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Buffering History: Configurations of Digital Archive

By Manishankar Prasad

This article attempts to evaluate and theorize the Digital Archive as a register of the Emergent Present. Text is imagination, and gains a fresh life each time it is liberated on the digital; rather, it is manifested in the landscapes of the digital. Archives are interpreted but where are the landscapes of the digital past interpreted? Is the cache the archive?

These are the questions, which I will attempt to address and theorize in this paper.

Archives are the register of the state. There is certain certainty regarding the nature/configuration of the archive, as the way historians wish to structure a particular story. The formality is the strength of the knowledge institution. This formality fashions History with a capital ‘H’. Power undergirds institutions of memory.

The common man leaves the job of myth-making of the nation-state to the professional historian, a paid employee of a museum or a university academic. There is hardly any common man, who visits an archive or a museum on a Sunday to learn.

This formality is, however, being breached or reconfigured by non-state actors, civil society activists, educators, artists, and solo writers. The entire advent of the digital archive, in its online avatar, is a possibility with multiple windows. Visual memory, multimedia through documentary and audio along with text, is adding new meaning to the ‘act of history making’ away from the register of the nation-state. From People’s Archive of India to Calcutta Architectural Legacies to Instagram accounts noting Memory, prior to the hammer of development such as scholar Shaheen Ahmed’s work on Guwahati to Singaporean social Innovator Cai Yinzhou’s initiative on Dakota Crescent, a public housing estate undergoing real estate development, among many in Singapore’s history, notes the voices of the common Singaporean undergoing the transition – a bottom-up perspective to understand the human impact of state policies.

A digital archive is a real time register to map experiences at every stage of the project lifecycle, which attempts to capture insights for posterity. All this with a website and a Facebook page with Architects and Cai working together to register history with a small ‘h’ away from the Gahmen lah (government officials in Singapore). Visual Arts Scholar, Shaheen Ahmed, with her Instagram page, Guhawati Diaries, weaves her personal memories of the city with visual memory of the colonial past, in an individual endeavor, which she plans to scale up organically as time and resources accumulate.

The power to direct the trajectory of the archive also lies in the end with the curators and what they want to achieve. The process of curating embeds power even if it is decoupled from the state.

The modern and modernity is constantly evolving in the era of the digital. Like a perennially buffering software program in the background, the digital, with all its complicity, is more than the secular global theology of financial growth. The digital is simply the turbocharged amplification of the statistical, the obsession of the mandarin elite with data, rather than the context on the ground. As Sherlock Holmes, who depends on the facts for deduction, the context for evidence-based decision-making is paramount to operationalizing big data, small data and whatever is in between. The obsession with technology as in the case of Aadhar, Jan Dhan, and Demonetisation reflects the convergence of the technocratic with the social.

 The fundamentalism of modernity has digitalisation as a core tool. Questioning data and research methods behind it is questioning ‘development’ and ‘growth’. The architects of the digital age – the engineers and scientists – often do not understand the wider ramifications of their work. A recent example of this ill was discussed in The New Yorker article, “The Bot Politic”, where the author explores the ethics behind making the voice of the bot male or female. An understanding of history is even more preciously thin among the ‘Tech Class’ from Bengaluru to Palo Alto.

History is often chided to be the winner’s version of events, as we had read in our poorly written CBSE schoolbooks in India, often a contested site in this post-truth era. The voice from the muted end, the subaltern has often been excluded, as the historian is often commissioned by the ruling elite to construct historiography of the phenomenon, event, era or time period at hand in a manner that portrays the winner in a positive light. Data collection is a tedious affair and analysis of the data is the preserve of the professional historian, the preserve of the expert to connect the threads of the landscape of the past. As Schwartz and Cook (2002) have written:

Archives, then, are not passive storehouses of old stuff, but active sites where social power is negotiated, contested, confirmed. The power of archives, records, and archivists should no longer remain naturalized or denied, but opened to vital debate and transparent accountability.

The advent of the Big Data, Social Media, and Analytics era, where real time narratives are created every nano second, puts the maxim of journalistic writing as the first, rushed-up draft of history to shame as everyone with a smart phone, a data pack and Facebook/Twitter account is a prosumer of content. The smart phone is the erstwhile OB Van, as a former BBC Correspondent quipped at a future of journalism seminar in Delhi on 6th December 2016 at the tony India Habitat Center. Social Media is ‘Core Digital’ along a spectrum of the digital, which is core, surface, and digital as the author attempts to analytically make meaning of these interfaces, as it mediates a major part of communication in our daily lives.

The image is also no longer the exclusive realm of the documentary photographer, as Instagram records our times, meticulously every moment, making it a near Anthropological Enterprise. It’s an ever-updating still photo archive. The vision behind the image is a decision, hence political with a small ‘p’. The software guys behind the app are thinking about monetizing the images. The filter is aesthetic choice architecture. But, this recording of events in bytes is not decoupled with the politics of our time. P Sainath, the founder of the People’s Archive of India (PARI), a digital crowd sourced online archive of the soon-to-be-forgotten arts and cultural practices of rural India, says that the online sphere is reflective of the fissures in real life.

The Digital is an ideology of power, masked as benevolent enabler, ephemeral as the time goes by, similar to environmentalism in the 1990s. All we need to permanently imprint to our imaginaries is Captain Planet-type animated propaganda now for exalting the virtues of the digital.

Social media creates real time narratives of events and phenomena, and thus helps curate the emergent present. The digital is a reflection of the emergent present: a reduction, exposition, and inversion of the present. Digital content, unmediated though skewed algorithmically (the articles on Facebook feed mirrors our likes and shares), is a battle ground for narrative warfare, a perception battle where there is ‘Fake News’, unverified prosumer content, which can sway actions in crisis situations in the real world. An earthquake, a terror strike or an electoral victory triggers an avalanche of data, which manufactures the technologically-mediated present. The digital is the force creating an emergent present, a modern that is constantly buffering in the background as new feed is created. As Hartosh Singh Bal, a senior Indian Journalist, said in a high-powered Himal South Asian Panel in Delhi in March 2017: “there is nothing social about social media, because the mediating power of media is missing, and that Social Media is direct media, the message is directly passed on to the consumer.” This immediacy is the key characteristic of the era of the digital archive.

As the first Trump immigrant ban came into force and a social media storm in the teacup was brewing, this author noted auto ethnographically:

The meltdown is real and it is showing across media and digital. State power lies in the legal and security apparatus, and no amount of soft power and business can help. The passport control queues are the greatest equaliser available. The ability of the tech class to undermine the political elite will bite back in ways unforeseen as the non-globalized class, the rural white poor who have realised that they cannot eat their globally mobile passports while living on food stamps. The ban on visas for a few selected (fragile and poor) countries is the biggest hint of de-globalisation and the resurrection of walls, which were present but are amplifies now. The 9/11 backlashes are not over. It is just getting started. Social Media reactions, although algorithmically skewed, are currently a rough draft of history as the real-time archive of events.

The modern is being curated every second. This backlash is also a revolt against modern values, privileging primal biases. The man from a ranch in Montana cannot place Mogadishu, without googling it. The realtor from NY is no better, with properties in Pune and Kolkata. The ‘Us versus Them’ binary is the process of othering and othering is symbolic violence. The world has changed forever.

The ‘fear of small numbers’  (borrowing the title of the seminal work by Arjun Appadurai) just keeps expanding, as there is no end to the process of ‘othering’ as it is a vote bank in democracies. Inclusiveness should be the calling card in democracies rather than fear. Alt Right to the Hindu Right, the playbook is the same.

The archives of the digital is the cache, while the cache grows every moment as the ‘present’ moves forward, with every tweet. The digital landscapes of the past have a sand-shifting form, with articles from a decade back no longer available. This author begs to ask: is this because the text online was not considered serious enough? Our lives are in a flux between the structuralist modern, a breach from the traditional, brushing with new radical thought, and a revision back to our primal selves, as globalization has not created winners and jobs have been lost to the sweatshops of Bangladesh or Vietnam from the West. The postmodern is surreal, a blur, and the world order is being disrupted with very old school racist pandering. The digital, the so-called modern, a surveillance tool in the eternal panopticon, is being deployed to amplify the neo-colonial prejudices. In these times, I wonder: what is the true modern? Are the data points on the digital a reflection of history making? Or is a brief distance in terms of time critical in meaning making of the continual discourses of our time? Power to frame what is considered modern is also an interrogation into the modernity that we celebrate. Silicon Valley is suddenly realizing that Capitol Hill is relevant, and not the past masters. Trump is manufacturing a rupture in terms of the status quo. Peter Thiel, Trump’s biggest techno-capitalist supporter, has a back-up plan with a NZ Passport since 2011.

One of the greatest features of the hyper digital era – more information than we can process at our usual intellectual abilities, euphemistically called Big Data, unimaginatively reduced to a term which no one really understands properly – is the obsession with the instant outcomes and monetization of our everyday activities (think how social media companies make money of our likes, shares, and quips).

With its immediacy and an independent space for articulation, digital is also a hegemonic terrain in terms of language: English mainly, as the language press lags behind. The algorithms and the data analytics give different versions of the same search query. The cache is a black box in media archaeology. The emergent present is refreshed every moment. This is the main point of difference from a traditional archive as mentioned in Landscapes of History by John Lewis Gaddis that Marc Bloch points out in The Historian’s Craft:

No expert on the Napoleonic Wars has ever heard the sound of the cannon at Austerlitz…we are in the predicament of a police magistrate who strives to reconstruct a crime he has not seen; of a physicist who, confined to his bed with the grippe, hears the results of his experiments only through the reports of his laboratory technician … [the historian] never arrives until after the experiment has been concluded. But, under favorable circumstances, the experiment leaves behind certain residues which he can see with his own eyes.

Online platforms emerge, evolve, and dissolve every day, as they do not have the same media permitting demands as a printed magazine. The digital is killing the traditional printing star, to appropriate an adage, hundreds of journalists being fired as a freelance gig economy based on an app takes over. Text is imagination and gains a fresh life each time it is liberated on the digital. Rather, it is manifested in the landscapes of the digital.

As the Principal Economic Advisor of the Indian Government and Urban Theorist once said at a prominent book launch last year in Singapore: “I did not like how history was written in India, so one day I woke up and started writing history.” The role of the historian is to sift through big data and make sense of an ever-updating virtual archive that constitutes the central dogma in framing of the modern subject.

Reference:

Schartz J.M and Cook T ‘Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory’ Archival Science 2: 1–19, 2002

Lahiri K Ashok. ‘Demonetization and Cash Storage’. Vol. 51, Issue No. 51. 2002. Economic and Political Weekly

Gaddis, John Lewis ‘Landscapes of History’ Oxford University Press. 2002.

Subbarao D. ‘Demonetization- Evaluating the Costs and Benefits’ ISAS Insights number 395- 13th March 2017.

Bio:
Manishankar Prasad is an independent researcher based in Muscat, Oman. He holds a Master’s degree in Environmental Engineering from the National University of Singapore and has studied at the School of Sociology at Nanyang Technological University as a National Research Foundation scholar of the Singapore government. He is a prolific contributor in the academic conference circuit as he has presented in six countries on issues of technology policies to sociolinguistics. Previously, Manishankar has published in the Huffington Post, Social Cops Blog, billionBricks Blog, Alochonna, Corporate Citizenship Briefing, and Banglar Kantha Singapore, among others. He also been quoted in the Singaporean Media and have been a panelist for Al Jazeera International and BBC World Panel Discussion and have been interviewed by Forbes on the emerging issues of the day, including the Food Security Bill and Demonetization. He has experience in leading one of the biggest non-profit social initiatives in Singapore. He has worked on various international documentaries for the south Asian migrant communities in Singapore. Email: monishankarprasad@gmail.com

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For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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