I climb warily back into the solidity of the Air Traffic Control office, hoping that the simplicity doesn’t decrease with my apparent perceptions of safety. It would be highly embarrassing to be stuck, in the first stages of my research. However, I’m slightly anxious about how my informal approach is going to be received in such a restricted area.

I’m immediately confronted with the trophies that are gathering dust across our internal horizon. Their team-leader laughs at my attention to their ‘political cupboard’ and I’m relieved that they seem to share my scepticism.

The plaque of “youth safety production” is explained in great detail by a gloating health & safety officer. I honestly cannot see anything particularly ‘unsafe’ around. It was difficult to perceive that these highly protected staff should encounter anything more than paper cuts, constant stress and repetitive strain injury.

We shuffled down for lunch before I managed to bruise any more bureaucratic egos. We walked past an office being cleared as apart of the terminal and staffing redevelopment.  Cleaners rushed to the scene before I could poke around any more, clearing away the remainders of a profession with bin bags full of memories and  confidential transactions.

During these more informal lunch sessions that I manage to peep into the stories behind the complex system of traffic control in the sky, as well as the interpersonal stories that occur from the sprawl of offices to form an experience we understand as ‘an airport’. The stories are far juicier than their technical training.

Most of the airspace in China is restricted for military use. In fact, ATC is more crucial now than ever because of the increasing frequency that’s demanded by the nomadic urbanites. Every festival, national holiday and international gathering strains the  pin-hole sized bottle-neck shared between flight routes from Shenzhen and Hong Kong.

The boys and girls at ATC are a precious breed of the system. Well connected across the national ATC network they have footing in all the airports across whole of China. I’m told personal stories of extraordinary interventions that had delayed and brought forward flights, where individual ATC boarders were the instant villains and heros of fellow passengers.

It must be rather peculiar to sit back and become apart of  a crowd, whose lives are normally under their control. The public are the toys of their divine intervention. I made a mental note never to cross an ATC personnel.

These Gods of airspace tell me about their insider secret, of a slum village a travelator journey away from the terminals. This is where the more adventurous of the coworkers would lunch and shake things up before their tedious and ever-so-important overtime work. To prove their point, one of the workers takes me to the slums and treats me with tofu from my hometown. A reward for being good enough to avoid any awkward poking…

Written by Lisa Ma

Lisa Ma socializes activism. Combining ethnographic research and speculative design, Lisa creates platforms of engagement from surprising insights and processes that deeply resonate with the global technological community. The emergence of clicktivism – to protest at the click of a mouse – is trivializing activism. Lisa argues that although activism doesn’t necessarily benefit from technology, we need to evolve how activism contributes to technological societies. To illustrate this, she designs dilemmas and creates social events that are perceived as activism but function as services.

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