‘Would you mind my drone taking a picture of us?’


Maximilian Jablonowski

A new Internet phenomenon has recently emerged, one that has gained the moniker the ‘dronie’. It refers to people taking short videos of themselves with drones. Is this new media practice the evolution of the ‘selfie’? And how does it relate to the ‘otherie’: the controversial use of drones for military or surveillance purposes? This articles offers a short overview of the dronie’s aesthetics and politics.

In a recent post on the Transformations blog, Andreas Hackl proposes the notion of ‘otheries’, which he distinguishes from ‘selfies’. With this, he is referring to Israel Defence Forces’ unmanned aerial vehicles as a key technology that performs such acts of ‘othering’. Humming high above Gaza, they enable a literally and metaphorically diminishing view of the individuals below. ‘People take Selfies, but armies and states in war rely on #Otheries: the one-dimensional focus on the Other, as a target, as an object of war’, says Hackl. The otherie is a powerful, technologically-driven means of obtaining vision. But there also seems to be a more playful side to such a view from above:

Just a few months before the recent escalation of the conflict in Gaza, San Francisco-based entrepreneur Amit Gupta made a short video of himself and two of his friends­ – with a drone! He posted his ‘Bernal Hill Selfie’ on Vimeo, where this practice gained its proper name, courtesy of Vimeo employee Alexandra Dao: ‘dronie’. Of course similar videos of people with their drones had been shot before, even by Gupta himself, but the Bernal Hill Selfie kicked off the ‘dronie’ as a distinct Internet phenomenon.

The evolution of the selfie?

Since then the popularity of ‘dronies’ seems to have risen faster and higher than the drones themselves ever could. (Depending on national legal regulations, drones are tied to the pilot’s field of vision). Vimeo has been the first platform to dedicate a new channel to ‘dronies’; Twitter followed just several weeks later with the @dronie account. It started as a publicity stunt for the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity – the advertisement industry’s academy award. The gadget-driven blogosphere widely considers the dronie to be ‘the new selfie’, combining ‘high-tech geekery with the human desire to be seen’. Thus, the dronie is said to be ‘the next evolutionary step of the selfie’, with the added bonus that ‘you can’t see “duck lips” from 200 metres away’. The Fast Company advises its readers to ‘forget selfies’ because they are so ‘early 2014’, or even ‘dead’. Such rhetoric is typical of the discursive dynamics of Internet phenomena. Yes, despite all these obits for the selfie, it is highly unlikely the dronie will replace it – not least due to financial reasons, since a drone capable of recording sound and HD video footage still costs about 1,000 euros.

Tourism New Zealand, jumping in on the dronie action, has attempted to promote the equipment right off the bat. The new advertisement campaign #NZdronie tours with a drone from one ski slope to another, offering to take professionally made dronies of people engaging in snow sports. Those whose images have been captured by a dronie are then sent an 8-second clip to their smartphones, which (it is hoped) will go viral and show their peers how much fun it is to spent time skiing in the beautiful Kiwi landscape.

The aesthetics and politics of verticality

The dronie not only seems to combine two of the punchiest buzzwords of the recent years (which might be a crucial point that explains its virality), but it also implies a contradiction between the features of the ‘selfie’ and the ‘otherie’. As a first step to understand the dronie, I think it is useful to discuss it in contrast to its two ‘older siblings’. Dronies are a media practice that are similar to selfies insofar as they are representations of the self with the purpose of sharing it with others. However, they also introduce a perspective of verticality to selfies, which they share with the otherie. Yet, unlike the otheries taken by military drones, dronies usually do not employ a perpendicular perspective. They use a less steep angle, one that is commonly associated with the aerial photography of landscapes for aesthetic purposes.

The dronie’s aesthetics of verticality results in the actual depiction of a person usually lasting just a few seconds and not being detailed enough to really recognize their facial expressions. This means that the surroundings of the represented person come much more to the fore than in the composition of selfies. Of course, the location of a selfie shot is not irrelevant, which becomes particularly evident in the debate on the Auschwitz selfies. But the selfie usually gains its significance in relation to the depicted persons, telling others: ‘Look. I am here in this place’. It seems that the dronie shot’s location has its own significance. This is emphasized, on the one hand, by the caption that normally includes the location where the dronie was shot (e.g. Bernal Hill or Dronie over the roofs @ Chur, Switzerland), and, on the other hand, by the fact that dronies are often accompanied by music, which relates their depiction of landscape to cinematic aesthetics.

A second aspect of the dronie’s aesthetics of verticality that distinguishes it from the otherie is that it purposefully foregrounds its vertical positioning. In the short videos (rarely lasting longer than a minute) the capturing drone descends towards, or ascends away from, the depicted persons, creating an effect of zooming in or out. Some even increase this effect by creating a montage of the drone’s video and a Google Earth sequence to suggest the drone is approaching from space – hence its name, ‘space selfie’:

Thus, the verticality is made transparent and at least partly situated since it has a fixed point in the video’s ‘subject’ that mostly includes the person handling the drone’s remote control. (The drone itself is usually not seen, maybe except for a shadow on the ground.) This is a different form of verticality than the otherie’s almost god-like disembodied ‘view from nowhere’ – which in fact functions as a view from everywhere on everything (see Haraway). This is why I suggest that the dronie employs a different politics of verticality than the otherie (see Weizman). The otherie’s perpendicular perspective flattens the surface below and thereby abstracts the individuality of things and people alike. This totalizing view penetrates the life on the ground. This is why air power could be understood as police power (Neocleous) or, more pointedly, as atmospheric terrorism (Sloterdijk).

The optics of the dronie

It goes without saying that the dronie is not an apolitical device. Since the beginning of aerial photography in the mid-19th century the view from above has been a powerful means of obtaining vision. The ‘air-minded’ vantage point has been considered a position of strategic advantage and strength. Following German cultural anthropologist Burkhard Fuhs, the view from above thereby literally reflects the dialectics of Enlightenment: the German word ‘Aufklärung’ (Enlightenment) could mean both reconnaissance and education. Hence the view from above always compounds aesthetics, epistemology, and power – but equally spread. The actual ratio between the three can be understood as the specific ‘optics’ of the particular phenomenon (see Law; Haraway). As shown above, the dronie does not seem focus to the same extent on the representation of the self as the selfie does. It abstracts the self but not in the same way the totalizing view of the otherie does. So how could the specific ‘optics’ of the dronie be described? From a cultural studies perspective, I find it difficult to answer this question without collecting further empirical material on how people taking dronies themselves relate to their media practice and to the people they share their media product with. Since my research on dronies is still in its early stages, I want to end this essay by offering a few speculative remarks.

The pilot and his drone

An important clue for the optics of the dronie might lie in the fact that people sharing their dronies often provide further information on the drone and the camera used. This gives the dronie practice an air of tinkering, also to be found in model flight cultures. Thus, the uniqueness of dronies might lie in the technologically performed and mediated relationship between the drone and the pilot. The dronie depicts the pilot’s mastery of the technology and its aesthetic potential. Indeed, the fact that journalist Nick Bilton, who is one of the three guys in the Bernal Hill Selfie, felt the need to write a how-to take a dronie article indicates that dronie-shooting can indeed be considered a media practice that has to be learned. Of course the selfie is also a media practice that requires specific skills and knowledge, yet different technologies of the self are at work here. The self of the selfie is the self that is trying to sovereignly manage the authenticating view of itself. The self of the dronie, in turn, is the self that is trying to sovereignly manage the aerial view. Air power could therefore also perhaps be understood as a form of cultural capital.

References

Fuhs, B. (1993) ‘Bilder aus der Luft. Anmerkungen zur Konstruktion einer Perspektive’, Zeitschrift für Volkskunde 89: 233-50.

Haraway, D. J. (1991) ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective’, in: D. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. London: Free Association Books: 183-201.

Law, J. (2002) Aircraft Stories: Decentering the Object in Technoscience. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Neocleous, M. (2013) ‘Air Power as Police Power’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 31: 578-93.

Sloterdijk, P. (2009) Terror from the Air. New York: Semiotext(e).

Weizman, E. (2002) ‘The Politics of Verticality’, 24 April. (Accessed 26.08.2014)

Maximilian Jablonowski is a lecturer in the Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies at the University of Zurich. He is interested in Science & Technology Studies and Digital Media, and is currently conducting research on civil drone use for his PhD project.

This is an edited version of a piece which was originally published on the ‘Transformations – A new voice on culture, politics and change’ blog. We are grateful to the editors for granting us permission to repost it here.

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