Digital Technologies and History

Has digital production changed how we will remember historical events? This was the question I received at the round table in AVPC2016 in Zagreb. It was not one I was expecting, so my answer was rather awkward at the time, and I would like to develop my point somewhat here. It seems to me to be an important question. The short answer is yes, but with many qualifications, and in the end, also some important critiques. The longer answer follows below, and the focus is on the more practical dimensions of digital media tools in activist and research contexts. The post covers what the explosion and easier access has brought to activism, giving an example of the media collective Komunal, in Ljubljana, and to research. It then covers some of the problems that come with the greater access and use of digital technologies.

The “Yes” part.

The greater access to technology has meant more is produced, faster: we have more people who can document something and share it. The cost and portability is a big factor here. Now a film like Blokada (2016) is possible; a rapidly evolving situation can be covered as it develops, just with a few hand-held cameras, a short (or possibly even no) planning period, and a lot of spontaneous developments and coordination. The cameras are able to move as quickly as the people and the situations.

A person unfamiliar with the technology can easily produce an intelligible image. The digital nature of the image also means no expensive film stock must be constantly bought, loaded, transferred, processed and stored. With just a few memory cards and batteries, and the camera and maybe an external microphone, you can run and shoot all day.

Editing is now also possible from your desktop. There is high end, but still user friendly editing software that can be easily acquired, some at a cost, others for free. So the material can be instantly transferred to the computer or an external disk and then uploaded in to the software, cut and exported onto some online platform, such as youtube or vimeo. For activists in particularly, this has made things much faster. In combination with social media distribution networks, getting things out into public discourse is possible more often and at a faster rate.

Thus activists, and activist film makers, for relatively little money, can establish a media presence and create counter-narratives that can be of high quality, can be quickly produced, and quickly distributed within the network and to their local media. They can produce whole films with DIY knowledge and budgets.

It is also worth pointing out that here the sharing follows a logic of abundance, where use and reproduction increase the quantity of the good or service. I can send one video file in an email to three hundred people, and thus instantly reproduce the film three hundred times for the cost of the few moments of electricity, and with little quality degradation. These reproductive possibilities that do not depend on any additional (or very few) material costs mean access and sharing of the film, or video, or power point, etc., actually increase its availability. Use thus increases the item, rather than reducing or damaging it.

An example from Komunal.org

I used the recent events in Ljubljana, specifically ROG, to highlight the above comments. In short, ROG, a squatted factory, is under threat of eviction from the municipality intent on demolishing some of the buildings. There is no pending investment for remodeling, despite the intention of turning ROG into a center for cultural production (which it already is, just autonomous and self-organized). Yet the municipality sought to impose the deconstruction of some buildings in order to secure open work permits for the next few years (ready, one assumes, for eventual investment). The start of this procedure came at 3am on the 14 of June. A private security firm entered the squat with a large construction digger. The community was ready and resisted, which provoked a violent reaction from the security guards.

Long story short, the struggle was caught on multiple camera phones and video cameras and released bit by bit through komunal. Komunal is a media collective in Ljubljana, Slovenia that produces and provides a platform for media production related to the radical left scene in Slovenia and abroad. The collective has developed a website and uses social media (twitter and Facebook) to share content. According to the website, the aim here is to

Our platform is an attempt to provide better access to issues, events and perspectives ignored by other media. We see our production as research into invisible and misunderstood social conditions. Media in this capacity plays a critical role in opening social conflicts by exposing social contradictions and isolation, oppressions, exploitations and social, political and economic injustice.[1]

In this situation it was the first site to have such media up and sent around. It was quickly picked up by larger media portals and the evening news. This effectively put a perspective into in the public discourse (first, before any other) from within the squat, with the users of ROG as the victims of violence. This was possible because of the ease of producing such material in the digital era. Any future memorializing of this event, of transformation of the city, gentrification, etc. will have this perspective easily accessible as a result.

For researchers, this has also opened new potential for producing material within the research frame. The digital camera (with video capabilities) can fit in your pocket or is integrated into your phone, making it at once more accessible and also less obvious and awkward. Sarah Pink’s work in documenting daily life, for example, takes place in homes (2012) or on the streets with the slow city movement (2008). The use large, heavy cameras would greatly restrict such practices, and make it much harder for researchers to become (at least partially) part of the scene. The documenting of an event as it unfolds, or returning to the site of an event and visually reconstructing it, examining the consequences, etc., and made much easier as a result of access to this cheap technology.

Greater use of these technologies in research can also lead to articulating results in different ways, and thus making, potentially, the results more accessible to a wider audience. This seems to be the theory behind launching the Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy[2]. The predominance of written text confines the image and the video to a bit part, accompanying the narrative in the way that sprinkles do ice cream. But increasingly it is becoming possible to produce picture essays, and now even video articles. Here the hierarchy of text over image is broken down. The picture essay or video article has its own attraction to researchers, but presumably also to audiences, particularly ones who may not read an academic article. I imagine that in a school setting, where a multitude of learning styles is present, such options are important. This also allows us to reimagine the function of the visual in everyday life and where our interaction with the visual produces (new)realities.

The critique bit

So when we consider this in the context of the impact it can have on history, it is of course immense. More records are simply going to be available, from many different perspectives (assuming of course that we retain our access to such technologies in the future). The historical records that this allows us to leave behind is simply staggering, and at such little cost. However, here we must also take account of some of the problems and limitations of this situation. First, leading off of the last point, more perspectives and more videos, etc., does not mean a more accurate, quality historical record. In the worst case it also can just mean more noise and factual, ideological distortions to weed through. It is also easier to hide behind an avatar, making the future sourcing of materials all the more difficult.

The abundance and relative cheap cost masks the reality of most people still not having access to such equipment and knowledge. Outside of a relatively small part of the world, and in the poorer classes, these cheap cameras are still economically unreachable. Along with this comes a large environmental cost to the production of this technology, which at its origin starts with mineral extraction in (often) slave like conditions for the workers. From mainstream leftists like Paul Mason to more radical, academic voices like Michael Hart and Antonio Negri (2004), the notion too often is that the abundance logic of affective labor and non-material labor is achieved through the democratized access to technology and its simplicity. Their argument is that a form of commoning is occurring thanks to the centrality of our immaterial labor and the technologies supporting that labor. However, Silvia Federici (2006) has argued that this ignorance of the production chain profoundly undermines social movements’ claims on justice, and renders invisible forms of labor and exploitation.

The concentration of this technology in wealthier parts of the country also means that the dominant narratives and experiences will again find their voice the easiest and exclude the subaltern ones. As Federici’s critique suggests, the same is true of critical feminist voices. The content produced is thus still highly gendered and subject to global class relations, where the critical voices heard are still just the usual suspects. So even where these narratives are critical it is still problematic as they represent European and North American masculine realities and experiences that should not speak for the world.

An old, yet still valid concern with visual materials is of course the perspective of truth. Is it true because we see it happening on video or in a picture? In short, no. Video is always a representation and not a whole context. The person filming is already making editorial choices before they even turn on the camera: which situations to cover, where to stand, what kind of images to look for, what to ask (if doing interviews), etc. Gillian Rose (2001, 2) reminds us that images “interpret the world; they display it in very particular ways; they represent it.” This is always true, regardless of whether you have five of five hundred images of a situation.

A final point is that abundance of production does not translate into quality productions, important content, or ethical content. It can be used by racist movements just as easily, and the lack of any standards or control means it can be used in harmful, exploitative ways, as it always has. Only now it is perhaps easier to give a response, and create a counter narrative. In short, we need to be careful of claims that the increasing availability and ease of use of documentation technology radically changes the power relations in a society or gives greater power to social justice movements, even while it clearly can and does influence how events will be remembered.

In conclusion, this piece has attempted to reflect briefly on the impact that digital media has had on activism and research in the context of how something is remembered down the line. While I argue that it absolutely can influence public knowledge of something, and diversify the means of representation (and thus the accessible views), this is not without a few problems. There are important ecological questions here, as well as older questions of what and how, and by whom, something is represented. Greater access can, but does not necessarily answer these questions.

Refrences

Federici, Silvia (2006). “Precarious Labor: A Feminist Viewpoint”. On https://inthemiddleofthewhirlwind.wordpress.com/precarious-labor-a-feminist-viewpoint/ (last accessed 13.6.2016)

Hardt, M and Negri, A (2000). Empire. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, USA

Pink, Sarah (2012). Situating Everyday Life. London: Sage.

_________ (2008). “Mobilizing Visual Ethnography: Making Routes, Making Place and Making Images” in Forum: Qualitative Social Research Volume 9, No. 3.

Rose, Gillian (2001). Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to the Interpretation of Visual Materials. London: Sage.

Endnotes

[1] http://www.komunal.org/komunal-org – last accessed 5.7.2016

[2] http://videoeducationjournal.springeropen.com/

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