Two books I’ve read recently (Ctrl+Z: The Right to be Forgotten and When we are no more: How digital memory is shaping our future) deal with the significant challenges around memorialisation online. Take the humble photo album. I have inherited many from my family. I have however only ever created a handful. 1,771 albums anchored to 22,768 photos I’ve taken digitally, over the past decade, now reside on the cloud on Google Photos, and for free. These albums have been generated, in the main, automatically by machine intelligence. My photos are searchable by location, face, colour or entity. How Google does this is nothing short of magical.
And yet, when I went to Senkada recently to actually print some photos of my son and I taken this year, I felt a wave of nostalgia around those old photo albums, often moth-worn, that held memories equally dear to a generation that came before Flickr, Google and Facebook. Photos of my infancy are still vivid and clear, and the black and white photos capturing the marriage of my parents even more so. Fifty or sixty years hence, no one with any certainty can say if Google or Alphabet will be around. If they disappear, so do all my photos, emails, videos and writing.
And therein lies the rub – in digitally producing and almost unthinkingly storing so much, we assume that memories online and in the cloud are indelible and eternal. We assume that having near perfect recall, on demand, is better than forgetting or losing information. We seek to remember more and more, by producing more and more. There’s no reason for any economy or careful framing in photography, when burst mode or a hundred different perspectives afforded by everyone present all can be uploaded, for free, in close to real time if need be. So much of remembering used to be linked to the joy of discovery or co-discovery around physical artefacts – going through an album, perusing a library or listening to someone recount a story. And yet for a generation that produces as much as we do, we actually don’t remember much. With machine intelligence doing most of the indexing, we ironically know how to access memory more than we are interested in remembering anything. Facebook and Google know this, which is why they have features that remind us what happened several years ago on a particular day. All this is the new norm, and shows no signs of slowing down.
How does one connect this to the politics of memorialisation post-war? An earlier column has dealt with the alarming level of information decay in Sri Lanka. We are losing information even around contemporary history at a rate hitherto unprecedented. Contrary to popular belief, the more we rely digital means to store information, the more ephemeral memory will be. But the more interesting challenge is around how one seeks to remember, and whether decay (or in other words, forgetting) is essential to forgiving and reconciliation. Catharsis, or the relief by telling one’s story as victim or even perpetrator as part of a truth and reconciliation process, can be liberating in and of itself, without any judicial oversight, prosecution or redress. But if in retelling, the intent is to leave the past behind by acknowledging events, what does it mean for everyone concerned to now have a digital record of these events, untethered to whoever originally produced it, that can be accessed on Google, seen on YouTube, critiqued on Facebook or promoted over Twitter? How can society move forward, if our digital records capture the worst of us and the most violent we have been to each other, and moreover, over time, if the context around what was captured is also lost? Does easy access risk repetition? These are old questions, but they come alive with new challenges in a digital age. It all boils down to this – it is not so much the volume of information, even around inconvenient truths, that matter. It is the extent to which they are accessible – or in a word, discoverable.
Discoverability has implications for accountability. The murder of Prabhakaran’s 12-year-old son, Balachandran, captured in 2009 wasn’t discoverable until it was featured as part of a documentary by a British TV channel in 2013. Trophy images and videos, eye witness testimony, whistleblowing and other content documenting violence which have sporadically surfaced since the end of war, invariably reside in greater detail and volume in private online accounts of soldiers, politicians, diplomats, aid-workers, journalists and other officials. When, how and if they make it into the public domain will inform mechanisms around accountability in Sri Lanka. This is why it is critical for mechanisms around accountability to invest heavily in digital forensics and secure online storage.
On the other hand, discoverability has implications for reconciliation. Controversially perhaps in the context of war, forgetting is part of our human condition. Human memory is contested, and is something not set in stone. We remember only what we are conditioned to observe, and then too, depending on trauma and other factors, in ways that may be entirely distinct from how others will recall the same incident or process. Digital archives offer a more permanent record, but add little to context. We see the photos of Balachandran, first eating chocolate and then with bullet wounds to his upper torso, but are unable from these images alone to understand a chain of events leading to his murder. Until 2013, this incident was known to a few present around the boy. After the documentary, there is a wider discussion around the photos and the serious implications it has. When the photos were published, the level of outrage and interest has significantly died down just three years hence. What then have they really achieved? No doubt, the Consultation Task Force (CTF), currently going around the country soliciting opinions from the general public around four key mechanisms will have to confront harrowing stories that mirror these photos. We are told that save for confidential submissions, all other submissions will be placed in the public domain. Will these accounts, in their original form and outside the framing of the CTF’s final report, hurt and harm or really help heal? Who makes the call and on what basis?
A generation ago, albums could have been looted and destroyed. Survivors, save for those who listened to them, had no way of communicating what they went through or witnessed. Stories were lost. Justice aside, the arc of history also usually bent towards those who wrote history as they saw fit. Today, it’s more confusing. Violence has more witnesses than ever before. It is unclear however to what degree this helps reconciliation. Images of a 12-year-old with bullet wounds is a mouse click away. But the UNP’s violence against suspected JVP members from the late 80s remains shrouded. We know about the LTTE’s suicide bombers by way of dismembered bodies and macabre images of decapitated heads. We know less about the perpetrators of violence against women, in some of Colombo’s most beautiful neighbourhoods. The digital is subjective and selective. It is biased, and by nature, ephemeral. How and to what degree Sri Lanka embraces collective, digital memories of violence, both past and present, will shape how we engineer policies around redress and reconciliation.
Perhaps all this goes back to those old photo albums – there when you need them, but otherwise dormant. There to be engaged with alone or with others, but never intruding otherwise to somehow shape the present. Maybe we sometimes need to forget first, and then learn how to discover in order to best remember?
First published in The Sunday Island, 7 August 2016.