HandsOn the Field
From the Series: HandsOn: Touching the Digital Planet
Click! My hand squeezes the phone. Screenshot saved.
Thumb and index finger are the main actors in that endeavor. They are the two fingers on my right hand that take action. The others play a supporting role. They stabilize the smartphone that is on the verge of outgrowing the user’s palm with every new mobile generation. Most of the time the thumb keeps scrolling up and down on the screen, however once it finds something relevant, my hand has to shift slightly to clasp and press the device from both sides. Screenshot taken.
While different brands of mobile phones have different means to take a picture of the screen, it is often the thumb-index finger-grasp that is necessary to hold on to digital content. This is called the “pincer grasp,” a concept taken from child development theories. When babies refine their motoric skills, they are able to pick up a target. The cell phone is therefore a prime example of what Marshall McLuhan (1964) identified as “extension of [hu]man,” a medium or technology that adds an additional faculty to the human body. To this end it alters our senses and perception, and ultimately our mind.
Anthropologists generally fashion themselves as low-tech, qualitative researchers who cherish one-on-one conversations in situ, yet most of us own a smartphone and use it to stay in touch with our interlocutors or to explore possible research trajectories before going on fieldwork. As borders between data collection and university desk are blurred, new questions arise regarding how we store, utilize, and contextualize text messages, social media threads, or other material shared online—data that is often fleeting and quickly disappears behind newer posts.
For my research about ski mountaineering in the Alps I regularly follow the outdoor community online: On social media platforms they exchange updates on snow level and quality, less frequented tours, or the local weather before travelling to a certain mountain. There are even apps with excellent card material that guide skiers along invisible tracks. Since many of these online platforms don’t work in a remote destination without 3 or 4G reception, some of my interlocutors mentioned taking screenshots of important milestones before hitting the slopes. So do I—when I embark for a snow hike chasing my more athletic target group.
In “the age of the thumb” (Bell 2005) research starts on the handy smartphone. The finger that used to blindly tap letter keys of a simple Nokia, nowadays surfs the world wide web on a portable screen—while killing time in the subway, putting kids to bed, or waiting for a friend to arrive for lunch – everywhere and anytime. My hand targets thematic threads and tries to hold on to the glimpses I get from peeking into (potential) interlocutors’ lives. I follow up on previous stories, network, tease out new research areas, save the most interesting parts as links or screenshots, and “patchwork” my way through daily life. What would I do without that vast repository readily at hand?
While I take the next screenshot of an online conversation between ski mountaineers exchanging photos of their last trips I’m reminded of McLuhan’s argument “the medium is the message”: It has long been established that the digital world emphasizes our problematic reliance on vision (Haraway 1988), however, it can also help to recreate a sense of immersion from analog life. There is more to images than we see, they trigger associations and illustrate conversations. Although there is no cold breeze, no heat welling up in the body from the physical exercise when slowly walking up the mountain, no sounds of a rewarding mountain hut approaching, no wet drops of melting snow falling down from trees on us, pictures and words exchanged online stimulate our memory and imagination. Linking first-hand experiences with a level of reflection, they serve as arbitrators between on- and offline contexts.
In McLuhan’s line of thought every such extension causes an amputation. The digital realm does not have to be the death of sensory experience but rather pushes participant observation to new dimensions: Our fingers labor to render distant people, places and debates present and reenact vivid experiences. Through this sense of immediacy and intimacy smartphones help to intersubjectively approach our interlocutors’ practices and views—important insights are held on to by the grasp of my hand.
To obviate an amputated ethnography, we have to put down the phone at times and free thumb and index finger for primary sensory stimulation. When my hands touch the snow—wet, damp, cold—I can feel it to the core of my knuckles, my fingers quickly stiffening making the pincer grasp difficult to execute. The digital universe of the mobile phone, affective and embodied as it may be, can never achieve that. Time to put my hands in thick gloves, fasten the grip around the trekking poles, and find my way through the snow.
 Find out more about patchwork ethnography at patchworkethnography.com
Bell, Genevieve. 2005. “The Age of the Thumb: A Cultural Reading of Mobile Technologies from Asia.” In Thumb Culture: The Meaning of Mobile Phones for Society, edited by Peter Glotz, Stefan Bertschi, and Chris Locke, 67–87. Bielefeld, Germany: Transcript Publishing.
Haraway, Donna J. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3: 575–599.
McLuhan, Marshall. 1964. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.