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Bearing Witness

With the mobility of digital technologies comes a new set of possibilities. With those possibilities come new behaviors and habits. Increasingly, we hear stories of digital interaction that transform our traditional spaces and both excite and repel us. Take the familiar story of the concert, for example. A sea of smartphones held up to record the performance transform the geographic collectivity into a sea of strangers sharing their experience with others far away or even far into the future. Every performance, public or private, is subject to recording and therefore the act of witnessing has been radically altered in several key ways.

2 Popes – 8 years apart

One of the moments when the world began to wake up to this phenomenon was during the conclave of Pope Francis in 2013. The photo shared around the world featured the 2005 public viewing of Pope John Paul II’s body at St. Patrick’s Basilica, contrasting the scene with the gathering of people standing in wait of the announcement of Pope Francis’ election in 2013. Absent from the 2005 photograph is the presence of any digital device. The 2013 photo, on the other hand presents a mosaic of electronic screens held up to capture the scene.

There’s nothing new about the desire to “be there” when something significant happened. Retired professional athletes are frequently confronted by fans who want to announce that they “were there” whenever the athlete’s signature moment took place. The phrase, “where were you when….” is a common trope in American society, and every generation has their handful of happenings that demand a story of witness. Where were you when JFK was assassinated? Where were you on 9/11?

Being able to record significant moments in public history and “prove” your presence is a big part of our digital culture. In the process, however, are we creating a culture of witnessing that devalues the significant moments? Are we killing history by recording and presenting every mundane detail of our lives? We create a snapshot of our meals and share them, asking those within our digital networks to bear witness to the unfolding of our daily lives in all their mundane detail. One key gratification of media is the ability to live vicariously through history. Watching the Super Bowl every year creates a series of marks on the map of life, which can be used in social settings to create common ground. Watching the nightly news offers a continuity between events and connects audiences around a set of important markers. If we are increasingly replacing the traditional media culture with one of personal witnessing, do the “big” events mean as much to us anymore in living out a shared story?

Consider the Occupy Wall Street movement. Part of the ethic of Occupy is the production of sharable media to amplify the movement’s message. Occupy creates a spectacle that the traditional media can’t ignore, but the power of the Occupy media arm was the possibility it offered to witness the real time developments of the clash for public space via well-organized deployment of smartphones and web connections. These windows onto the street circumvented the mainstream press and allowed anyone with a broadband connection to follow along in real time. Beyond the real time, the digital recording of Occupy activities opened the door to sharable media after the fact. Significant moments could be edited and uploaded to illustrate alleged police brutality, and the like.

Organizations like witness.org even offer protocols and “best practices” for capturing video with mobile devices, turning everyday people into more effective media activists. This goes hand-in-hand with the turn towards citizen journalism, discussed in previous posts.

A number of key questions come to mind, in addition to those already posed above. How do we situate different witnessing activities in our lives? Are all acts of witness equal in the digital environment, or do we have particular norms and understandings of different types of witnessing? Can we create a typology of digital witnessing and assign typical characteristics to each type? Does the act of digital witnessing produce new relationships with our “offline” environments? Do we have different expectations of the world and the various places we frequent as a result of our new habits? Have we created new structures (physical or abstract) to cope with our new reality? For instance, have restaurants changed in any way as a result of the regular sharing of food photographs? Has the dining experience changed?

Identifying the new modes of living brought about in our technological change is the first step. Classifying and characterizing the change is a more elaborate endeavor, but one well worth pursuing. Consider specific examples of witnessing and apply the questions proposed here to understand them better. Come up with your own questions to continue the pursuit of knowledge.


About mikeplugh

Media Ecology General Semantics Baseball Japan Fordham University


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