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Reflections on transparancy

December 13, 2008

Early this morning I was watching the History Channel while catching up on email, wikiwars etc. over the first coffee of the day. The series on 20th Century Battlefield was dealing with the Tet Offensive in 1968. Personally that was the year where I became politically active going on demonstrations/marches for civil rights in Derry, and against the Vietnam War in Grosvenor Square London. I should add, that at the age of 14 I really shouldn’t have been there but it was the sixties and my parents were not aware until after the events in question.

Those two events were seminal for me as in both cases I saw and experienced violence for the first time in an otherwise sheltered childhood. I had grown up with a Dixon of Dock Green image of the police but encounters with Police Horses outside the American embassy and being baton charged in Derry introduced, shall we say, a new realism.

I am also preparing for my annual watching of Ken Burn’s wonderful history of the American Civil War. I found it by accident on the television over a decade ago when I was paid up with a bad back over Christmas. In the end I faked continued illness so I had an excuse to watch it through all nine episodes. Burns uses photographs and quotations to create a photo/oral montage of one of the most bloody, but fascinating wars in the history of humanity. If you haven’t seen it, buy or rent the DVDs and settle down for a treat.

So how does all of this stitch together? Well in all cases we are talking about seminal events. The Tet Offensive, while a military success for General Westmoreland was presented daily on American Television. It showed that the strength of Vietcong was far greater than the American public had been led to belief. The images were also horrific. It was probably the trigger point that led in turn to Johnson’s downfall. Both Grosvenor Square and Derry saw film cameras present and broadcasts took place in real time, increasing awareness in a wider audience. The American Civil War was the first in history to be photographed.

With transparency it is not longer possible to control what people know, a key aspect of the web in a more modern age (if we ignore the do bad policy of Google in respect of China). In the 1968 cases I have mentioned, two of which are personal, the event itself was not discrete or subject to controlled reporting. All use visual images to increase empathy of the disengaged with the engaged.

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