We Are History (2010-ongoing)

We are History: A People’s History of Lebanon (2010 – ongoing) is an experiment in using software to create impossible conversations.

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Probably no country has a history so contested as that of Lebanon. What if a machine could sift through oral histories and automatically generate different versions of history, simply based on the variation in oral content? What could result from social and democratic interaction with such a machine? We Are History is an automatic editing machine for Lebanon’s history generated from the perspectives of thousands. This would provoke a kind of listening that has not existed in Lebanon’s political conditions since 1943: a political listening that is truly democratic and one that makes space for difference.
Lebanon lacks a collective history, as well as any access to information about that history. This project—which would exist in an online format, and in manufactured booths that would be positioned in public spaces across Lebanon—invites people to listen to an automated montage of oral histories without any single author. These automated montages of oral histories will be told from the perspectives of many people who have together lived this history, and who have volunteered to share their stories. These stories will be sewn together in order to collectively produce a historical mosaic that enables people to listen to each other’s conflicting perspectives.

Existing Terrain

Since 1943, the year of the country’s independence, Lebanon’s history curriculum has hardly been updated. In later years, some adjustments were made to include a list of presidents and their personal biographies, but this content did not even include what was done during their terms. This absence, combined with the legacy of scattered historical conflicts, and an amnesty after the major 1975-1990 civil war that absolved all political crimes, has engendered what some scholars have termed “historical amnesia.” But even the dates of Lebanon’s major civil war are disputed. In contrast to this absence of history, we have a lively political arena, with 100 active political parties, each re-writing a history that suits each party’s interests. All of these factors have led to an alienation of political and social others, and a dismissal of opposing or contrasting perspectives.

So Why Now?

Software is creating more isolated viewpoints in a world where divisions around categories of difference already and increasingly occur. Complementing the rise of extremist movements such as ISIS, or the blatantly derogatory rhetoric of Donald Trump, GAFA (Google/Apple/Facebook/Amazon) dominates the selection of content that users get to see. It is easy to argue that “difference,” in the rhetoric of both ISIS and Trump, is seen as a threat, where one’s own existence depends on the annihilation of the Other. But how can we have healthy democracies when we are not exposed to a multitude of different opinions, including ones we consider bigoted and violent? Short of asking people to “listen with an open mind,” I argue that software might have the unique potential to open space for extremely different views to co-exist. Software, I argue, can hold difference so that it can be recognized by diverse viewers while offering an alternative to both extremes: on the one hand, the myth of a one-world community, and on the other hand, the alienation of the Other which denies equal rights. We Are History addresses this idea with an example of software that would sew together seemingly irreconcilably-opposing views.