What should be remembered?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the disputes around Ushahidi’s role in humanitarian efforts and came round to thinking that we may be looking in the wrong place to discover the work that tools like Ushahidi’s Crowdmap are doing in the world. Whereas humanitarian organisations are asking (good) questions about whether Ushahidi’s tools help or hinder their efforts, another way to look at it might be to look from the perspective of the people making the maps and reports themselves. What work is Ushahidi doing for them? How do they see Ushahidi’s effectiveness? What social role does reporting play and how could we begin to measure effectiveness?

This morning I read a wonderful article by Tamar Ashuri from Ben-Gurion University for an upcoming edition of the journal New Media and Society entitled ‘(Web)sites of memory and the rise of moral mnemonic agents‘. Ashuri looked at how two websites set up by Israelis – one to monitor human rights of Palestinians at Israeli checkpoints; the other to collect testimonies of Israeli soldiers who served in the Occupied Territories – act as agents of collective memory. Ashuri argues that digital networked technologies is challenging the mechanisms that society employs to deny memories of immoral acts and how the online archives created by moral witnesses become a space of living memory and a sphere of moral engagement.

Ashuri explains that ‘collective memory is a social necessity; neither an individual nor a society can do without it.’ She quotes from Kansteiner (2002: 180) to describe how collective memory is different from history:

Collective memory is not history, though sometimes made from similar material […]. It can take hold of historically and socially remote events but it often privileges the interest of the contemporary. It is as much a result of conscious manipulation as unconscious absorption and it is always mediated.

Ashuri describes how Avishai Margalit distinguishes between “common memory” (a group of people who recall a certain episode that each of them experienced) and “shared memory” (which requires communication). Shared memory is is not just an aggregate of individual memories because it requires those who remember the episode to come together to create one version (or at least a few version) through an active presentation and retelling of a story that Margalit terms ‘a division of mnemonic labor’ (2002: 52). Margalit wrote that whereas in traditional society there was a direct line from the people to their priest, storyteller or shaman, shared memory in modern society ‘travels from person to person through institutions, such as archives, and through communal mnemonic devices, such as monuments and the names of streets’ (2002: 52). Ushuri posits a new term “joint memory” to describe a new type of memory that is a ‘compilation of personal histories made public for the public’ (2011: 4). She argues that digital networked technology is challenging the exclusive role of professional mnemonic agents designated by the church, state, monarchy etc.

Significantly, joint memory is not motivated by personal interests – the desire to tell an interesting story or reveal new information – but is driven by a social purpose: Witnesses who add their recollections to an accessible and shareable compilation of memories attempt to expose events that the default collective (such as the nation) denies or wishes to forget.

I don’t agree that such reporting is not motivated at all by personal interests but I do agree with the fact that the social/moral purpose of witnessing is really critical here. Ashuri builds on Margalit’s conception of a moral witness whose testimony is ‘essentially driven by a moral purpose. It reflects hope for the witness to be a social agent who, in testifying to his or her harsh experience, transforms (passive) addressees into active audiences’. She says that what is happening now is slightly different because the moral witness now performs memories of suffering experienced in a public space.

In my conceptualisation, the (moral) mnemonic agent is the one who recalls his or her memories regarding events in whcih others have suffered and by that act of witnessing renders this suffering visible and hence difficult to marginalize or deny. The moral aspect of this act, in my estimation, derives from the content of the mnemonic text (testimony about suffering inflicted by evil) and from its objective (calling on the audience to shed their observer garb and re-enact the experience of the harsh realities). (p5)

I think this is really useful way to think about how websites like Ushahidi as well as engagement on social media sites like Twitter are acting as platforms for this kind of performance and the communication of suffering, and how this is one way of looking at how collective narratives about the world are being wrested from those who traditionally controlled this in the Middle East. Whether it is reporting on human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, harassment of women in Egypt on Harassmap  or reports of arrests and casualties in Syria I think that looking at the maps through the lens of moral witnessing and Ashuri’s “joint memory” could be a wonderful entry point for re-thinking Ushahidi’s role and effectiveness in the world.