media. Luke Heemsbergen, Greg Bowtell, and Jordan Vincent (2021) argue that while scholarship in this area focuses on the boundary between the virtual and the real, it is vital to conceptualise AR experientially. Consequently, he argues for an understanding of AR media as “perceptible spatial computation” that augments relations between objects (electrons, atoms, or humans). This conceptual framing of AR as mediating the human-physical environment is the gateway through which ethnographic practice can investigate these human-technology-object encounters that combine immersion with experiential knowledge. Indeed, Heemsbergen further argues that this approach is key to understanding mixed reality experience and socialisation (L. Heemsbergen, G. Bowtell, & J. Vincent, 2021). In this context, an augmenting ethnography may seek to investigate the aspects of socialisation that are generated by the complex relationships of user imaginaries and collaborative social construction within immersive environments.

The question here then becomes does augmenting ethnography only apply to research into human-technology encounters with AR? We argue that it has a broader application and turn to the phenomenon of digital pleasures. Within this example, we also explore ethnographic approaches that may open up the study of the immersive present and its experiential digital terrain; one such approach may be sensory ethnography (Nakamura, 2013; Pink, 2015; Valtonen, Markuksela, & Moisander, 2010) or signal a return to carnal sociology and its focus on the sense making of the body (de Rond, Holeman, & Howard-Grenville, 2019). Research into digital pleasures such as ASMR (N. Smith & Snider, 2019), binaural beats in Sleep Apps (O’Neill & Nansen, 2019) and the advent of digital drugs delivered via binaural beats and cam sex through only fans (Ryan, 2019) highlights a new mode of sensory tactility which imbricates digital platforms with bodily pleasures. N. Smith, Davis, Maddox, and Patella-Rey (2019) explore the concept of resonant media to articulate how platforms combine with bodies to produce a digital body instrument in which physical sensations are intentionally generated by the consumption of digital content in an immersive present. This phenomenon is not just an extension of the pleasure gained from listening to music but an intentional stimulation of bodily responses delivered by content creators, often through a combination of visual and sound-based approaches. Focusing on the case of digital drugs, an intended state change in a “consumer” is delivered via binaural beats, often within an app-based environment. Other than autoethnographic approaches as an experientially-based method, how can researchers focus on pleasure-based communities, and how can ethnography open up the experiential realm of socio-technical desire lines (N. Smith & Walters, 2017) within everyday life? 

In their definitional introduction to sensory ethnography Valtonen et al. (2010, p. 375) observed that researchers primarily focused upon an audio-visual world view rather than considering the other senses of touch, taste and smell which. Given the primacy of this form of content in digital media, this remains the case in more recent literature surrounding digital and social media. Consequently, in an argument that retains its currency, they highlight the need to explore the entire sensory domain in order to gain better insight into contemporary consumer culture (with digital pleasure being an example of this). However, current digital media research does not appear to intersect with HCI studies that have long considered the haptic and tactile aspects of technology (Kortum, 2008; Obrist, Ranasinghe, & Spence, 2017). The exception to this may be a brief dalliance with the Facebook ‘poke’ feature in the early 2000s(Sheldon, 2009). In a brief mention of haptic sensors, media theorist Andrejevic (2020) notes that the range of possible dimensions for sensing continues to expand, including haptic, olfactory, infrared and affective, which gives rise to the question of how we will study these aspects into the future. 

An augmented ethnography must combine the strangely attenuated sense of time, the immersive nature of the technologies and the combination of sensory and embodied experiences. It must also delve into the ways that memory overlays and meaning making occurs through mixed reality environments as we begin to blend the affordances of these practices within our socialities and societies.

I have no conclusion to offer here as these two threads, disrupting and augmenting, point to the future practices and applications of digital ethnography in an increasingly digital world. Perhaps, you, dear reader, will provide the next point of departure for this conversation.