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Published onJul 30, 2020

Books are rolling accumulations of debt—some to the living, some to those without breath.


Since this is a book about technology, let me first thank those without breath: the technologies that made the manuscript possible. Hunches for this book emerged when I purchased a DJI Phantom from an American vendor and had it shipped to my office in Hungary. A 3D-printed gimbal, a modified camera housing, and custom landing gears were needed almost right away.

Later I bought a large latex balloon from Public Lab as well as a camera, a 3D-printed apparatus for carrying that camera, and a grip-load of string. The kite I’d always had laying around, a story I tell in the second chapter. My students have built their own drones using transmitters, receivers, motors, processors, control boards, and propellers—so many propellers. We ordered these things from Amazon and Banggood.

Additional fieldwork required buckets of paint and rattle cans for public art deployed onto public spaces. Paste, markers, paint, glitter, and poster board went into posters carried at some marches, and larger-than-life puppets were deployed in other protest events. I’ve also used my vocal chords and my body to signal public assent and dissent.

I wrote much of this text using the software Scrivener running on a MacBook Air. Early ideas were dictated directly into Google Mail via Google’s voice-to-text feature. Interviews were captured on a Motorola smartphone running Android. I conducted background research, followed hunches, and messed about using Google Search and Scholar, Quora, Wikipedia, Twitter, and, until I nominally abandoned the platform in early November 2016, Facebook.

Books from many libraries fill my office. I borrowed rolling cart number 25 from the library and never returned it (well, I never told them that). The books I liked the most I bought and marked up extensively. All research materials were stored in Dropbox (on Amazon’s servers worldwide). Additional books were consumed audibly (thanks, Audible). I’m always losing earbuds, but those are important too.

Working drafts were printed on a Sharp MX3050V printer in San Diego, a Konica Minolta bizhub C224 in Budapest, and a Brother DCP-L2540DW at home. I read the markup with the aid of my eyeglasses (1.25/-3.00/92 x .75/-2.5/80) and marked up the copy with whatever pens I had at hand—I love them, but lose them. As the ideas took shape, I hailed ride-sharing services, hopped onto airplanes, and crashed in sharing-economy housing so that I could discuss my inklings in talks that required first espresso and then thumb-drives, dongles, overhead projectors, coffee, and later wine.

In manuscript form, this book underwent an open peer review on the platform PubPub. PubPub uses hosting services provided by Amazon US-East, though data is also distributed in data centers around the world. Readers commented on the draft manuscript using their browsers (60.12 percent Chrome, 22 percent Firefox, and .241 percent Internet Explorer). Later, this book went to press. Interestingly, the publishing industry has been transformed to the extent that it is near-impossible to determine where the volume in your hands was printed.

Hot off the press, though, the physical book is whisked to warehouses and stacked on a pallet in an Ingram facility, or whisked around an Amazon floor by a Kiva robot (or human equivalent), and then dispatched by UPS, FedEx, US Postal Service, Amazon Delivery person, or whatever delivery modality is at work near you now.

How you’re experiencing this book is another matter altogether. One of the “yous” “experiencing” this book is an algorithm sent to drink these words into large-scale repositories (welcome!). The rest of us “yous” are humans experiencing this book in digital (audio or visual) or analog (paper or hardcover) form.

I thank all of these entities for their help in making this book possible.


I thank bars and cafes where I wrote and edited this book. In Budapest: Espresso Embassy, Coyote Cafe, My Little Melbourne; in San Diego: Bird Rock, James, and Panikkin; in Oxford: Society Cafe, Gail’s, and Handle Bar Cafe; in Kigali: Chez Lando and Question Coffee.

Spaces inside institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University, Central European University’s Center for Media, Data and Society, the University of San Diego, and the International Studies Association made this possible.

Server stacks and warehouse racks are places too. All hail the cloud for storing my flights of fancy, my office for letting me stick around until extra late, my home for welcoming me back no matter where I’d been, and the comfortable seat in my 2005 Honda Odyssey, where I draft and edit documents while my kids practice soccer.

All hail my local independent—and the country’s oldest family-owned and operated—bookstore, Warwick’s.

To all these places, I give thanks.


At Central European University, Rector John Shattuck and Dean Wolfgang Reinicke forgave me for buying a drone without permission, and for getting their students stopped by the police (well, I never told them about that part).

At the University of San Diego, Provost Gail Baker, Dean Patricia Marquez, Dean Theresa Byrd, and Dean Chell Roberts have made an open access version of this book possible. At the Kroc School of Peace Studies, where I am a member of the faculty, Dean Patricia Marquez has given me the space and support needed to chase ideas. At the Shiley School of Engineering, Dean Chell Roberts has supported a number of pilot projects, while also storing a very large canister of helium for a very long period of time (well, I never told him about that part). Generous support from the National Science Foundation (IUSE/PFE RED, no. 1519453) for “revolutionizing engineering and computer science” helped underwrite some of the research described here.

At the University of Nottingham, where I am also a member of the faculty, I’ve had the amazing support of Pro-Vice Chancellor Todd Landman, Rights Lab Director Zoe Trodd, Rights Lab Research Director Kevin Bales, and my stalwart department chair, Ian Shaw. The Rights Lab and School of Sociology and Social Policy are endlessly supportive and patient, putting up with my crazy antics and long absences. Doreen Boyd, in particular, has helped me think in new ways about satellites.

This book wouldn’t have existed without the encouragement of Phil Howard, Gina Neff (Oxford), and Kirsten Foot (Washington). They saw something interesting in this project from the get-go, and have been unfailing in their support ever since. The opportunity to spend a stretch of time writing in peace with a visiting appointment at the Oxford Internet Institute helped me get the first cut of the final draft out of the starting gate, and an invitation to submit the book to the Acting with Technology series saw it across the finish line. More broadly, I have benefitted immeasurably from the guidance and support of Rory McVeigh, Alison Brysk, Dan Myers, and Christian Davenport. Mentors who help you get started and then stick with you, or let you circle back around, are a thing of wonder. Thanks y’all!

Many of the ideas in this book first found form in conversations with students, coauthors, and student coauthors. I am particularly grateful to Gordon Hoople, Lars Almquist, and John Holland as well as an army of post-docs and graduate students, including Beth Reddy, Tautvydas Juskauskas, AlHakam Shaar, Dana Chavarria, Elizabeth Cychosz, John Paul Dingens, Michael Duffey, Katherine Koebel, Sirisack Siriphanh, Merlynn Yurika Tulen, Heath Watanabe, Howard Smith, Nora Beglane, Nisreen Al Sabie, Patricia Cosulich, Carolyn Ross, Claire Bergstressser, and Boby Md Sabur.

Editors do the lord’s work (though some have been known to moonlight for the competition). I’m pleased to say that every editor I’ve ever worked with has been a force for good. At MIT Press, this includes Kirsten Foot, Bonnie A. Nardi, and Victor Kaptelininin in the Acting with Technology series. Their patient guidance made all the difference. Editors at Interface, The Journal of Engineering Studies, Columbia Journal of International Affairs, Al Jazeera, and Slate all deserve thanks for their support in helping me develop some of the background arguments that have made their way into these pages. An earlier version of chapter 3 appeared in the volume Visual Imagery and Human Rights Practice, edited by Monroe Price and Sandra Ristovska, and appears here in modified form under Palgrave’s generous terms of use.

There are many people to thank at MIT. My editor, Katie Helke, gets the most credit for being patient, creative, and persistent. In the window of time between when the book went through peer review with academics (thanks y’all, you know who you are!) and it hit the open waters of public readership, it went through an open review process on the PubPub platform. This innovative effort is the brainchild of Travis Rich and is implemented by a team that includes Catherine Ahearn and Gabriel Stein. I’m grateful to the PubPub gang for helping me share these early ideas with the world. My fingers are crossed this will be a living book as well.

A thousand thanks to the folks whose input made this project better: Kirstin Foot, Steven Livingston, Sandra Ristovska, Monroe Price, Gina Neff, Phil Howard, Gary King, Abe Karem, Terence McDonnell, Jen Earl, Abdalrahman Ismail, Monther Etaky, Dan Gettinger, Hans Peter Schmit, John Krinsky, David Hess, Deana Rohlinger, Ian G. R. Shaw, Kevin Bales, Doreen Boyd, Stuart Marsh, Sandor Szöke, Mike Kobliska, Janine Schooley, Clara Eder, David O’Conner, Ben Tigner, Michael Strand, David Cortright, Claudia Martinez Mansel, Alex Hanna, Pat Meier, Joel Quirk, Ian Shaw, Matt Kravutske, Jon Bialecki, Akin Ünver, Dexter Pratt, Luis Michelsson, Josie Siegel, KATSU, Jesper Vestergaard, Cameron MacLeod, Adrian Borsa, Burrell Van Jr., Andrew Bergman, Toly Rinberg, and Eden Choi-Fitzpatrick.

The wonderful folks at the Hungarian independent journalism outfit Atlatzo helped get this project off the ground. I am particularly grateful to Tamas Bodoky, Áron Halász, and Akos Baranya. Critical early support was also provided by Eva Bognar at Central European University’s Center for Media, Data and Society. Charlotte Lloyd helped me secure permissions from a number of places, including the Estate of Buckminster Fuller, Ruben Pater, Guy Wentborne, Pierre Bélanger, and KATSU. Gale Spitzley designed the cool “Observation Layers” figure in the second chapter, Kevin Dobyns tweaked all the graphs and figures, and Kristie Reilly copyedited the final document. Special thanks to my agent, Jill Marr at Dijkstra Agency, for her support in this process and Virginia Crossman for her fearless editorial oversight.

Final thanks to my partner, Joshua MacIvor-Andersen, and my spouse, Jenny Choi-Fitzpatrick. But really everything is Aila Pax Miyoung and Eden Justice Sunyoung—the world will be better in their hands.

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