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'Soul of the New Machine' confab geared to human rights

On campus and online, the two-day symposium drew activists from around the world to explore the changing roles of technology in the fight for justice

| 07 May 2009

Trevor PaglenArtist, author, and "experimental geographer" Trevor Paglen, whose most recent book is Blank Spots on a Map, at Clark Kerr campus. A photograph he took of a suspected secret prison near Kabul, Afghanistan, is "a crappy image," he told a gathering of human-rights activists Monday, but it makes "a political statement": "I want to show and not show at the same time," he says. (Dale Higgins photo)

In 1991, thanks to the miracle of home video, millions of television viewers were witness to the brutal beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers. Despite the graphic videotape which showed King, an African American, being repeatedly struck by batons and kicked as he sprawled helplessly on the ground the four officers brought to trial were acquitted by an all-white jury, sparking riots by some for whom the videotape proved their guilt.

The jury's quite different conclusion, Berkeley alum Trevor Paglen said Monday, illustrates one of the difficulties facing human-rights activists in a world "oversaturated with images." By repeatedly playing the video in the courtroom, he said, the officers' defense attorneys drastically diluted its power a foreshadowing, perhaps, of the eroding impact of even such devastating pictures as those taken of abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

Paglen was one of dozens of speakers and panelists over the course of a two-day symposium organized by the campus's Human Rights Center, "The Soul of the New Machine," which plumbed the connections between technology, media, and human-rights investigation and advocacy worldwide. A self-described "experimental geographer" he earned his Ph.D. in geography last year from Berkeley artist, and author of three books exploring secret CIA and military programs, Paglen offered a cautionary note for what he termed "the mobilizing-shame paradigm" for social and political change.

Observing that the Abu Ghraib snapshots were taken by U.S. soldiers themselves and that many show military personnel looking into the camera, smiling and flashing thumbs-up signs as they humiliate prisoners Paglen said they demonstrate the "normalized fact that our lives are on display" in today's increasingly media-driven culture. Rather than shrinking from the camera, he suggested, acknowledging it can defuse its power by signaling that "we know you're watching."

"The politics of exposure involves making things public bringing that which happens in darkness into the light," Paglen said. It means "producing discourses around things that were previously unspoken making once-hidden injustices impossible to ignore. To expose, to make public, to make visible is to thereby make real."

Such a strategy, however, is based on the premise that "exposure affects those people or institutions perpetrating whatever injustices it is that are being exposed," he said. And that notion is being eroded by the culture's orgy of imagery.

"What is the danger of exposure," he wondered, "when everything is already exposed?"

Ironically, Paglen has spent years investigating the military's and CIA's ghost sites and programs, tracking down suspected "extraordinary rendition" flights, black projects, and secret prisons one of which, a nondescript hillside structure known as the Salt Pit, he believes he located outside Kabul, Afghanistan, and captured in a widely seen photograph.

The picture, he said to laughter, is "a crappy image," marked by "bad composition," "no interesting details," and "awful" lighting. "This," he concluded, contemplating a slide projected behind him, "is a bad photograph."

But it's precisely the shot's ambiguity and its capacity to stimulate discussion that may make it more effective as a vehicle for the cause of human rights than more compelling, conventionally "interesting" pictures. "I want to show and not show at the same time," Paglen said. He pronounced the muddy image "a political statement," adding that "to take a picture like this is to insist on the right to take a picture like this."

The symposium, which drew participants from around the world to the Clark Kerr campus, was also webcast in real time, with viewers in hubs in 10 cities worldwide tweeting and live-blogging (in English and Spanish) and offering up questions for panelists. Sponsored chiefly by the MacArthur Foundation, the event featured a first-night keynote talk by New Yorker writer James Suro-wiecki, with workshops and panel discussions on the myriad implications of technology for human-rights campaigns, from forensics and cybersecurity to blogging and new-media journalism.

The first law of Chinese cyberspace

To illustrate the power of blogging, Xiao Qiang, an adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Journalism and director of the China Internet Project, cited the collapse of schools during last year's 7.9-magnitude earthquake in the province of Sichuan the result, he said, of the "deep corruption" of the Chinese government.

Qiang recounted how a lone blogger an artist and architect who helped design China's Olympic stadium began collecting and publishing the names of thousands of students who had been killed as the region's substandard schools crumbled. When Chinese censors deleted the postings, the lists were picked up by other bloggers, until the authorities had little option but to publish official lists of the victims.

"From an individual act, an inter national event," said Qiang, adding that the story illustrates "the first law of Chinese cyberspace: Censorship meets resistance."

It also seemed to illustrate the spirit of the conference itself, as well as the mission of its host organization. "Facts and evidence-based data in whatever form are the strongest tools for holding governments accountable," observed Human Rights Center faculty director Eric Stover. But working for justice, he said, "is not about abstractions, not about the tools that you're using. It's foremost about people, whether it's a political prisoner or thousands of displaced persons."