By Marcus Chan
So it turns out that the popular Flip video camera is good for more than just capturing YouTube stunts or your son’s soccer game. And the virtual world of Second Life is more than a place to hook up. Try using those technologies to advance human rights.
These were just a couple of examples mentioned at The Soul of the New Machine, a conference hosted by UC Berkeley to showcase how technology and new media are being used to promote justice and human rights around the world.
Of course, exposure of abuses — be it in the form of video, photos, virtual reality, etc. — is just the first step.
“Often, people think that just showing the video is enough, but what is important … is that actions can be taken toward an objective,” said panelist Yvette Alberdingk Thijm, executive director of Witness, an international human rights organization. Those actions could include providing an online petition for viewers to sign or ways for people to organize.
Witness’ strategy is to use video and online technologies to turn personal stories of abuse into tools for pushing policy change. The group trains activists in countries such as Ethiopia to use the Flip camcorder and other devices (but Flip provides both the portability and immediacy of distribution necessary in dangerous situations). The organization has 3,000 hours of archived human rights footage.
The conference, hosted by UC Berkeley’s Human Rights Center, brought together more than 250 thinkers and practitioners to explore the most effective ways to use tech to address human rights abuses. The sessions covered everything from data sharing to social networking to satellite imagery and mapping. The two-day conference ends today.
During a session titled “Animating Human Rights: Games, Animation and Multimedia,” digital media artist Peggy Weil, who is a visiting assistant professor at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, began her talk by reminding the audience that “animate” means “to give life to” or “breathing life into a topic.”
A prime example of that would be “Gone Gitmo,” a re-creation of Guantanamo Bay in the virtual world Second Life, a project she and Nonny de la Pena launched in 2007 as part of a Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC) program. In this virtual installation, visitors are shackled to the floor of a C-17 military transport plane, hooded, berated, given an orange jumpsuit and placed in a cell (but your avatar is spared any torture).
The inaccessible location of Guantanamo Bay made it “justifiable to build an accessible version in virtual reality,” she explained. “It’s a powerful experience, an interesting place to think of human rights.” Much of that has to do with the connection people feel with their avatars. (Bernhard Drax did a virtual report on “Gone Gitmo” earlier this year, which you can view above.)
Weil and La Pena’s latest interactive project is Walljumpers, where users leap over the world’s separation border fences.
One of the more interesting speakers on Monday was Trevor Paglen, author of “Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon’s Secret World.” Paglen, an artist, writer and experimental geographer, is known as an independent investigator of government malfeasance, particularly off-the-books operations such as the kidnapping and “extraordinary rendition” of suspected terrorists.
Paglen delved into that topic, going into detail how he got this photo (on the right) of what he believes is a “black site,” or secret prison. It wasn’t easy — it took a fair amount of both online and on-the-ground sleuthing.
You can catch live video of the remaining sessions or catch replays at a later date.