Another Fabulous Summer School

Digital Ethnography, but also some public sphere fieldwork
with the controversial Boston Dynamics Spot Robot

Annette Markham

Feb 13, 2023


Next week, I’ll facilitate the Digital Ethnography Research Centre’s Summer School with Larissa Hjorth.

This immersive Summer School builds participants’ skills in methods for close level observation and documentation during fieldwork involving multiple entities and situations, dealing with emergent ethical challenges, and creatively testing different methods for data/discourse/material analysis. Two field sites have been selected for participants to engage in fieldwork exercises. The sites feature distinctive complexities of fieldwork in public spaces, in contexts of data- and digital-saturation, and involvement of multiple human and nonhuman or more than human elements.  

It’s a remarkable milestone, since we’ve not been able to do any physically-based events for three years. This summer school is being held in Melbourne, but is a natural extension of the “Visuality, Culture, Methods” biennial (sort of) summer school series I built and hosted since 2012 through Aarhus University’s Institute for Communication and Culture and the then Information and Media Studies Department (that’s a longer story for another post but you could read more about the summer school I taught with Anne Marit Waade and Sarah Pink in 2012, 2014, and 2015, and with Katrin Tiidenberg, Gillian Rose and Anne Marit, again, in 2018.

By now, we realize digital media transformations have profound impacts, but can be challenging to observe and analyze due to varying degrees of visibility and invisibility of infrastructures as well as machinic agents. How might we attune ethical, playful, creative and critical methods that acknowledge complex layerings of visible and invisible technologies and histories? What techniques help researchers get at the granularity of sensory, material, social and digital overlays and practices, particularly when the focus involves multiple human, non-human, and more than human participants?

Through in-class lectures, workshops, and fieldwork, Larissa and I will provide conceptual and practical tools, and the focus is methods, methods, methods! Additionally, participants gain insights and experience in:

  • Using best practices to deal with ethical challenges of collecting data in public spaces
  • Adding visual, sensory, and audio data to more traditional field diaries
  • Managing both too much and not enough data
  • Generating analytic complexity through situational mapping
  • Building credibility through reflexive practices
  • Conducting fieldwork and analysis in small teams and presenting ‘in progress’ findings to stakeholders

Agile, autonomous, and controversial robots

As a part of the summer school, we’ll be practicing basic field observations of interactions by focusing on the initial encounter between humans and the Boston Dyanmics Robot sometimes called “Spot” because it looks vaguely like a dog….without a head. Spot is controversial. It has been used and widely rejected for surveillance and policing in Singapore and New York City.

Encountering Spot often causes powerful reactions, sometimes a positive sense of excitement or the reverse, a feeling of dread. Oddly, there have been very few (if any?) ethnographic studies of “robots in the wild,” so we’re using this as an opportunity to get a closer look at the granular moment of the encounter and reaction. How is this digital ethnography? Well, on the one hand, robots are a quintessential embodiment of digitalization and data analytics. Their autonomy and agency is derived from their core programming, involving lots of data, algorithms, predictive analytics, and other aspects that intersect with neural networks. On the other hand, social robotics is an ever more present aspect of digital culture. Not all robots have agile bodies or limbs to function semi-autonomously. But robots can help bring the human/machine interaction to the surface where it is easier to observe and analyze. So for a summer school focused on fieldwork and analysis techniques for studying complex multi-entity contexts, we think spending a day watching Spot interact with a variety of people in the public sphere is a great idea.