New Media & the Holocaust

As we recognize the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we can’t help but consider what’s changed … and what hasn’t. After the recent attacks in Paris there are renewed worries about how we communicate the Holocaust to new generations, especially as the ranks of survivors and witnesses dwindle away.

Media and technology are always leveraged in one way or another for educating, historicizing and memorializing, but with subject matter like the Holocaust, the stakes seem even higher that we get it “right.”

Last year marked the twentieth anniversary of Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg’s landmark film that introduced the Holocaust in all its murderous horror to an entire generation. The Shoah Foundation invited me to participate in aconference that reflected on the film’s impact while looking at new media and other new technologies that can be used for testimony and memorialization.

Much of my recent research has been on the social impact of social media and so I was excited to explore how these new technologies, and the valuable data they produce, can be leveraged by Holocaust scholars.

As with all new technology, there’s a great deal of anxiety about its social repercussions, and particularly how it should be used to tell stories about something as highly charged as the Holocaust.

Recently, I’ve been focused on measuring the impact of media, which I regard as a tremendously powerful educational tool, particularly when it’s embedded within compelling stories. I believe that films like Schindler’s List play a very important role in our culture, introducing people to topics that most would prefer to avoid, and triggering conversations – around dinner tables, beside office coolers, and in the media – that give us an opportunity to face history and decide what we will learn from it.

Having worked in the entertainment-education video game industry, I have first-hand experience developing and evaluating the effects of interactive media. It seems abundantly clear to me that multiple media forms can be – and should be – mobilized to help people develop a more nuanced understanding of complex subjects such as the Holocaust.

Not everyone agrees. There have been decidedly mixed responses to a project at USC that creates full-body, interactive holograms of Holocaust survivors. Unlike the Tupac Shakur hologram at Coachella, the Pinchas Gutter hologram responds in real time to questions posed by a live audience.

Rachel Baum, one of my terrific panelists at the Shoah Foundation event (check out the video of our panel), offered a nuanced argument about how holograms might change how we think about Holocaust testimony. Baum sees the intrinsic value of a memorial that seems “uncanny” – a feeling that many people report when engaging with simulacra, convincing imitations of reality that can be confused with reality itself. But the hologram of Pinchas Gutter is not trying to fool anyone into thinking it’s really him. Because of the novelty of the technology, we are forced us to acknowledge the strangeness of these testimonies in a way that traditional media cannot.

But once you hand the reins of power over to an audience – and that’s exactly what you’re doing with any interactive media – it’s hard to predict what people are going to do.

Victoria Grace Walden at Queen Mary, University of London, studies some of the troubling ways in which people are using new media to engage with Holocaust memorials: this includes people taking selfies at Auschwitz and students producing stop-motion Lego animations of gas chambers, which they post on YouTube

Walden warns us that if we simply chastise young people for misusing new media to represent the Holocaust, we risk perpetuating a “sub-culture of unethical virtual memorialisations which purposely ‘rebel’ against critics.” The Web is teeming with images of contemporary atrocities – how can we develop and dispense ethical guidelines for producing, distributing and consuming that material?

One necessary step is to take a methodical look at how the Holocaust is being represented in new media. Our panel included Israeli scholar Aya Yadlin-Segal, who had intended to perform a study of journalistic discourse around the Oscar win for Iran’s A Separation, which incensed many Israelis who were rooting for their own country’s entry in the Best Foreign Film category, Footnote. Yadlin-Segal shifted her focus to the online comments on these stories, which she regarded as a construction of a collective memory of the Holocaust. In informal public venues like these, scholars have the opportunity to see what lies beneath and beyond the more carefully constructed rhetoric of official Holocaust memorial. Yadlin-Segal found commenters comparing the Iranian film to a painting by Hitler and equating its Oscar win to the German’s victory in the 1936 Olympics. The underlying presumption was that the Oscar was given for political, not artistic, reasons, and Iran’s win provided evidence that Jewish persecution continues and that every Jewish generation will experience a Holocaust.

Social networks, whether physical or virtual, offline or online, are often used explicitly or implicitly for survival purposes. Paris Papamichos Chronakis, our third panelist at the Shoah event, presented fascinating research on the social networks developed among Greek Jewish survivors at Auschwitz. As minority Sephardic Jews among mostly Ashkenazi prisoners, it was especially important for Greek Jews to establish social ties with others who understood their Hebrew accents (they didn’t speak Yiddish) and their distinctive culture. Papamichos Chronakis used social network analysis of audiovisual testimonies to reconstruct those relationships, which he represented in chilling spreadsheets that demonstrated how friendships ended with selection for the gas chamber.

Now that we have ready access to the data and technology to perform these kinds of analyses, I how no doubt that we’ll see a lot more research on social networks and survival strategies. Scholars are sure to look at how social networks operate in different types of genocidal situations, which continue to plague us. Future research should help to explain whether new technology has fundamentally changed the equation between survival and social networking or whether it has simply reinforced a very basic human impulse. Either way, it is imperative that we explore how these powerful new technologies of mass self-communication (as Manuel Castells would put it) can be harnessed to ensure that genocide becomes a bitter memory rather than a constant future threat.

You can watch video of all sessions of the Shoah Foundation’s 2014 International Conference, Memory, Media, and Technology: Exploring the Trajectories of Schindler’s List.

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