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Opinion and Editorial

Virtual tech is capturing the future

Eve Zucker & David Simon
Filed on June 27, 2020

Virtual memorialisation illustrates the potential for challenges to state sovereignty and conventional understandings of reality

Virtual sites of memorialisation of mass atrocities, from web pages and blogs to social media, have proliferated this century. Once unimaginable technology enables individuals and communities to share photos, memories, and ruminations about the past. Recent developments like holograms, artificial intelligence, virtual reality and augmented reality - AI, VR and AR - permit further changes in the very nature of memorialisation, including simultaneously, and sometimes paradoxically, decentralising and globalising it.

Pre-digital practice mostly confined memorialisation to a particular geographical space - often a monument, a museum or an archive. States produced and controlled these spaces, thus using them not only to pay respects to the heroes, victims, and martyrs of its past, but also to craft narratives that supported their own claim to legitimacy.

Virtual memorialisation loosens, if not shatters, such control - carrying the prospect of fundamentally changing how and where collective memory is formed and retransmitted. Digital technology allows those processes both to devolve to individuals beyond the reach of the state and communities that might transcend national boundaries. The resultant local and transnational connections may sometimes reinforce state narratives, but in other instances may serve to contest them. Previously marginalised voices may find a broader audience, while historians and their audiences have the opportunity to use and appreciate new sources and perspectives about the past. Emergent virtual communities generate their own vocabularies as well as their own touchstones for pride, grievance, and understanding.

The use of social media for the memorialisation of mass atrocities illustrates the global dimensions of these new trends. In countries such as Myanmar, Facebook is synonymous with the internet itself. The platform permits sharing of photos, live streaming, pre-recorded videos, stories, and the ability to interact within communities of interest by commenting and 'liking' posts. Residing in 'the cloud', or, more concretely, a server farm in Oregon or Sweden, Facebook commemorative or memorial pages transcend physical space, permitting individuals to form and join communities of interest from anywhere in the world.

In some cases, online memorial sites simply provide a place where people can engage with a memory in a way that is more personal, such as on pages dedicated to the legacies of particular episodes of mass violence. While not necessarily global in ambition, these sites may nonetheless produce the familiar consequence of loosening the nation-state's grip over its historical narrative. Digital forums of memorialisation of wars, genocides and mass atrocities have the power to elevate new voices, allow geographically disparate communities to share experiences and learn about their shared past, and enable others to compose their own virtual memorials outside the official domain of the state. 

These positive developments come with limitations and risks. Many states increasingly police social media sites. In some countries, individuals can be arrested for posts and sites deemed oppositional to the state. Revisionist history can also empower denialists or foment resentment at odds with projects of unity and reconciliation. Extremists might also expropriate the virtual memorialisation toolkit for their own hateful purposes, gaining unprecedented global reach.

The first half of 2020 brought a nearly global lockdown to fight the spread of Covid-19, and the ultimate paradox of the local and the global has been laid bare. Confined to our homes and apartments, we were brought perhaps more closely than ever before into direct engagement with people in similar circumstances around the world. In international Zoom conferences, virtual tourism and online memorialisation events, we may be witnessing the emergence of a new norm of remote mourning and virtual commemoration. 

Although the proliferation of digital memorialisation began long before the Covid-19 pandemic, the requirements of social distancing serve to push memorialisation much further into the realm of the virtual. The shift from 'real' memorials to virtual ones may be viewed as an extension of globalisation - yet also augers further changes. The current age of populism, nationalism and now the pandemic, each of which threatens to roll back globalisation in one way or another. The turn to virtual memorialisation points to a means for maintaining global connections even as globalisation recedes. At the same time, it illustrates the potential for challenges to state sovereignty and conventional understandings of reality. If, in the future, the past is ultimately represented by decentralised historiography, holograms, or VR or AR tourism, how we define ourselves through our collective memories will never be the same.

Eve Zucker is lecturer in Anthropology, Columbia University. David Simon is director of the Genocide Studies Program and senior lecturer in Political Science, Yale University. -Yale Global 


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