“Would you mind my drone taking a picture of us? “

Another Internet phenomenon is born: the “Dronie”. People are taking short videos of themselves with drones. Is this new media practice already the evolution of the “Selfie”? And how does it relate to the “Otherie”: the controversial use of drones for military or surveillance purposes? A short sketch of the Dronie’s aesthetics and politics.

Est. reading time: 8 minutes

In a recent post on this blog, Andreas Hackl puts forward the notion of “Otheries” in contrast to “Selfies”. There he refers to Israel Defence Forces’ unmanned aerial vehicles as a key technology performing this “othering”. Humming high above Gaza they enable a literally and metaphorically diminishing view on 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.” The Otherie is a powerful, technologically performed means of vision. But there also seems to be a more playful view from above:

Just a few months before the new escalation in Gaza, San Francisco based entrepreneur Amit Gupta made a short video of himself and two friends—with a drone! He posted his Bernal Hill Selfie on Vimeo, where this practice got its proper name by Vimeo employee Alexandra Dao: “Dronie”. Of course there have been similar videos people shot with their drones before, even by Amit Gupta himself, but the Bernal Hill Selfie kicked off the “Dronie” as distinct Internet phenomenon so this story is usually given as testimony of the Dronie’s birth.

Evolution of the Selfie?

Since then the popularity of “Dronies” has seemed to rise faster and higher than the drones themselves could (which are, depending on national legal regulations, bound to the pilot’s field of vision). Vimeo has been the first to dedicate a new channel to “Dronies”, Twitter followed just a few weeks later with the account @dronie which started as an publicity stunt for the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity—the advertisement industry’s academy award. The gadget affine 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 “the next evolutionary step of the Selfie” with the pleasant advantage that “you can’t see ‘duck lips’ from 200 metres away“. They advise their readers to “forget selfies” because they are so “early 2014” or even “dead”. This rhetoric is typical for the discursive dynamics of Internet phenomena but despite all eulogies for the Selfie, it is highly unlikely the Dronie will replace it—not least due to financial reasons, since a Drone capable of sound HD video footage still costs about 1000 Euro. Tourism New Zealand, jumping in on the Dronie’s action, has attempted to promote the equipment right off the bat. The new advertisement campaign #NZdronie tours with a drone from ski slope to ski slope and offers to take professionally made Dronies of people doing snowsportsDronie recipients then are sent an 8 second clip on their smartphones, which (it is hoped) goes viral and shows their peers how much fun it is to spent time skiing in beautiful Kiwi landscapes.

Aesthetics & Politics of Verticality

The Dronie seems not only to combine two of the punchiest buzzwords of the last years (which might be a preliminary hint to understand its virality), but also the contradicting 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 insofar a media practice similar to Selfies as they are representations of the self with the purpose to share it with others. However, they introduce a perspective of verticality to Selfies, which it shares with the Otherie. But unlike the Otheries taken by military drones, Dronies usually do not employ a perpendicular perspective. They use a less steep angle commonly associated with aerial photography of landscapes for aesthetic purposes.

At first, the Dronie’s aesthetics of verticality has the effect that the actual depiction of  a person usually lasts just a few seconds and is not detailed enough to really recognize facial expressionsThis 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 is not irrelevant which becomes particularly evident in the debate on the Auschwitz Selfies. But it usually gets its significance in relation to the depicted persons, telling: “Look. I am here at this place.” It seems that the significance of a Dronie’s location is an aspect of its own right. This is emphasized on the one hand by the naming that normally includes the location where the Dronie was shot (e.g. Bernal Hill or Dronie over the roofs of Chur, Switzerland), on the other hand by the fact that Dronies are often accompanied by music, which relates their depiction of landscapes to cinematic aesthetics.

A second aspect of the Dronie’s aesthetics of verticality that differs from the Otherie is that it actually depicts its verticality. In the short videos (rarely 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 suggesting 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 functions in fact as a view from everywhere on everything 1. That’s why I suggest that the Dronie employs different politics of verticality than the Otherie 2. The Otherie’s perpendicular perspective flattens the surface below and thereby abstracts from the individuality of things and peoples alike. This totalizing view penetrates the life on the ground. Thus air power could be understood as police power 3 or, more pointed, as atmospheric terrorism 4.

The optics of the Dronie

Of course the Dronie is not apolitical. Since the beginning of aerial photography in mid 19th century the view from above has been a powerful means of vision and the ‘airminded’ vantage point has been considered a position of strategic advantage and strength. Following the 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 5. Hence the view from above always compounds aesthetics, epistemology, and power—but not in equal shares. This actual ratio can be understood as the specific “optics” of the particular phenomenon 6,7. As shown above, Dronies seem not to focus to the same amount on the representation of the self as it is the case in the Selfie. It abstracts from the self but not in the same way the totalizing view of the Otherie does. But how could the specific “optics” of the Dronie be described? From a cultural studies perspective I find this difficult to answer without further empirical material on how the people taking Dronies relate themselves to their media practice and the people they share their media product with. Since my research on Dronies is still on the beginning. I want to end this essay by waging just a random guess.

The pilot and his drone

An important clue for the optics of the Dronie might be the fact that the people sharing their Dronies often give further information on the drone and the camera used which gives it an air of tinkering, similar to model flight cultures. Thus, the specific focus of Dronies might be the technologically performed and mediated relationship between drone and pilot. It depicts the pilot’s mastery of the technology and its aesthetic potential. That shooting “Dronies” is indeed considered a media practice that has to be learned journalist Nick Bilton explains in his how-to take a Dronie article (he is one of the three guys in the Bernal Hill Selfie). Of course the Selfie also is a media practice needing specific skills and knowledge but thereby other technologies of the self are important. The self of the Selfie is the self trying to sovereignly manage the authenticating view on itself. The self of the Dronie is the self trying to sovereignly manage the aerial view. In this sense, air power could also be understood as cultural capital.

*References

1 Haraway, Donna J. (1991): Situated Knowledges. The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. In: Haraway, D.J.: Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. The Reinvention of Nature. London: Free Association Books. pp. 183-201. 2 Weizmann, Eyal (2002): The Politics of Verticality. www.opendemocracy.net/ecology-politicsverticality/article_801.jsp (26.08.14). 3 Neocleous, Mark (2013): Air power as police power. In: Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 31. pp. 578-93. 4 Sloterdijk, Peter (2009): Terror from the Air. New York: Semiotext(e). 5 Fuhs, Burkhard (1993): Bilder aus der Luft. Anmerkungen zur Konstruktion einer Perspektive. In: Zeitschrift für Volkskunde 89. pp. 233-50. 6 Law, John (2002): Aircraft Stories. Decentering the Object in Technoscience. Durham/London: Duke UP. 7 Haraway, Donna J. (1991): Situated Knowledges. The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. In: Haraway, D.J.: Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. The Reinvention of Nature. London: Free Association Books. pp. 183-201.
mm
I’m a lecturer at the department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies (University of Zurich). I`m interested in Science & Technology Studies and Digital Media, and currently doing research on civil drone use for my PhD project.


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  1. mm

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  2. But first, let me take a dronie. | eliseblaze13 - […] M, 2014, ‘Would you mind my drone taking a picture of us?’, Transformations blog, http://transformations-blog.com/would-you-mind-my-drone-taking-a-picture-of-us-2/, accessed 24th March […]

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