Private memories, the web, and public accountability

Front page cover of the newspaper L’Aurore of ...

Front page cover of the newspaper L’Aurore of Thursday 13 January 1898, with the letter J’accuse…!, written by Émile Zola about the Dreyfus affair. The headline reads “I accuse! Letter to the President of the Republic”. See J’accuse…!, the whole text on Wikisource. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the past year, two high profile cases re-emerged in the public sphere after simmering in the background for over twenty years.  The first is the Hillsborough Inquiry of the Hillsborough Disaster. The second is the Daniel Morgan murder case.  Both cases are remarkable in their own right and worth looking at in detail. This post looks at these cases to show the new relationship with memory created by the Web. Social media platforms have enabled victims’ families and their supporters to link, coordinate, share, and broadcast their collective memories. The cases exemplified how private memories shared through the web have challenged the state’s official record, the state’s memory, to hold it to account.  The new relationship with memory created by the web allows the individual to hold the state to account unlike any previous era. The full political and social effects from this change are still to be understood and yet, we can see that they offer a powerful tool for social justice as well as collective actions.

Man has the technology to challenge the state’s memory.

At a technical level, man’s capacity for memory is greater than any previous age and our ability to gather and share memories changes the way we live.  Our new relationship with memory has political consequences. In the past, memory, especially public memory, was monopolized by, but not fully controlled, by the state. The state had the resources to sustain archives or provide the official story on events.[1] Personal or private memories still existed but they were often difficult to sustain beyond a generation. In the past, those seeking to challenge the official memory faced a daunting task.[2] Invariably, they lacked the skills or the financial resources to challenge the state or the official history.  If they had the skills or the resources, they were often denied access to the relevant documents.  Where they were allowed to access documents, they were only those approved for release. In these situations, the balance of power between the individual and the state favoured the state.  What the technology, especially the Web, has done is change that balance. I consider the technological changes in memory and the political consequences in three waves.  The first wave starts with Plato who initiated the archival view of memory. Roughly understood this can be classified as lasting until the era of newspapers.  The second wave is the era of newspapers. The third wave is the still developing emergence of the web.[3]

The archival view of memory: the official story is all you can access

To understand memory’s political power and its origins, we have to return to Plato. Plato initiated the archival view of memory, which has been the dominant paradigm for memory for the past 2500 years.  As Howard Caygill argues Plato’s dialogue, Meno, initiated the approach to memory as an archive or a store of knowledge that can be accessed.  Plato described memory as a technique of recall from a stock of information.[4] The political consequences from this approach are twofold.  First, precedent becomes important. What is remembered and what can be recalled serves as a political marker for the future. Second, access and control of the access to archives is a function of political power. To put the point crudely, only those with access to the information will have power. Access can be controlled in two broad ways. The first is physical access. You cannot gain access to the official papers without permission and you need to be physically present to see them.  The second is the language of the archive or the bureaucracy. Access to and possession of archives is a way to retain and expand power. If you control a state’s bureaucracies, you can control the state.

In modern liberal democracies, the state provides access but there will always be gatekeepers. We are reminded though that even as the state works to provide access, there will always be gatekeepers. Even though archivist does not set out to deny access or limit access, part of their role is to act as a gatekeeper.  An official archive has a dual function. At one level, it maintains the state’s records, usually on behalf of the public. At another level, it sustains the government’s legitimacy and creates an enduring memory, which serves as a historical reserve for the state to exploit for its own purposes.  To put it crudely, a citizen’s records are held by the state so the state holds the memory of the individual and therefore it can control that memory.[5]

In this first wave, if families and victims retained some evidence it was usually created through diaries and first-hand accounts shared by word of mouth or perhaps written down. The technologies limited, rather than enhanced their ability to link or connect with others. Limited literacy may have kept people from recording their stories or searching out others to mount a campaign to challenge the official story. In other cases, the victims may have been unaware of each other and unable to pool their stories.  What they usually needed, but did not always find, was a champion for their cause.  One of the most famous champions in history is the French writer Emile Zola in the Dreyfus Affair. Another type of champion emerged with the second wave.

Journalists emerge to create memories that challenge the state.

In the second wave of memory, newspapers became readily available and widespread. Before newspapers, the official history was often the only story.  If the public were dissatisfied with the official version of events, it was often difficult, if not impossible to change it. The balance of power was strongly in favour of the institutions that had the resources to maintain the official story. In the past, institutions such as the Church or the Monarchy presented, and continue to present, an institutional memory to rival the state.  They could, and still do, represent their members or subjects in the same way that the state represented its citizens.  However, in time, the state became more efficient in its roles and was able to marginalize the Church and Monarchy.

With the increased literacy, victims and or those with causes could learn of others and to link together through newspapers. The newspapers also created a memory larger than the individual and some groups, but not larger or more extensive than the state.  The balance of memory was still strongly in favour of the state and its control of public memory. Thus, the rise of newspapers indicated a shift, but not a change, in the balance of memory.

The individual finds an institutional voice.

The newspapers could become a voice and a champion of victims of injustices as well as challenge the official story or version of events. In particular, muckraking journalism as an early form of investigative journalism ushered in a new era. They too were often stymied by the inability to access the archival memory. They could not always access the official records, or the memory that supported the official version of events.  In many cases, they had to wait for the records to be unsealed or hope for leaks to find people to help reveal the truth of the events or at least offer an alternative view.  The newspapers offered an alternative memory, but it was not a sustained memory because their interest and attention would shift to a new topic with the next news cycle. What newspapers could champion causes and give voice to the individual. The press though were not always the answer.  They could be, and were often, co-opted by the powerful. At the same time, the newspaper could decide against taking the story or oppose the cause. However, they did set the stage for the third stage of memory because they showed the power of publishing of memories, which had been out of the reach of individuals until the web emerged.


The way the web changes memory

We are at a third stage of memory where the archival view is being challenged. The World Wide Web (Web) has changed memory forever. The web allows people to connect and share information more quickly and more widely than previously imagined. What might have been the sole domain of the state, conducting correspondence around the world, is now available to the average citizen. The individual now has the capacity to create memory because technology allows them to store and retrieve vast amounts of data and images. Most importantly, the technological changes in memory have been accompanied by a revolution in publishing. The individual can broadcast or publish in their own right without needing to convince the press or a champion to take up their cause.[6] Howard Caygil explains the way the Web challenges the archival view of memory.

The debates around the future development of WWW centre on the issue of whether the web is simply a technique of recall from a global archive, or whether it marks the beginnings of a new, inventive relationship to knowledge, a relationship that is dissolving the hierarchy associated with the archive.

Instead of having to access archives or wait for permission to obtain information, people can link across sources on the web and invent new knowledge. The gatekeepers then publish more information and make it accessible for their own business purposes and the public benefit.

The tension between the two understandings of memory – one as a stock to be retrieved by the art of memory, the other as the effect of a linkage between existing configurations of knowledge that potentially transforms their entire field – recurs in the recent reconfiguration of memory represented by the mnemonic technology of WWW.

The access to memory itself is a necessary but not sufficient change. What is needed is the ability to combine it and create something new. The archive becomes a raw material to be reshaped, changed, and rather than a fixed hierarchical store. Content becomes as important for its intrinsic worth as its links. Thus, information that is not connected, which is no longer accessible, begins to be forgotten and “dies”.  Although content not directly on the web can still be linked indirectly as related, or linked sources (even if not hyperlinked), become accessible.

The changing memories have a political effect on bureaucracies.

In the digital domain, the bureaucracies want to exploit the open and linked data, which means that others are able to access it.  When bureaucracies start to lose control of the data, they have to adapt and begin to change in response to the increased access. The bureaucracies face the potential loss of secrecy and seek to overcome the constraints of information hoarding. In the past, knowledge is power so do not share information, is challenged by what you can create from linking and combining information. Bureaucracies will continue and secrecy will remain. The question is whether they can adapt without a fundamental change to their structure and purpose.  As they start to lose control over access, the status of the memory that, they control changes, which have political consequences.

The change in memory means political change but what kind of change?

The Web presents a radical challenge to the political systems and structures that rely upon the archival memory system because a viable rival system has emerged.  The Web offers the possibility of memories that challenge the state’s monopoly on memory.  The state cannot always claim to have all the facts or to have the official story nor can it suppress rival accounts by its control of memory. The memory paradigm has changed to one that is built on how knowledge is created, accessed, and retained.

[T]he Internet seem to promise a new art of memory in which knowledge as technological invention replaces knowledge as recollection, and in which the archive appears as an effect of the links made possible by the technological work of memory rather than a given (and carefully policed) store of information.

We can see this idea expressed in the role of hyperlinks and search engines for unleashing the web’s potential for transforming memory into knowledge. When working appropriately, services and communities of practice like Reddit or Mashup offer a faster system for learning, and in turn creating, new information from existing sources than from traditional hierarchies.  The archival memory then becomes the raw material for new information.  To compete, archives are creating access to through the Web. They can retain their status as they provide increased access.

Memory betrayed; how the press becomes the establishment’s gatekeeper?

In the Morgan murder and the Hillsborough disaster cover up, the press was complicit  in maintaining the cover-up and perpetuating the initially flawed official statements. Although they may have only repeated what their sources were telling them, they failed to uphold their traditional role as a check on power. They became gatekeepers hindering public accountability. They wrote headlines like “The Truth” and did not, except in rare cases, pursue stories to challenge the official record. The Web and social media publishing platforms enable people to print their own version of events and develop their own support networks without waiting for the newspapers or the television companies.

Fighting cover-ups, now the individual can overcome the archival view of memory

Cover-ups will occur because they are part of human nature and intrinsic to the bureaucracy. Bureaucracy derives its power from its secrecy and impenetrability, which renders them nearly unaccountable. Cover-ups occur because organisations know the benefit of succeeding outweigh the risk and harm to them of being caught. The calculus becomes skewed when the organisation wants to avoid bad press. In such an organisation, which is likely to be opaque to itself, cover-ups become a blame avoidance technique in which managing the press becomes more important than obeying the law. For a bureaucracy, the response to any public inquiry, from the simple FOIA request to the official state inquiry, is treated fundamentally the same way because they are a threat to the bureaucracy’s power. At each stage of disclosure, the bureaucracy will make a cost benefit analysis regarding disclosure. If the risk from disclosure is too high, it will not be released.  In some cases, this can become a cover-up. The bureaucracy’s control over the archival store of memory (the evidence), will be defended. As Weber explained, the bureaucracy “will battle every attempt by the legislature to gain information by means of its own experts or from interest groups.”

Cover-ups have succeeded to the extent they rest on the power of archival memory and willingness to suppress information or keep it from being disclosed. To cover up an event, an organisation will use its bureaucracy to limit access to the information.  Whistle-blowers, leaks, and other tools of access help to create accountability by providing an alternative memory. By the same measure, the bureaucracy will use a variety of techniques and tactics to thwart or contain an investigation.  We can see these in use in the Hillsborough Disaster response and the Daniel Morgan Murder case. The bureaucracy used its role as gatekeeper to deny access to the information and in some cases forge the memory.

In the past, the victim of institutional injustice may have been unable to challenge the injustice or the institution. Today, the individual is not alone or without resources. They can develop and share memories to amplify their voice. The bureaucracy in turn is looking for ways to limit access or amplify their own voice by disclosing information proactively. Although states and their bureaucracies may adapt, that change in itself may lead to a fundamental change in the relationship between the individual and the state. The question though is whether his change as unintended consequences that make the individual more reliant on access to the intern just at a time when the state, in its power for good, as the guardian of the public good, is being challenged to change its role. Will this new access to memory create a demand for accountability such that case are simply drowned out by the sheer volume and quantity of voices, rather than ignored?

[1] States also have the power to erase people from history.  To the extent that they can control a country’s memory, they can erase, or make it difficult to remember, some memories. The idea is known throughout history and we know of it from the Roman era with the term damnatio memoriae.

[2] The state is our official record keeper. They are keepers of memories. The state usually records our birth, our education, our marriage, and any criminal activity or any public activity such as elected office. In sum, it keeps track of our public life. An individual’s personal memory usually does not endure nor do they have the same resources to cultivate or curate their personal memory.

[3] Following Caygill, I could have suggested two stages, but my focus is on the challenge to the state and the newspaper, as a separate institution plays a critical role in the rise of private memory.

[4] Howard Caygill Meno and the Internet: between memory and the archive History of the Human Sciences 1999; 12; 2 pp 1-11.  Accessed online at 15 April 2013

[5] If the state took away all of your documents and erased your name from birth records, how would you prove your identity. If you had a baptism record, you would have an alternative source of identity that was beyond the state’s direct control. Although far-fetched in a paper-based society, an electronic society, where access to the internet and other electronic systems can be denied or controlled by the state, the situation may be radically different.

[6] I am mindful that the web still mediates a citizen’s voice. To broadcast on the web, you have to access the web and the companies and governments that allow you to access the web can deny you access.  On the other hand, the power to link or to have others take up your case allows you to find access by proxy.

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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4 Responses to Private memories, the web, and public accountability

  1. Pingback: Street justice through social media: the new bureaucratic accountability | Politics, Statesmanship, Philosophy

  2. Wirral In It Together says:

    I don’t think there’s enough emphasis in your article on the historically corrupted condition of the State and its agencies.

    See here how agents of concealment on a local level are caught out and seen to take control / collude / filter / screen the response to a freedom of information request – and then present it completely spuriously as “a response from the data governance people”:

  3. Pingback: The UK’s Praetorian Guards and Daniel Morgan’s Murder | Philosophical Politics

  4. Pingback: Fleet Street’s complicity in historical child sexual abuse: the story the press will not report | Media Meditations

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