Hacker and Drone Training as Ethnographic Fieldwork

Recently, I enrolled in two multi-day training workshops in the United Kingdom with the pretense of gathering ethnographic data about emergent cultures of practice surrounding new technologies. The first was an ethical hacking workshop in Manchester–where we learned how to “ethically” use malware to examine, test, and ultimately penetrate and control computer servers. The second was a class to acquire a certificate to be able to conduct commercial drone flights. These experiences revealed interesting insights into the process of professionalisation as well as contemporary ethnographic methodologies. I will briefly theorise the process of professionalisation, how this happens, why it is interesting, and why training-as-ethnography is an important place to participate in this process.

Computer hacking, cracking and data exfilitration–as well as the piloting of small umanned aerial vehicles–once seemed as practices liminal, even subversive, to the state. Presently these activities are being reframed by criminal codes, appropriation by state services, and cooptation by commercial entities. This process can be labeled as professionalisation wherein the state defines legitimate work practices through pedagogy. In the process, binaries are generated, legal courses of actions defined, and insiders and outsiders differentiated. Courts, cops, and criminal codes reinforce the status quo. An industry of pros blossoms. But how does this happen and what is anthropologically interesting about this process?

The process of professionalisation attempts to transform unmitigated and potentially threatening acts. It works to sanitise folk craft. The desired effect is to eliminate outliers by barring alternatives and disruptions. In the process, a duality is constructed of right and wrong. The very notion of subversion is created as a hegemony is defined and counter-hegemonic actions explained and criminalised.

Creating safety and diverting away from crisis are classic public motivations for the development of professional pedagogies, institutions, and discourses. Legislators can prove that they are enacting pertinent laws to address modern-day concerns for health and well-being. Private businesses position themselves to work alongside the hegemony and celebrate the move to clean-up the wilderness. The new industries hire lobbyists. Former hobbyists have the option of joining the formalised process, be subversive and illegal and continue to do their work without approval, or give up and do something else.

With our dominant emphasis on alternative ways of life, I think we tend to romanticise in the amateur in anthropology. Motivated not by fiscal gain or social ambition, the amateur appears more authentic, self-motivated, an agent of their own destiny, a harbinger of history, and a driver of what-is-to-come. Likewise, in media studies–while it is thankfully becoming somewhat out of style now–there is a tendency to celebrate peer-production, the wisdom of the crowds, and others processes of user-generated productivity. Once something is professionalised it loses an aura of the raw and the real and becomes something over-cooked and predictable. This is as true as when a ritual is performed out of context and for touristic spectacle as when a formerly independent movie studio is bought by a major studio. We mourn this loss and the end of independence. The new may continue to emerge out of hackneyed older practices and something novel may arise again out of the old but for the meantime, or perhaps only in fetishistic retrospection, the process of professionalisation often looks commercial and tacky.

While there have always been hackers able to exfiltrate data from foreign servers working for the governments of the world, we commonly think of hacking as a tool of the weak. But with the nomenclatural addition of “ethical” to the word “hacker,” and the seeding of the idea of the development of ethical hacking certificates and courses, a cottage industry of private citizens transforming the offensive practices of cybercriminals and hacktivists into actions capable of not challenging but rather reinforcing the powers of the state has developed. The state designs its own hacker divisions in the CIA, FBI, NSA and beyond and military subcontractors recruit their hacker personnel. Politicians then legalise state-hacking and illegitimise hacktivist hacking. The problems of hacker professionalisation are obvious and the paradox is obnoxious: state’s legally hack hackers who illegally hack using the same skills and in some instances the very same hacked software as the legal state hackers. What is good for the goose is bad for the gander.

Likewise, for a brief period of time the piloting of small unmanned quadcopters was the remit of early-adopters playing with barely fit-for-purpose rigs, precariously attached video cameras, and crash-prone software. But with the proliferation of dangerous near-collisions with passenger aircrafts, buildings, people, and animals regulation of this former hobby became inevitable. Pairing the wildness of this amateur craft with the perceived profitability of drone applications for package delivery, internet provisioning, lands and animal survey, and surveillance and the moment is ripe for professionalisation. Politicians enter the fray, meet with the dominant players in this market–the drone manufacturers–and together they craft self-regulatory bills that exclude more experimental drone activity while enshrining themselves as the legal forebearers of the future of the atmosphere. Like hackers, will amateur drone hobbyist have to go underground or undertake expensive training and be interpellated in the process?

Both hacking and drone piloting are undergoing similar processes of professionalisation. (Unsurprisingly, the military plays an important role in sanctifying the new industry in both the hacking and drone cases.) These and other temporally-unfolding efforts towards professionalisation are important because they reveal the processual nature of cultural change in tangible ways. In hacking and drone piloting it is possible to see, analytically speaking, clearly demarcated phases of amateurisation replaced by professionalisation. Such finely drawn stratigraphies of practice and knowledge are enviably viewable from the perspective of the trainee. These are often rare to behold caught up as we are fetishising the now, duped by the immediate erotics of fieldwork, and seduced by the brilliance of new technologies.

Trainings are paid immersive events wherein individuals partake in the process of becoming professionalised. While expensive and at times exhausting, such events offer unique opportunities to tangibly participate in the cultural and historical process of professionalisation. It is here in a fablab in Manchester where the malware code hits the compiler and becomes a tool for hegemonic defense, state expansion, and subversive occlusion. It is here in a conference center in Glasgow that the chaos and fun of drone piloting is formalised by health and safety protocols adopted from the British Royal Air Force.

Trainings are usually quite formalised and busy and therefore do not allow for the ad hoc interactions where much valuable ethnographic experience develops. But because of the multi-day nature of trainings, the lunches, dinners, coffee-breaks, and other liminal moments there are opportunities to break through the formality. Regardless, undergoing the apprenticeship displays a commitment to an informant’s craft that can build important rapport. Beyond the benefits of befriending research subjects, trainings are an ideal place to participate in the pedagogy of professionalisation. As culture reformulates through formal and informal means, professional trainings are a way of witnessing the formal teaching of the first traditions of an industry. What gets canonised and what is pegged for exclusion and rejection? What intellectual and practical traditions does the emergent professionals draw from? How serious and difficult is the training? Is it authorised by an governing institution, a professional body, or the state or is it preempting state regulation? These are all questions whose answers reveal how professional guilds emerge through formal educational praxis. Trainings provide a valuable mode of participating in events that make history, concretise industries, and solidify the grounds for new traditions.

In two additional posts I am going to analyse the professional trainings I underwent, one on commercial drone flying and another on ethical hacking, in greater detail.  

Adam Fish

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

One thought on “Hacker and Drone Training as Ethnographic Fieldwork

  1. Looking forward very much to the rest of this series. One thought about professionalization. Keep an eye out for professional-wannabes. Practitioners who form associations and offer training, awards, and/or certification to accepted members of their groups, without authority backed by state sanctions encoded in law. My experience so far includes Daoist and other magical healers, advertising creatives, marketers, consultants and academics. I wonder about groups like rodeo riders or drivers in demolition derbies.

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