Technology and a dislocated truth
This week I have been disturbed by two vivid memories, 23 years apart. Both memories are from sporting events that I attended. Both were memories of the crowd that attended with me. And both, in their way, concern technology.
The first memory, only weeks before, is of an athlete powering towards the finishing line to claim Olympic gold. Many in the crowd scream for joy. Many more stand mute – arms raised to faces or above heads – viewing the spectacle vicariously through the pale LCD displays of camera phones, or through the huge screens on the stadium roof. Others type furiously onto keypads. Remote cameras on high wires or on high-speed track fly after the athlete, relaying the action to countless unseen places beyond the stadium. As the athlete crosses the line, the truth of it crosses continents – the images simultaneously encoded onto the storage cards of countless individual mobile telephones. This crowd is not co-located, but attached by technological threads to a network beyond the stadium walls. The devices in the hands of these people enable testimony to leak through terraced walls like gamma radiation.
The second memory, twenty-three years before, is of a football match in Sheffield, England. I stand watching a tight row of policemen, tense and confused, who have been ordered to guard the area in which I sit, in expectation of some non-existent violence. Behind their backs, on the football pitch, a scene of genuine tragedy and horror takes place. Crushed and suffocated corpses of civilians are being assembled on the turf. A father, shocked dumb, carries his young child, limbs hanging, faced bloated with asphyxiation. Denim-clad teenagers weave between the line of policemen to tear the advertising hoardings from the terrace walls to use as makeshift stretchers. The policemen, under orders, stay completely still – the desperate screams of the public they are charged to protect audible behind them. The teenagers dash back through their ranks to attempt a rescue of the still-living. The ambulances, like the policemen, do not come.
It is 1989. In the crowd, there are no digital cameras. Nobody is texting. The mobile telephone is the absent, oversized preserve of the wealthy. The crowd is locked into a purely co-located horror. The only testimony that leaks beyond these walls is through highly-regulated broadcast television, or the radio signals of the police. The CCTV camera footage in the stadium would soon, mysteriously, disappear.
These two memories diverge in one crucial respect. The first event is celebrated as a joyous, global truth. The second, until last week, officially never existed in the way that I’d witnessed it.
* * *
Technology has had a long, and sometimes stormy, relationship with truth. It embraces both the civil enlightenment of Caxton’s printing press, and the doctored photographs of Stalin. Modern mobile communications technology is both blessed and cursed for its communicative power. To some it is a democratic guardian, as demonstrated in Tahrir Square, while to others it is a brain-melting teenage curse. Yet what was striking about the mobile telephony in the hands of the Olympic crowd was the fracturing of a single event into countless channels of digital information – transmitted to a thousand places, or recorded in multiple media. The truth is not simply witnessed any more: it is encoded as deferred or mediated experience.
So why does this observation, and the two contrasting memories, cause me to lose sleep?
Because I can’t escape the thought that if the Hillsborough tragedy had occurred years later, then mobile telephony might have borne witness to a truth that the authorities would have been unable to suppress. A thousand images, texts, calls and facebook posts from supporters inside the stadium would have scattered the message to the world before a cover-up could be concocted. Technology might have dignified the innocent and the young dead in a way that the authorities were unwilling to do. The powerful might have been persuaded of the futility of their deceit, and reminded of their duty of care. Technology might have summoned medical help. And some of the innocent might still be alive.
Or would they? Am I naïve to think that digital technology would rescue such a truth? In many large public events, it is impossible to receive a decent phone signal due to overcrowded cell networks. And would information be allowed to flow so freely if the circumstances did not suit those who hold power? After all, under ‘emergency protocols’, mobile networks can quickly be switched off by security services. And might imaging devices not conceivably be confiscated to ‘help in enquiries?’ In other words, is technology only as powerful as authority allows it to be?
Paranoia? Perhaps. I suppose seeing the innocent dead slandered as liars, hooligans and drunken thugs by those in power for 23 years can challenge ones perspective on reality.
Still, I’d have given anything for a mobile phone that day. If only so I could have called home to tell my mother that her two sons were still alive. When we left the stadium, every telephone box in Sheffield was crammed with supporters trying to relate their private truth to loved ones. We eventually found a phone box on the high moors outside of Manchester. It was late. My mother was relieved beyond belief to hear us safe. Landline telephony from an earlier age had stepped in to deliver a small mercy.
Somewhere out on those same moors, in that same earlier age, a twisted couple had murdered and buried innocent children. For those victims, there had been no small mercy. Portable telephony did not exist for those vulnerable children to carry when danger threatened. No SMS could leak the truth of their horror. The suffering and the crime was co-located.
Technology has had a long, and sometimes stormy, relationship with truth. Yet technology cannot deliver truth itself, only its representation. The longest and stormiest relationship of all is surely between the truth, and those most advantaged by its distortion. It is, sadly, a dislocation older than the wheel.