Hypertext: An Opportunity

I want to end this blog series on an optimistic note. I insist that all is not bleak, despite this era of Trump where we appear to be moving further away from critical and compassionate race consciousness. Progressive movements with the goal of establishing equitable treatment are possible even in times of political impasse. With this in mind, I believe that hypertext presents a unique opportunity for black Americans to bear witness on the traumatic effects of racial profiling, police brutality, and police killings in the United States. When I speak of hypertext, I am referring specifically to the computer hypertext document. Hypertext would allow for black Americans to tell their own stories and set their own agenda for change, without relying on government leadership or waiting indefinitely for a more compassionate and race-conscious public discourse to emerge. There are two models that were most useful for me in envisioning this hypertext project: The first was Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the second was Wikipedia.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was organized by the parties to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, which settled the class action suit brought on by survivors of Canada’s residential school system (Truth and Reconciliation Commission v). The Commission concluded that from the 1870s to 1996, the residential school system operated to separate some 150,000 Indigenous children from their families with the intention of weakening family ties and cultural linkages, and indoctrinating Indigenous children into the majority Euro-Christian Canadian culture. For six years, the Commission traveled throughout Canada to hear testimony from more than 6000 witnesses (Truth and Reconciliation Commission v).  One major theme was the physical, psychological, and sexual abuse children suffered in residential schools and the impact these traumas have had on Indigenous communities. The Final Report, which is published on trc.ca, is a summary and discussion of the Commission’s findings, with chapters on the history of the residential school system, the legacy of residential schools, the challenge of reconciliation, and calls to action.

In many ways, I believe that a report on anti-black policing in the United States could parallel the Truth and Reconciliation Report. The primary objective of the project would be to collect testimony from black Americans—individuals, families, and communities—who have been affected by police violence and brutality. Witnessing could take the form of written, transcribed, and recorded personal histories, interviews, and panel discussions. Most important are the political dimensions of the project—that from a multilinear, multivocal, and dynamic hypertext could eventually emerge a static document with an agenda containing detailed recommendations and prescriptions that can be communicated and lobbied to government at the local, state, and federal levels.

Just as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada organized the Truth and Reconciliation Report, the hypertext report I describe would require an organizing body. This is where Wikipedia comes to mind. Wikipedia (a massive hypertext encyclopedia) is owned by the Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit with all the standard functions of a charitable organization—legal, accounting, fundraising, communications, technical, and executive directorship. Up until 2010, the Wikimedia Foundation had only 35 employees (Ayers et al. 448). If such a mammoth project can be executed with a relatively small staff, then the much smaller hypertext I conceive of could also have a very streamlined organizing body. The hypertext project can begin with a call to action for participants across diverse Internet and social media platforms, as well as more traditional media outlets.

There are some important features of hypertext that explain why it presents a unique opportunity for black Americans to take control of their trauma and codify it on their own terms: First, the hypertext would be a large-scale co-authored document, making it polyphonic and multivocal.  It would provide an opportunity for people to bear witness on racist police violence who have normally been denied authorial authority. A range of different perspectives and experiences is necessary to obtain a truly reflective account of shared trauma in the African American community. The hypertext would be part of a much larger process to end racial oppression and promote racial equality in the United States. These objectives are vital to democracy, so it makes perfect sense to adopt a democratized form of writing like hypertext.

Second, according to George Landow, hypertext as an information medium assumes hypermedia (3), which means the text is expanded beyond written text to include many different presentational content forms. Examples are visual images like graphics, diagrams, and maps, as well as audio recordings, video recordings, and computer animations (Landow 3).  Compounded with a hyperlinking system that links to external resources such as academic publications, qualitative and quantitative studies, historical documents, and government data, these presentational content forms will likely engage many readers and encourage active, rather than passive readership.

Audio and video recordings are of particular significance because they present an opportunity for greater inclusiveness and collaboration in the hypertext.  For instance, older generations may have difficulty in publishing their personal accounts in the computer hypertext document, but they could be recorded, by audio or video. This would also be a good way to include economically disenfranchised people who have had limited access to education and reduced access to textual discourse as a result. Moreover, group and panel discussions, which are usually fascinating but also protracted, might be more effective for an audience when recorded rather than just transcribed into text. Ultimately, most of us are very familiar with hypermedia within the huge hypertext that is the Internet; if hypermedia can also provide more avenues for accessibility, accommodation, and inclusiveness, then that is a distinct and important benefit.

In conclusion, I believe that changing the pattern of anti-black police violence in the United States requires that black Americans control the discourse surrounding its traumatic effects on their lives. A long, detailed, and inclusive hypertext document recording the history and effects of racist policing on the black American community would serve as another avenue for black Americans to tell their stories, own their stories and set their own agenda. The hope is that having reference to such an important document will help to shift the racist social and political culture that surrounds policing and mass incarceration in the United States.

Sources

Ayers, Phoebe, Charles Matthews, and Ben Yates. How Wikipedia Works: And How You Can Be a Part of It. San Francisco: No Starch Press, 2008. Print.

Canada. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. [Winnipeg]: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015. Web. 2 Nov. 2016.

Landow, George P. Hypertext 3.0: Critical Theory and New Media in an Era of Globalization. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. Print.

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