Media and the humanitarian impulse

Media & the Humanitarian Impulse: #ThisClassWillSaveTheWorld

by Lisa Daily
Spring 2018
(Teaching-with-Technology Grant Awardee)

The idea for the class emerged from my own burgeoning research in the field of humanitarianism and digital media, especially with a critical interest in this idea that virtual reality is the “ultimate empathy machine”—technologies that finally enable spectators to realize their true empathetic potential to care for suffering distant others. To study this current fascination with VR/AR in the humanitarian-sphere, however, required that students first understand several interrelated histories: that of humanitarianism—its institutionalization, its paternalism, its decision-making processes and messy politics—and developments in technologies of representation and circulation. Thus, the course was as much a historical survey of humanitarianism as it was about the technologies of representation that serve to document, bear witness, inform, and advertise humanitarian crises.

After an opening 4-week unit on histories of humanitarianism, the course focused on visuality as it develops within capitalism to address issues of scopic regimes, attention, and the subjectivity of vision in the modern era. Next, the course turned to a unit on The Violence of Looking/ Looking at Violence in order to begin thinking about issues related to suffering, what it means to bear witness, photographing atrocity, collective memory, and “the famine formula.” While our texts did not explicitly historicize images, through lectures I discussed the transition from painting to early photography (especially with the case of photography in the Congo Free State), and then on to film, documentaries, social media, celebrity involvement, and concerts such as the 1985 Live Aid concerts. This unit also brought up the idea of “compassion fatigue” and the ways in which markets and competing humanitarian organizations must vie for this attention from potential spectator-consumer-donors. The final unit, Digital Cultures & the Age of Solidarity, critically engaged with shifts in donor-responses to humanitarian appeals, what Lilie Chouliaraki deems a “new emotionality” of the “ironic spectator.” This unit examined case studies such as KONY 2012, hashtag activism and other social media engagements, celebrity interventions, and then virtual and augmented reality.

Technology functioned in the course in a variety of ways: the course had a Web Publishing site for readings, blogging, and news sharing; students partook in a semester-long digital media archiving project; three students worked with digital content through embedded internships at Human Rights Watch, WITNESS, and Shared Studios, a fascinating tech-portal company; several students opted for a creative final project that sought to ‘intervene’ in some way to existing media discourses of particular humanitarian crises; and we engaged with numerous virtual reality “experiences” using cardboard VR goggles.


Building a Digital Archive

Whether it be monitoring media coverage of Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria or following the ongoing crisis of the Rohingya, the purpose of the digital media archiving project was to track a particular humanitarian crisis broadly conceived through its online media coverage as well as the circulation of related images, modes of representation, hashtags, humanitarian organization action, state actors, and so forth. Students were asked to monitor how a particular event/crisis was being discussed online, who was having those conversations, where, and in what context. Additionally, students pursued independent research so as to learn about the historical, political, economic, and social context(s) of the crises, their emergence(s), and conjunctures. While the digital archive is never complete, students were asked at the conclusion of the semester to review their archival content and offer a reflection on its findings and limitations. To track archives, most students used a pre-made Google Form (thanks to Bruno Guaraná!) and others established Tumblr pages. The openness of the assignment allowed students to pursue particular themes, events, and places of interest to them; projects were wide-ranging, from solitary confinement to queer humanitarianism, from the Puerto Rican recovery in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria to conflict minerals in Democratic Republic of the Congo, from the South African water crisis and Day Zero to The New York Times coverage of the Syrian war since 2011.

For most students, these archives then resulted in a final project that was creative or research-based. For instance, one student offered a comparison between Colombian news and how American news talked about Colombia (especially noting its stereotype as the land of Narcos and now narco-tourist destination). Her final project, “The Gap,” is a creative project using Sutori software and provides a timeline for these comparisons. Another student, Rayyan Dabbous (Gallatin sophomore), analyzed NYT coverage of the Syrian war, noting key terminology in the news spectacle of how Syria was discussed. Impressively, this final paper, “A Syrian Game of Thrones: infotainment and New York Times’ Spectacular Coverage,” was subsequently published in Salon Syria (May 18, 2018) and reprinted by Open Democracy


Virtual Reality

“One of my goals in the class was to encourage students to not only think about VR as a spectator (as with the goggles), but also to think about that which is not seen through the content itself, such as the infrastructure of the technology, its production, and economic relations.”

As a cultural studies scholar, I firmly believe that understanding a particular object of study must come before any analysis. Thus, to teach critical thinking—about media, virtual reality, humanitarianism, or any other field—first and foremost requires that students are able to describe the object of analysis: its usage and circulation; the ways in which it is talked about and by whom; its cultural and historical context(s), its economic, political, and social factors; its construction and infrastructure; and any ideologies that are placed upon the object (and by whom). Towards this end, students needed to engage with the technology itself. One of my goals in the class was to encourage students to not only think about VR as a spectator (as with the goggles), but also to think about that which is not seen through the content itself, such as the infrastructure of the technology, its production, and economic relations.

With funds from the Teaching with Technology grant, I bought cardboard VR goggles for the class so that students could experience virtual reality. We watched (“experienced”) approximately 10 films, including numerous films produced for United Nations, International Refugee Committee, The New York Times, and Aljazeera. I included two films that might be considered not “humanitarian,” although this is a term we sought to complicate throughout the semester: “After Solitary,” by PBS’s Frontline, which focuses on prisons and solitary confinement; and, “Across the Line,” by Planned Parenthood, which tries to convey what a woman walking into a Planned Parenthood might feel as protesters shout at her. Both films are quite different than most humanitarian virtual reality films and thus, I wanted students to have a comparison to different modes of engaging VR.

With the virtual reality unit not occurring until later in the semester, many students were already thinking critically about how and what is represented within humanitarian disasters and were aware of the shifting content of representation—away from images of those suffering (in-crisis) and towards the joy they experience upon receiving the support of humanitarian intervention (post-crisis). Students acknowledged the compelling stories of the VR films, but easily identified curated content that had come up in previous discussions (a primary focus on women and children; stories of individuals rather than masses of, for instance, refugees; little contextualization—visually within the space as well as in terms of the crisis itself). We also discussed the intended spectator of the films—were we the ideal viewer of these films, as scholars in the field? Students suggested that an unknowing subject was more likely the intended viewer with the VR offering a compelling and emotional introduction to a crisis. Finally, we thought about our own positionality within the virtual reality experience. Unlike 2-D representations on our phones, a newspaper, or a gallery wall for instance, the spectatorial body is supposedly embodied within the world of the image’s subject; it is “more natural” than other regimes of representation. Hence, part of the experiment with bringing virtual reality into the classroom was to engage students in affect—their own feelings and their own bodily reactions to this type of watching. Notably, and as expected, several students got motion-sick from the virtual reality. The majority of students discussed their awareness of the technology—that it was not as neutral as one might assume as compared to our phones or a photograph. One student mentioned how the cracks in her phone screen served as a constant reminder of the technology, as did particular moments of disruption—a text message ping or a news alert. Partly, these effects might have been because of the cardboard goggles, which are somewhat awkward and cumbersome to hold as students watched several films in a row (40 minutes or so). Arms grew weary. Emotional (& motion-sickness) breaks were needed. Those of us who have used permanent goggles (Oculus, etc.) discussed the differences between the two types of screening and its possible effects. Goggles that are strapped to the spectator’s face—a technological extension of the human body—provide a more streamlined viewing and proffer less opportunity for the technology to insert itself (cracked screens, text message notifications, advertisements on YouTube, for example).

By way of conclusion, I’ll turn to a student reflection about the VR experience, “dizzy but also enlightened.” As reflected in student evaluations and self-reflections, the incorporation of technology into the course was a great success, although also a total experiment that I’ll continue to refine in future semesters.