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Technology and a dislocated truth

September 16, 2012

mobiles in crowd

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.

Crushed crowdIt 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.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. September 16, 2012 9:20 am

    Reblogged this on Here come the lobsters! and commented:
    Thanks to Fiona Joseph for posting this on twitter. A very thoughtful and moving peice upon the use of technology in dire times of need. Read it and weep.

  2. JulieHaines permalink
    September 16, 2012 5:59 pm

    I agree with your observations on that night at the Olympics. I always find it quite strange we are so obsessed about telling or showing people where we and what we are doing, that the act becomes the activity and the event/occasion becomes the background. How can you fully appreciate what you are watching if you are looking through a small screen or tweeting or chatting on Facebook. I know because I have been guilty of this in the past and have missed many a school sports day victory because I was so concerned about getting the right shot of my child running, that I missed seeing the actual race. Sharing with people who are not with you has now become an acceptable part of the activity.
    The point about mobile phones and communication is interesting. Even in recent disasters such as 9/11 and 7/7, where mobile phones were available, families still had to wait for hours to hear from their loved ones because of the networks being overloaded. When there is an expectation that you can contact someone instantly, failing networks or something as simple as a flat battery can cause just as many problems. On the upside, mobile phone footage can help piece events together and bore witness to the successes and failures and truth.
    In 1989 when communication was so much slower there would have been a good proportion of people who didn’t even hear about the Hillsborough disaster until they watched the news that evening or opened the Sunday paper the next morning . Any such event happening today would be worldwide with words, if not images, within minutes.

    • September 17, 2012 10:25 am

      Thanks for this, Julie.

      I’ve always been fascinated by the strange displacement of fellow audience members who prefer to stare at screens, rather than witness the event ‘first hand’. I used to be rather dismissive of this – but recently I’ve reconsidered my view. Who is to say how we should experience? A great achievement of technology is that it has enabled us to make memory – or our version of it – persistent. But the fear of this deferral of memory – or its mediation through external technology – has produced an anxiety as old as technology itself. I describe here :-

      http://theatreofreason.wordpress.com/2011/03/09/sharpest-stone-in-the-cave/#more-593

      - how Plato feared that the new-fangled technology of writing would enfeeble our memories! The great point about his fear is that we would never know about it if it wasn’t for writing!
      So maybe we are just co-evolving with technology to experience in a more multi-faceted way.

  3. Dan Slee permalink
    September 17, 2012 9:55 am

    Stephen,

    Thanks for writing this and for sharing. This struck a chord with me as a football supporter, a communications person but most importantly of all a humanm being.

    As a football supporter? A year before Hillsborough my team Stoke City had played Liverpool in the FA Cup at the old Victoria Ground. For much of the 1980s my team bobbed around at the bottom of Division One and half way up Division Two. The only time the place really came alive was in the FA Cup when we got a cup run. In 1988 I’d got a ticket to the Boothen End a huge cathedral of a terrace behind the goal to see us play Liverpool Getting in more than an hour before kick off it was pretty clear there was too many people in too small a space. I’d not experienced anything like it. Arms in pockets stayed in pockets. You couldn’t move at all. It started to feel worrying. A mate 20 feet away was shouting at me to come over and climb onto a barrier to get out of it. I may as well as travelled to the moon. Every available space was filled in the Boothen End with an hour to gowith a tide still trying to get in. There felt like twice as many people there who should have been. I startyed to hope we didn’t score when the match started because if anyone went down they wouldn’t be getting back up again. One man died in the crush from a heart attack and was unable to get free or have help sent to him. Years later seeing the Hillsborough documentary that unreported scary overcrowding at Stoke City was something like the beginnings of what happened there at around 1.30pm to 2pm at Hillsborough only without the doors opening to make it so much worse. That experience was bad enough. What Hillsborough must have been like is unimaginable.

    As a comms person? You’re dead on about mobile putting a different face on disaster. Footage, pictures, data and video would be circulating in real time. The second image of the faces crammed up against the bars really had a jarring effect. The images we see about Hillsborough are the sanitised long lense, the man being lifted up onto the stands above and the supporter his face buried in his hands sitting on the l;ip of the shattered fences. At the time I remember images like the one you posted but they’ve been – like the plane flying into the twin towers – edited. For the best? Possibly.

    As a human being? It’s just impossible not to look at Hillsborough as a human being. My school mate Kev was in the Leppings Lane End and wouldn’t be drawn on things. ‘It was bad,’ he said. ‘Really bad.’ Which is probably why we need other sources too to tell the story.

    • September 17, 2012 10:12 am

      Thanks for this, Dan. Of course, I never heard about that Stoke incident. Terrifying. I remember that mounting sense of unreality and horror well.

      I was so fortunate, unlike others. But I think you are right that there must be many voices who speak about multiply-witnessed events like this. The thinking that outraged me so much at the time was the inference that all those who attended were in some way one person – ignorant and sub-human. The way that acts of inhumanity are most often perpetrated is to flatten out nuance amongst the victims. To objectify. Child, adult, man, woman, happy, sad, lawyer, builder. A thousand stories, equally valuable, all compressed into one negative attribution. Hillsborough was the world enclosed. Therefore I think it’s valuable to try to contextualise the event from all of its many angles. That way we can slowly re-introduce humanity to the bare statistics.

      • Dan Slee permalink
        September 18, 2012 12:17 pm

        Thanks, Steve. I’m kind of not surprised that nobody outside of Stoke knows about the incident at the Victoria Ground. We were a footballing backwater then but it also predates the internet. The fans who were at the match – in real time and afterwards – had no real voice and I’m pretty sure there was minimal coverage in the Evening Sentinel in the Potteries too. But times change and if there was anything similar you wouldn’t have to rely on the priesthood of journalists to access a large audience. You’d just need people with mobile phones..

  4. September 17, 2012 8:22 pm

    Thank you for writing this, Steve.

    Sometimes it’s just takes one person’s content to help shape the truth. Even though the prosecution of Simon Harwood hasn’t gone the way the Tomlinson family would have hoped, the case was picked up after that one video was circulated by the Guardian.

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