Using Archives to Challenge Misinformation


I was asked to speak at a conference around the importance of our cultural heritage, organised by Louise Broch from Dansk Kulturarv and taking place at the offices of DR in Copenhagen.

My title was 

Using cultural archives to challenge ‘fake news’

And the outline was:

 “Those who control the past, control the future; and those who control the present, control the past.” 

Seventy years after the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell’s observation remains true and relevant – but it does not have to be read as a testament to the power of autocracies. 

Instead we can treat our access to and use of cultural archives as an important tool in pushing against misinformation and ‘fake news’ in the modern world. We can use our ability to shape our access to the past for good, if we choose to. 

The Talk

This is the text I based my talk on. 

A view of the DR offices walking from the metro

First, let’s get rid of the term ‘fake news’. It has been appropriated by a number of politicians, most notably the President of the United States,  to undermine good journalism and try to damage people’s belief in the news they read.

As Claire Wardle from First Draft has argued very strongly, the term ‘fake’ is cannot cover the many different types of misinformation(the inadvertent sharing of false information) and disinformation(the deliberate creation and sharing of information known to be false), and it also taps into a whole narrative about the ‘mainstream media’ that is designed to undermine and damage the credibility of journalism. 


As a journalist myself I’d rather not be part of that process. 

So let’s try to avoid ‘fake news’.  

If I had the choice I’d probably revert to two old-fashioned words to describe the stuff we see shared online: liesand propaganda– but I’ll accept misinformation and disinformation as useful working categories.

So here’s our question, restated: what is to be done to limit the disruption, oppression and political impact caused by mis- and disinformation? And how we can use AV archives to counter deceitful content in all its rich variety?

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Fake Reality: beyond fake news

Air Quality in London, May 1 2019, Perhaps.

This is what the air quality in London looks like as I leave for Cambridge at the end of another day, and it’s not too bad. Except that this isn’t a picture of the air quality at all – it’s a visualiisation provided by the CityAir app on my phone screen, interpreting data from a sensor network and representing it as geodata overlaid on a map, with a colour coded scale designed to be easily interpretable because it follows a normal western convention.  

There are no numbers, but it’s green (the colour of nature!) and I feel slightly reassured that I haven’t poisoned myself too much on the bus from Savoy Place to King’s Cross.  

I could be fooling myself. It could be that there are toxins there that are simply not detected by the range of sensors available to CityAir. In fact, in the case of a chemical attack it’s highly likelly that CityAir would show all green as there would be no  cars and buses in the area because of the ensuing security alert.  

So this image isn’t ‘real’ in any sense except that it’s useful to me. However since the same could be said of my entire sensorium and the mental models I build of the world on the basis of the sense data I gather and interpret, I’m not going to dismiss it out of hand.

I’ve always had a problem with the term ‘virtual reality’ because it carries the implcation that there’s  a ‘real’ reality that it replaces.  And since I already augment my reality with the spectacles that make this screen readable I’m not sure why the augmentation provided by light field manipulating digital technologies should get sole use of the term.

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It was twenty-five years ago today…


In 1994 the ICA played host to the world’s first ‘webcast’ of a live event when the Intellectuals and the New Media debate, hosted to launch Esa Saarinen and Mark Taylor’s book Imagologies(Routledge, London, 1993), was relayed online.

This is my version of what happened that evening. Others are available.

It’s April 29th1994 and I am in a van on the way to London having just liberated a few tens of thousands of pounds of expensive computing kit from the company I work for in Cambridge, in the name of art.

It’s legitimate, mostly, in that nobody will ask me why I did it as long as it’s all returned by morning and still works, and I might even get thanked for extracting the contents of the training room and moving it the Institute for Contemporary Arts if the project actually comes together and generates some interest in this ‘Internet’ thing.

Because tonight, for one night only, a group of Cambridge’s finest net pioneers – back in the day when being online at all made you a ‘pioneer’ – are going to put the ICA on the web and host what turns out to be (one of) the first events that takes place simultaneously online and offline, as we take the debate accompanying the launch of the book ‘Imagologies’ in the ICA’s Nash Room and project it into cyberspace.  

Well, if cyberspace isn’t ‘lines of non-light ranged the mind’ but a website with live updates, some audio files, and an interactive text-based MOO that lets anyone around the world with a net connection join in the debate ‘in the room’. It’s a start.

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