Digital Narratives and Witnessing: The Ethics of Engaging with Places at a Distance -- Nishat Awan

I found Nishat Awan’s paper incisive and extremely topical. I was intrigued by the concept of places like Gwadar, Pakistan, that are almost completely physically cut off from the outside world, yet are accessible online and are an increasingly powerful economic resource with interest from governments (especially their own) and international corporations.

“Gwadar is situated in the province of Balochistan, which is the largest, yet least populated and poorest province of the country, but one that is the most resource rich. It therefore sits within a very particular set of exploitative relations to the rest of the country, as well as having strategic importance within the region… Not only is it becoming increasingly visible to the outside world due to its geopolitical importance, but physical access to it is also being restricted by the Pakistani military.”

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ON VR AS A FORCE FOR GOOD
" “Virtual reality, fundamentally, is a technology that removes borders... Anything can be local to you” (Harris 2015). The primacy of vision embedded within such statements is only one in a line of problematic assumptions."

Figure 1

Figure 1

Figure 1 shows delegates watching a VR film at the World Economic Forum in 2016, in an attempt to secure donations for humanitarian work regarding refugees. The idea of using virtual reality, or really any other art form, for humanitarian purposes is theoretically good, however there are multiple moral issues and questions that crop up in practice, many of which are clear when looking at this photo. The people “consuming” this film sit in a room, in a city, in a country that is safe from the very forces they are observing. They are extremely wealthy, suit-clad, almost exclusively older white men who have the privilege of treating this digital witnessing as a fleeting experience that they can forget about as soon as it’s over, if they so choose. There is also the question of whether or not such films or experiences fetishise violence and war, and a question about weighting potential good, for example monetary support to those who want to intervene and help, against this fetishisation and exploitation. Finally, does such monetary support even swing the scales in terms of making a difference in situations, specifically regarding refugees, considering that governments, corporations and organisations are the powerful actors who decide on these outcomes, often for economic and political gain?

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It occurred to me that in the short time since this paper was written, the notion that images are the most credible form of proof or evidence has shifted. In an era of “post-truth”, “alternative facts” and fake news, people are rightly becoming more suspicious of the images we are presented with. Therefore, the onus falls upon those that respect and require credibility from their readers, consumers, users and so on, to prove the accuracy and truthfulness of their information.