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In This Real Time Digital Landscape: Can I Get a Witness?


The malleability of the digital is perhaps its essence. Everything in the digital world is constructed from a combination of ones and zeros, and because of that anything can be changed into anything else. The freedom to rearrange those ones and zeros is the basis of our information economy. But as signifiers pointing to actual events in the world, the digital is an unreliable narrator. There’s a sense in which the raw capture of the world through digital sensors is considered the starting point, the beginning a a series of digital transformations.

We’ve seen movie stars from another era reconstructed digitally and made to sell products to which they had no connection. We’ve seen digitally altered photographs released through newswires purporting to give us an eye witness view. What happens when we want digital media to authentically transmit the raw capture of an event? Can we ask the digital to put aside its transformational qualities and stand as an honest witness? The question about how we prove the authenticity of a digital artifact is a difficult one. A witness swears an oath and tells us what she has seen. A man signs a paper with wet ink to attest to the truth of statement he has written.

John Markoff of the NY Times recently reported on a new approach to preserving the authenticity of witness testimony encoded digitally. The process involves creating a cryptographic hash of  timestamped digital material. This signature is unique and any change to the digital material would result in a new signature that would not match the original. It’s a process commonly used to ensure the integrity of a message as it is transmitted from one point to another on the Network.

…a group of researchers at the University of Washington are releasing the initial component of a public system to provide authentication for an archive of video interviews with the prosecutors and other members of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Rwandan genocide. The group will also release the first portion of the Rwandan archive. This system is intended to be available for future use in digitally preserving and authenticating first-hand accounts of war crimes, atrocities and genocide. Such tools are of vital importance because it has become possible to alter digital text, video and audio in ways that are virtually undetectable to the unaided human eye and ear.

In the digital world we have uncertainty surrounding all the elements: personal identity, signing or attesting and the digital document which contains the testimony. And even if we can verify that the digital document has not been altered, we have to apply all the usually filters to the testimony itself. In our courts, we have a bias against “heresay.” Wikipedia’s article shows us what degree of scrutiny we apply to this kind of testimony.

The theory of the rule excluding hearsay is that assertions made by human beings are often unreliable; such statements are often insincere, subject to flaws in memory and perception, or infected with errors in narration at the time they are given. The law therefore finds it necessary to subject this form of evidence to “scrutiny or analysis calculated to discover and expose in detail its possible weaknesses, and thus to enable the tribunal (judge or jury) to estimate it at no more than its actual value?.

Three tests are calculated to expose possible weaknesses in a statement:

  1. Assertions must be taken under oath
  2. Assertions must be made in front of the tribunal (judge or jury)
  3. Assertions must be subject to cross-examination.

Assertions not subject to these three tests are (with some exceptions) prohibited insofar as they are offered testimonially (for the truth of what they assert).

The basis for our scrutiny of witness testimony is that it is a recounting of the past. The memory of an event from a single point of view is not considered highest form of trustworthiness. In that sense our idea of witness and truth rely on the social character of truth, we ask for a corroborating witness or evidence. We ask for the right to cross-examine an assertion, and hear the story from other points of view. It’s through this process that we come to terms with what happened.

In his TED talk from 2006, Peter Gabriel talks about Witness, an organization that seeks to spread the use of digital cameras, blogs, and cellphone cameras around the world. Their battle cry is “See it, Film it, Change it.” By capturing human rights violations on digital video and making that footage available through the Network, we can see what’s happening for ourselves. This kind of communication isn’t conclusive, but rather it is the start of an investigation. Here we must rely on the authority of the person capturing the event and Witness, as an organization, to guarantee its veracity.

This brings us around to the real-time web and its role in this process of “See it, Film it, Change it.” A cellphone camera with the capability to instantly publish an image to the Network changes things substantially. A cellular telephone with live video capability changes things further. A cellular telephone with live video capability, GPS and a verifiable timestamp changes things even more.  A real-time witness has a very different standing; many real-time witnesses bring in the social element of corroboration. While the world may not always be listening, real-time capability changes the political equation.

We’re very early in our understanding of the real-time web. As with any technology, this real-time capability can be used for good or evil. And the technology itself will be the target of repressive political forces. We’re already seeing the Taliban threatening to attack cell phone infrastructure in Iraq and Afghanistan. A real-time infrastructure changes the conversation from ‘what should have been done in the past, and bemoaning our lack of foresight‘ to ‘what’s happening right now, and how can and should we change it?’

Published in culture digital network politics zettel

One Comment

  1. cameraman2536 cameraman2536

    Very interesting article – thanks.

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