Digital Narratives and Witnessing: The Ethics of Engaging with Places at a Distance and Instrumental Vision by Rose Woodcock
We had two reading this week; the common theme was how technology impacts on our perception of the world. In the first, we hear of the ethics of engaging with Places at a distance, in the second reading, with objects ‘closer up’ – in our heads, as part of virtual reality.
Nishat Awan describes how we in the developed world have a distorted view of our surroundings, particularly of distant locations. He proposes that this has been brought upon to a large extent by the technologies of social media and also with the warfare technology of drones. He describes vividly his own direct experience of a locality of Gwadar, Pakistan and how it presents itself through the lens of digital media. Gwadar, his example mediates as a place, through the term power topologies , where notion of distance is removed. The remote sensing of places, digital maps and even connections with people over great distances, best put: “Topology in this context highlights the intensive nature of the world that such technologies create because as power reaches across space it is not so much traversing across a fixed space and time, as it is composing its own space–time.”
In addition, he points out how little critical engagement there is with the ways in which they mediate our engagement with place. He expands this, using an urgent example of localities in crisis, as humanitarian or war, or both. Haiti, for example, where humanitarian aid can be accelerated through tech without the need to get too caught up in the crisis itself, thus keeping the aid agencies out of harm’s way. One side effect of this is to create the false impression of the distant locality is in constant crisis.
He recalls as to how a crisis is communicated; Michael Buerk reporting the Ethiopian crisis for the BBC in 1982 – his report on the news gave us an immediate emotional response. This was perhaps the best and one early example of how aid is stimulated, now with digital media, it is central to the methodology of calling for help, the example used by Awan was the virtual reality film of a girl in Za’atri refugee camp, Jordan shot in 2015; Clouds over Sidra, presented to the World Economic forum in Davos. This presents the story in a different way; “There is an authenticity and immediacy associated with such images, but at the same time they are easily exploited, misinterpreted, and hijacked by powerful actors”
Dronestream, an artwork by James Bridle (Tate) uses publicly available Google Earth to show the after effects of drone strikes. Quote: “the politics of witnessing takes another twist. When difficult stories are being told by distant others, then the testimony of presence is suddenly rendered ineffective.”
We hear another example of how technology has changed, through citizen reporting; Eliot Higgins of Bellingcat, “tracking of missiles from Russia to parts of Ukraine under Russian control and of proving through this practice of tracking and location that a Russian-made missile was responsible for bringing down Malaysian Airways Flight MH17”… “what happens to the witness when the claims that are being made do not come from the testimony of individuals but are made through combining multiple narratives? Where do you locate the political subject in such an account and does it matter that witnessing can no longer be attributed to just one person? Are the multiple volunteers that contribute to Bellingcat the authors of this work or is it the various people from social media whose information has been used to piece together an account, or is it in actuality the figure of Higgins and his organization?”
These examples (and others in the paper) describe how spatial analysis with investigative journalism engage with places that are in conflict, where it is difficult to spend time in the field, however this perhaps oversimplifies the events that took place, despite their authenticity. The three emergent practices combine spatial analysis with investigative journalism to engage with places that are in conflict, where it is difficult to spend time in the field
They only tell part of the story; they lack the testimony of people on the ground, other types of seeing, as a feminist geopolitical viewpoint.
He describes at length the history of his chosen locality, Gwadar province, detailing its history and culminating in an earthquake disaster killing 800 people, largely ignored by the international media, how social media has played the greater part in healing from the disaster. However, this has not been without its down-side; ‘dirty linen’ has been aired as well.
Digital technologies have transformed how we engage with distant places, but these techniques have also come with their limitations, particularly with regard to witnessing events. However, the earthquake in Gwadar has shown how social media can ameliorate matters, where the broader lens of the international media misses it.
The second reading, Instrumental Vision by Rose Woodcock deals with another aspect of perceptual change through technology. She examines the ‘practice’ of vision and consider on what basis can vison have its own ‘materiality. She ask many questions; what comes first, pictures or the capacity to see things pictorially?
Woodcock describes the work of Gibson, a perceptual psychologist who worked on an instructional film for AAF Fighter pilots. He found that film was a far more effective means of training than any training manual- to “develop a theory of what a motion picture shot could do that nothing else could … Gibson’s emphasis on how the animated display gives the observer a sense of “continuous covariation in time” and particularly, how it inserted the observer’s own view-point at the centre of the flow of images, is more like a description of a virtual reality display than of conventional cinema.”
She concludes that immersive stereoscopic VR is uniquely empowered to instantiate the lit environment, since it alone, as a system of visual representation, can array surfaces in three-dimensions; and it can illuminate itself. Virtual imaging technology is thus well fashioned as a fine tool for the creation, not of pictorial illusionistic space, but three-dimensional, corporeal “actual” space. She goes on to describe Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus, how the artist conveys the sense of space from 2D in oils with the use of reflective light, perspective and foreshort
“Realism” as opposed to “realness” thus marks a definitive difference between pictorial and real-world perception respectively. This difference is epistemological, rather than a matter of degree (for example, of detail or resolution), and corresponds to the way assumptions about what vision is for, find expression and manifest differentially within the enterprises of pictorial representation and the design of virtual worlds.
 Allen, J. 2011. Topological twists: Power’s shifting geographies. Dialogues in Human Geography 1 (3): 283–98.