Technology makes everyone witness to the revolution

Technology makes everyone witness to the revolution

We are on the phone together and, like much of the world this week, we are speaking of Egypt. “Watch on television what is happening there,” he says. “It’s clear. It’s a moment in history.”

But our conversation is less about the latest from Tahrir Square than about the international phenomenon of virtual bystanding that it has inspired. We have seen this before, with Iran, with Chile, with Haiti: legions of global citizens watching a crisis unfold in real time and, equipped with new technology, seeking to do their bit — disseminating links, retweeting pleas for help or offers of it, or simply standing in the stream of hardship chatter and drinking some of it in.

In these last days, such digital rubbernecking has resumed with Egypt, and a debate has reopened with it. Will the revolution be tweeted? as Malcolm Gladwell has phrased it in The New Yorker (before concluding that it will not). Are all these link-spreaders really just wallflowers? Are westerners narcissistic in assuming always that it is their technologies that unleash what is, in fact, organic to nations in upheaval? Is this a variety of voyeurism?

At the time of crisis

The debate has tended to dwell on the question of whether all this overseas digital mirroring of a crisis, especially when the Internet is inaccessible or censored in the nation in crisis, is of any use to those on the ground.

But what is often missing from the debate is the idea of bearing witness: the notion, as  Wiesel, a survivor of the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, once put it, that an experience like the one he endured “cannot stay with me alone. It must be opened, it must become an offering, it must be deepened and given and shared.”

Today, at age 82, he is a trace removed from the latest technology trends, but he was more vigorous than many half his age in seeing a place for technology in tragedy.
Because of technology, and because of the progress made in technology, especially in the field of communication, no one has any excuse anymore to say, ‘I don’t know; I didn’t know; I wasn’t aware,”’ he said.

It is partly that the sufferings of others are available to much of the world in real time today, he said, and partly that the multiplication of avenues to publish and to access what others publish makes people less confined to particular sources: If you don’t trust the US news media, you can watch Al Jazeera English from your sofa in Florida; if you don’t trust Al Jazeera, you can pipe in France 24 from your bedroom in Qatar.

“Since they come from a variety of sources, from a variety of people, representing all ideologies and all sensitivities, we know. We cannot not know,” Wiesel said. “Whether you want it or not,” he added a moment later, “we are witnesses.”

But there is also a paradox about this digital bearing of witness: Amid the chaos and fragmentation and deluge of the new media world, it becomes easier for the witness to hear, but perhaps harder to listen. Noise multiplies; signal is scarcer. Links to articles are disseminated to others before the articles are read. Genuine testimony and propaganda mingle freely under the flag of the #Jan25 Twitter hashtag, no one knowing for sure which is which.

Wiesel fears that, even as the technology makes it harder not to know, it chips away at the duty, after knowing, of understanding: of asking why, making sense of things, judging, empathizing — and of committing the tragic events to a deeper kind of memory.
“In one way, what worries me is that there is so much chatter that we forget how to listen,” he said. Today “everybody has something to say,” he added, and perhaps less interest in absorbing tragedy’s lessons. “Before speaking, there is thinking. But today everything goes so fast, so fast.”

When Wiesel teaches literature, he told me, he finishes the investigation of a book by stepping back from its details and asking, What is the meaning of that book? That kind of reflection suffers in the instantaneous media culture that surrounds us today, a culture that tends to reward speed over cognition.

What the chatter should be asking of Egypt, he said, is: “What does it mean? Why did this happen now? Why didn’t this happen before? And not who is wrong, because we have to listen to both sides. But the main thing is, What does it mean in history, to history?”

If one idea has animated Wiesel’s life, it is that of the power of memory: memory gives culture, he likes to say; memories spoken and shared can prevent remembered tragedies from recurring. He wonders sometimes if the frantic, ephemeral remembering of our digital times — what we may call Twitnessing — has anything to do with the kind of memory to which he has devoted his life.

The Internet can serve as a repository of testimony; but it can also be a palace of fun house mirrors, in which events are reflected and twisted and spun even before they have ended.

“There is no life without memory,” . Wiesel said. “But when it’s too much, when it’s too much, then we no longer know, really, what came first, the event or the memory of the event.”