To See or Not to See
By Annalee Newitz
I DID NOT KNOW the screaming man, nor did I know what country he was in. My view of him was shaking—the vid was probably taken with a cell phone or cheapo digital camera with limited video capability. Suddenly, another man came into the frame and cut out the first man's throat, which didn't stop the screaming but instead turned it into a horrible, high-pitched wheezing. Eventually, the man sawed off the rest of his victim's head and threw it around a little bit just for good measure. I had to stop watching, so I killed the tab in my browser.
My first thought was: What the fuck? And then, as the nausea subsided: What the fuck are these people trying to prove by killing a man like this? I was hungry for context.
The next day, I found myself asking more questions, but not about the motives of the murderers. Instead, I wondered about the communications technologies that allowed me to see that video in the first place. A group of bloodthirsty guys had to have hand-held video-capture devices, video-editing software and a high-speed Internet connection to upload the finished product. Then they had to host the video somewhere that anybody could see it. In this case, that somewhere was the Internet Archive, a nonprofit organization in San Francisco devoted to the preservation of history in digital form.
Most of the Internet Archive (www.archive.org) is organized like a physical-world archive would be. Curators like film historian Rick Prelinger donate rare and antique collections of media that they have digitized, and the archive makes them available to the world.
But archive founder Brewster Kahle has a populist streak. He believes the public should have a say in what gets preserved in the historical record, and so he invites the public to contribute. That's why the archive has a small area on its website called the "open-source movie collection," where anyone can archive their media.
Kahle wasn't expecting to host raw war footage when he created the open-source collection. But curator Alexis Rossi says that the archive receives about 30 to 50 Arab-language videos per day that are related to the war. "About two or three per week are really violent," she adds. "They are taxing to watch."
Kahle, for his part, wasn't sure what to do about them. They are undeniably a legitimate part of the historical record in the Iraq war and other conflicts in the Middle East. Watching them provides people in the West with a rare opportunity to see what Iraqi groups, including terrorists, are saying about themselves.
These videos don't threaten national security, and they aren't illegal, because obscenity laws apply only to sexual content. So Kahle's worries are purely about social good. Though these videos form a crucial part of the historical record of the war, something about them seems just, well, wrong. Then again, who is to say what is wrong in this case? War is brutal and deadly—hiding that fact isn't going to help us make peace.
After agonizing over how to deal with the growing collection of war videos, and consulting with experts, Kahle has come up with a solution that satisfies both his archivist and populist sides. His plans to set up a system on the archive that allows users to post warnings about violent footage. These warnings will show up before other people see the videos—this way, the community can warn its members not to watch unless they are prepared for extremely graphic content. Curator Rossi also hopes that the archive community will get involved in other ways too. "I'd love somebody to translate some of these videos for us," she says. (You can find many of the Arab-language videos at www.archive.org/details/iraq_middleeast.)
The new policy is similar to community-policing systems on movie-sharing site YouTube. The difference is that the archive—unlike YouTube—will rarely remove a video. Kahle is committed to preserving history in all its forms, even the ugly ones. It's a lesson he thinks the mainstream media, with its whitewashed coverage of the war, would do well to learn. If we don't remember the past, we're doomed to repeat it.
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who always pays attention to what she's told to forget.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.