Intro: In response to Doug Boyd’s Nov 1 talk on Accelerating Change: Oral History, Innovation, and Impact, current OHMA student Michael Heesup Kimm reflects on how the multimedia transition has affected not only the process of conducting oral history interviews but also the way we store and disseminate such valuable recordings.
We are now living in the 21st century society, an electronically enriched and computer-dependent world where the process of curating and sharing our stories is natural and expeditious. In his talk, Doug Boyd emphasized how the digital turn has allowed oral history post-production to develop greater interactivity between the narrators and the audiences and broader public consumption.
However, we often forget how fortunate we are now compared to those times in the past where there were more challenges in accessing and preserving archives. We take this amazing digital transition for granted, considering the advanced technologies as natural.
We, from both the interviewers’ and the audiences’ perspectives, must always appreciate those newer technologies that enabled us to broaden the effectiveness of our oral history practices.
I am from South Korea, where the continuous use of censorship in media kept the people “silent” and individuals were not able to speak out against the government, especially under the military regime led by Park Chung-Hee. (Park had himself elected president after the May 16 coup of 1961 as a dictator and established martial law in 1961.) The people of South Korea often had limitations on the information that they were given from the national news media and those limitations made it almost impossible to understand the North Korean regime and the outside world accurately. Numerous legal tactics were used to interfere and undermine public media from both sides of the political spectrum, undermining the country’s democracy, which is central to the core of South Korea’s identity.
After the assassination of President Park Chung-Hee, South Korean Army major general Chun Doo-Hwan seized military power through a coup and tried to intervene in domestic issues. People who were suppressed during Park’s tenure stood up for reforms, including an end to martial law, democratization, human rights, minimum wage demands and freedom of press. In response, Chun Doo-Hwan took several suppressive measures.
The Gwangju Uprising, also called May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement, occurred from May 18 to 27 of 1980, resulting in the death of more than 600 Gwangju civilians in South Korea. The citizens of Gwangju were fired upon and killed by government troops while demonstrating against the martial law government The authorities tried to mask their responsibility by defining the incident as a rebellion instigated by Communists and rioters.
It was one brave German reporter, Jürgen Hinzpeter, who exposed the horror in Gwangju to the world. Hinzpeter, also later known as “a blue-eyed witness”, managed to protect his video tapes and recordings of the victims and escape the surveillance of the government with selfless help from taxi drivers especially - a person known only as - Kim; the story of Hinzpeter and the taxi driver was made into a movie called ‘A Taxi Driver’ in 2017.
The events of 1980 in Gwangju triggered the democratization of South Korea.
Some people might wonder how this specific historical event is related to the digital transition in oral history leading up to the change in our society. While not formal oral history, Hinzpeter’s recordings included details of the subject’s relationship to history, which is the purpose of oral history. His recordings not only showed the testimony of participants in a historical event but also exactly what was going on in their lives at the time of the event. The recordings also captured the aurality of history: the rioters’ voices shouting out for their rights, the sounds of people’s fears of government’s oppression and worries about their country's future, and the noises from the government troop’s crushing of the protests. People of South Korea - who were outside of the event - were able to feel the emotions of the victims directly through Hinzpeter’s recordings and sympathize with their voices, as the audiences of interviews feel the narrator’s emotions and sympathize with their voices in oral history.
As a person who is enjoying the privileges of democratization in South Korea, I feel sad every time I remember this historical event because I believe that the democratization of South Korea could have been hastened by a broader discussion and recognition of the need for democracy through the newer technologies we have today. If we’d been able to use the technologies that are currently available now such as Internet, the same technologies that allow oral historians to handle large quantities of information and make them available to the public so easily – we could have made the dissemination process much safer and more efficient without threats from the authoritarian regime.
“Once it’s out there, you don’t know what’s going to happen!” – Doug Boyd
While the Internet opens up new worlds in terms of dissemination, we must always keep our eyes on the interviews we upload because they can possibly be manipulated or misused by other people who have different intentions from the narrators’. Hypothetically, even if people in South Korea had multimedia technologies available for the expeditious dissemination of their stories, the dictatorial government could manipulate the recordings to hide or distort their original intentions. Boyd mentioned the examples of people who refused their interviews to be recorded because doing so involved giving up too much control. Through his experiences, we were able to learn that it is important not only to devote our energy to create and develop tools, but also to raise critical questions about our practice. ( ex. how are we going to manage the interviews we have?)
We must always keep in mind that only when we constantly and critically question the potential risks of rapidly developing technologies will oral history become a more meaningful digital practice.
How do YOU predict the future of digital oral history?
Michael Heesup Kimm was born in Seoul, South Korea and moved to the U.S. when he was at the age of 14. He is currently a student at Columbia University Oral History Master's program and a resident of New York City. The area he is interested in studying is the lives and voices of the Asian immigrants in the United States. He approaches oral history as a collective and interactive open space in which the interview works as a tool for different narrators to come together and share their own unique experiences/stories.