Yasmin Ibrahim – New visibilities: Mobile technology and media event
Mobile telephony and video recording equipment along with the convergence of technologies have created new platforms for the public to capture and publicise events. The recent events in Burma highlight the ways in which mobile and convergent technologies are mediating the narration of politics in spaces which may not be accessible to the rest of the world.
Mobile telephony and the convergence of technologies have contributed to new ways of consuming, producing and engaging with events that happen in the world. The incorporation of audio and recording features, cameras and internet functions in mobile phones has contributed new ways in which people bear witness. The ability to capture, record, transmit and upload images and text with mobile telephony has afforded new ways to engage with and participate in the creation of media event. While eye-witness accounts have always been part of news gathering, the convergence of technologies and mobile telephony have mediated the ways in which people can collaborate in creating a media event. The act of bearing witness through mobile telephony is also forging a complex relationship with mature media where new platforms to accommodate citizen accounts in event creation is making news an open ended phenomenon.
In the recent saffron revolution in Burma, information and communication technologies (ICTs) played a vital role in narrating the event as it happened. The uploading of gory images captured on mobile phones and uploaded on the Internet enabled new ways of engaging and gazing with politics. The citizen’s images of the saffron revolution premised on a new visibility where despite the strict media censorship in Burma mobile telephony created new visibilities where the act of bearing witness through technology affords new possibilities to share events with a wider audience whether through new or traditional media such as print and broadcasting. The convergence of technologies and ability to link personal images of an event to a public platform re-mediates the premise of politics as one often consigned to the powerful creating new pathways to recount, narrate and engage with politics.
Personal gaze and event construction
Much of the recent literature on news construction has focused on the decline in traditional gate keeping and the rise in media-driven events which have been facilitated by new communication technologies such as videophone and portable recording and transmission systems (p. 364). The rise of soft news and infotainment in the mainstream media, the integration of personal narratives and the trivialization of politics have meant that since the 1980s there has been an increasing reliance on ‘eye witness’ accounts (p. 370) to construct media reports. Event-driven news unlike pseudo events orchestrated by the media include spontaneous events like natural disasters and terrorists attacks.
Bennet and Livingston have argued that event-driven news is overtaking institutionally based news, particularly in the technologically-charged environment of cable television international affairs news. In the weeks and months that followed the 9/11 attacks, there was increased sharing of information, narratives and images through blogs. Blogs became a post-event discursive site for communion and sharing experiences. It also confounded the fact that new discursive spheres whether originating from mobile interactive technologies or the Internet will become integrated in event creation and memory construction in mediated societies. It signifies new media rituals in conveying global events where the telling of the story through the media gaze alone is incomplete and where the inclusion of the participatory gaze of the civilian becomes embedded into event creation.
Mediated events are enacted and re-constructed not through mainstream media paradigms alone but also new media platforms which enable individuals to contribute, embellish and perhaps even negate media accounts of global and local events. Technology in this sense has both increased the occurrence of traumatic acts and the access to them (p. 697). Our sense of the familiar and unfamiliar, community as well as otherness can be increasingly mediated through mobile technologies where the banality of the everyday imposes new forms of connection and disconnection. Eric Paulos and Elizabeth Goodman moot the idea that in the public urban spaces we inhabit, the individuals who affect us most are the ones that we repeatedly observe and yet do not directly interact with. Borrowing the term from sociologist Stanley Milgram, Paulos and Goodman argue that the mobile phone has increasingly divided people from co-located strangers within their community where there is a tendency to ignore each other while reaching out for the mobile phones. This dramatically decreases the opportunities for interaction beyond our social groups.
The incorporation of the private gaze into news production privileges the individual gaze where the media may not have been present to narrate events as they unfold. The act of bearing witness moves individuals from the personal act of ‘seeing’ to the adoption of a public stance by which they become a part of a collective working through trauma together. Barbie Zelizer contends that the ‘individual remains the lynchpin through which the upheaval and dislocation caused by trauma begin to be replaced by shared social meanings and a renewed sense of collective purpose’ (p. 698). In the July 7 bombings in London, events of the fateful day were constructed through both individual narratives and digitised images. A posting on the BBC website gives an insight into the evolving and intrinsic relationship between event creation and mobile technologies:
‘When tragedy strikes the news crews are not far behind and the attack on London transport network in July 2005 was no exception. However the photographers and journalists were there to record the aftermath, it was you (the reader) who sent in stills and videos of the moment disaster struck.’
In the aftermath of July 7 bombings, BBC received 20,000 written accounts via e-mail, 1,000 photos and 20 videos from citizens. Similarly, in the summer floods in the UK in June 2007, the BBC News website received more than 10,000 images of the floods providing insights into the story. The Tsunami disaster, the 7/7 bombings in July, Madrid bombings and hurricane Katrina brought to the fore the role of mobile telephony in reconstructing events and in aiding the media in constructing its narratives. News outlets openly solicited comments, photos and videos from citizens’ cell phones. Thus the incorporation of such mobile technologies into mainstream news production has seen the emergence of news events which are narrated beyond the vantage point of the mainstream media. The mobile technologies are invariably empowering citizens as consumers to record, capture images and pen blog entries from their cell phones and other mobile devices. This ecology of information that unfolds after major events wrenches historical moments away from the clutches of media alone. The Washington Post notes that the ‘ordinary people going about their daily lives are now the first to document historic events.’ The concretizing of history through images has its limitations for at best they offer an arbitrary and an incomplete narrative. Additionally, the ability to preserve and remember the past is also dependent on a society’s capacity to store and unless cultures have the ‘means to freeze the memory of the past, the natural tendency of social memory is to suppress what is not meaningful’ and to replace it with what is conceptually appropriate in the given context (pp. 58-9). Mobile technologies and new media platforms offer spaces of storage where a proliferation of narratives and images provide avenues to read history differently away from the institutionalised spaces of museums and official archives.
The fortress of media gaze has been invariably re-mediated through new platforms for news construction which can range from scrolling text on the screen to blogs in websites which make news and event construction a more a fluid and constantly evolving phenomenon. The proliferation of media accounts also gives rise to framing contests where there are struggles over the meaning of events in news.
Mobile technologies through the act of bearing witness widen these framing struggles drawing citizens’ perspectives into the politics of meaning construction. Ostensibly, mobile technologies through citizen journalism and the act of bearing witness seek to democratize event creation appropriating a ‘bazaar as opposed to a cathedral’ approach where the social sharing of information re-negotiate the monopolization of mainstream media in constructing events making history an open-ended experience.
The role of mobile technologies and the Internet in disaster relief, in raising awareness and fundraising after the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004 and hurricane Katrina have been well documented. Nevertheless it also allows fraudulent behaviour and activities to flourish where both authentic and inauthentic material vie for audience attention on a global scale. These activities tend to diminish genuine efforts to re-build communities and trace missing people through global information links like the Internet. The vast amounts of information on the Internet and the potential for abuse and fraudulence sustain the distinction between mainstream and peripheral media despite the growing linkages between them. One website aptly titled Mcpaparazzi.com for example, is co-opting civilians to send in photographs of celebrities thus capitalising on the co-presence of a mass public and the non-stop vigilance they can offer with the increasing incorporation of surveillance technologies in mobile phones.
This mediated politics reframes the notion of bearing witness. The act of bearing witness is not conveyed through the media alone. It can be conveyed within the rituals of event creation that the media enact but equally one can bear witness without the ceremonial proceedings of mature media. The posting of photos and narratives on the Internet and the sharing of photos and text within ones own network reconfigures event creation by liberating it from the clutches of powerful traditional media while democratizing the notion of a ‘mediated’ event. The audience who are removed from a national or global event can choose to both engage with the meta narratives of broadcasting and print, and equally with the narratives uploaded on the internet.
The act of bearing witness through mobile telephony and potential to publicise it through public platforms such as the internet are creating new forms of dependencies between the media and the audience who bear witness. The act of bearing witness through mobile telephony transcends some dichotomies between the producer and audience but equally the domain of event creation has incorporated new forms of looking and gaze where these signify new and evolving power relationships between media and the act of bearing witness. The gaze of the citizen or the lay person who bears witness incorporates new image economies where images can convey different vantage points and perhaps new forms of framing intimacy and distance as well as apathy.
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