"Searching for Syria" After

Remediations of Archived Hypermediations

Around the beginning of January 2019, “Searching for Syria” was taken down. Now, the URL reroutes users to a UNHCR donation page describing the refugee crisis through a series of statistics.[1] On the UNHCR site, the only remnant of the original “Searching for Syria” project is a video promotion for the project featuring additional video footage, a partial walkthrough of the site, and an encouragement for viewers to visit the now defunct link.

The original webpage for “Searching for Syria” may no longer exist, but the internet’s networked and algorithmic structure has created a fragmented archive of remediations. Traces of “Searching for Syria” can be found with a single Google search, appearing in screenshots, reviews, video captures, and other remediated forms created by users who interacted with the original project. “Searching for Syria” even continues to be promoted by Google and other entities as if the project were still live.[2]

The interactivity of digital literature challenges traditions of textual preservation and archival. Davin Heckman and Serge Bouchardon indicate that “preserving a whole digital creation means preserving the ability to manipulate it, not simply for the sake of storing data, but…to read it.”[3] The fragmented afterlives of digital texts, then, not only remediate the texts themselves, but also mutate the way they can be read if the original interactive design is changed. Heckman and Bouchardon note that digital preservation often leaves the interpretation of digital texts “conditioned by access tools,” reinventing the content based on how the texts are rendered through archiving programs and practices.[4] A notable tool for digital preservation and access is the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine[5] which works as an automated and crowdsourced archive of the internet.[6] Users can browse a timeline of stored captures and open a preserved snapshot of the webpage from a specific date.[7]

While the snapshots offer limited interactivity, they are incomplete shadows of the original, primary text often so corrupted that the narrative takes on a distinctively new structure and identity. Wendy Chun refers to the Wayback Machine’s archives as an example of the internet’s “enduring ephemeral,” preserving “pages [that] are not quite dead, but not quite alive either.”[8] Most of the Wayback Machine’s snapshots are generated by bots that crawl the internet and only preserve certain elements of webpages based on their popularity and underlying code.[9] Images and embedded media are rarely included in the snapshots, leaving behind the skeletal interface without context or content. In the brokenness of the text, users can see through its interface to its form and structure. The archived snapshot becomes a new digital text in which the structures that once created hypermediacy become the only structures left. Chun contends, “These gaps or this skeleton visualizes not only the fact that our constant regenerations affect what is regenerated but also how these gaps…open the web as archive to a future that would not be a simple memory upgrade of the past. Repetition and regeneration open the future by creating a nonsimultaneous new that confounds the chronological time they also enable.”[10]

While Chun emphasizes how the Wayback Machine’s temporal distortions create iterations of futuristic imaginaries, I add that applying hypermediated reading to the archived snapshots provides a clearer understanding of the hierarchies of hypermediacy that were in the live versions of the primary digital texts. Close-reading the haunting snapshots of Wayback Machine exposes the dominance of the West in hypermediated frameworks as they are more visible against the flattened, blank digital landscape. Analyzing the futuristic imaginaries produced by the Wayback Machine allows the user to retrace the Orientalist hierarchies that were the basis for their production. For texts like “Searching for Syria” that use hypermediacy to create a Western framework, control over the narrative of the subaltern is intensified as the presence of the subaltern is either erased or solely articulated by the West.

The Wayback Machine’s version of “Searching for Syria” replicates the original’s framework of Google queries, but lacks the images, videos, and animations that attempt to answer the questions with representations of the Syrian refugee narrative. The erasure and vacancy leaves West as the only producer of knowledge present.

 As users navigate the reconstructions of “Searching for Syria,” they are encouraged to ask the same questions posited by the original. The narrative begins by asking, “What was Syria like before the war?” The answer is black, empty cyberspace, suggesting that there is no longer a means by which the user can come to a historical understanding of Syria prior to its unrest.

A section of the project that originally featured virtual reality constructions of Syria’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites now invites the user to visit a digital graveyard of broken links, error messages, and corrupted image icons. Geography, culture, architecture, and history are completely lost, the representation of a digital Syria left to be constructed by Western interpretation. If the nation is an imagined community, then Wayback Machine’s “Searching for Syria” creates a space in which the process of imagining the nation is left solely to the user, tethered only to the framework of Western consciousness. There are no images or descriptions of the locations—symbols of the nation—to guide the user’s imagination, nor are there any counternarratives to provide alternative perspectives of the nation.[11]  

Unintended irony permeates the structure of “Searching for Syria’s” archived conclusion. While the project originally featured the hypermediated statement “Syria as we knew it no longer exists” impressed upon an image of a Syrian street decimated by bombs and warfare, the archived version expresses greater hopelessness and precarity. There is no visual backdrop for the text, only digital barrenness and silence. There is no “Syria as we knew it”; Syria simply “no longer exists.”

Judith Butler was right to assert that “to see the frame that blinds us to what we see is no easy matter.” [12] Learning to do so, however, is necessary when adhering to traditional reading practices can make readers of digital literature complicit in reinforcing the constructed power hierarchies that otherize the post-colonial subaltern. Tracing the embedded frameworks within “Searching for Syria” demonstrates how hypermediated reading is necessary to understand how the prioritization of the Western gaze has lingering effects on narrative production and interpretation, even after a digital text has been removed from the internet in its original form. Hypermediacy can then become an unobtrusive tool of the digital colonizer, unless readers adapt their reading practices to unmask the neutral appearances of hierarchical design. 

[1] “Syria Emergency,” UNHCR, April 19, 2018, http://www.unhcr.org/syria-emergency.html.

[2] “Searching for Syria,” R/GA Transformation at Speed, accessed March 6, 2019, https://www.rga.com/work/case-studies/searching-for-syria; “Searching for Syria,” Google, accessed March 6, 2019, //www.google.com/main/searching-for-syria-searches-about-refugee-crisis/

[3] Davin Heckman and Serge Bouchardon, “Digital Manipulability and Digital Literature,” Electronic Book Review, August 5, 2012, https://electronicbookreview.com/essay/digital-manipulability-and-digital-literature/.

[4] Heckman and Bouchardon.

[5] “Internet Archive: Wayback Machine,” Internet Archive: Wayback Machine, accessed March 6, 2019, https://archive.org/web/.

[6] Web pages are archived by bots or by manual uploads from users.

[7] “Wayback Machine: Searchingforsyria.Org/En/,” Internet Archive: Wayback Machine, October 1, 2017, https://web.archive.org/web/20171001000000*/searchingforsyria.org/en/.

[8] Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, “The Enduring Ephemeral, or the Future Is a Memory,” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 1 (2008): 167–69, https://doi.org/10.1086/595632.

[9] The Wayback Machine bots determine which sites to crawl based on how many times the link to the website has been shared. The snapshots they create can render static CSS and HTML, but not dynamic pages (ex. pages created in Javascript).Artur Bowsza, “Internet Archeology with the Wayback Machine,” Elephate, March 20, 2018, https://www.elephate.com/blog/internet-archeology-wayback-machine/; Kalev Leetaru, “The Internet Archive Turns 20: A Behind The Scenes Look At Archiving The Web,” Forbes, January 18, 2016, https://www.forbes.com/sites/kalevleetaru/2016/01/18/the-internet-archive-turns-20-a-behind-the-scenes-look-at-archiving-the-web/.

[10] Chun, 169.

[11] This provides a new context for Benedict Anderson’s concept of imagined communities, which views the nation as an imagined construction uniting people who identify with the identity perceived to characterize the nation. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Revised edition (London New York: Verso, 2016).

[12] Judith Butler relevantly speaks about the need to understand the intentional frameworks that control the visual production of war images. Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?, Reprint edition (London ; New York: Verso, 2010), 100.