‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’ And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory.
– George Orwell, 1984
Is it art that mimics reality, or the other way around? When Orwell wrote these words 66 years ago, was he aware of the truth they would carry so many years later? Did he think merely reading these words would one day be a danger in its own right, resulting in arrest under a regime that so closely mirrors his dystopian world?
The preservation of history (and her-story, and their-story) is a revolutionary act. As Egyptian-Lebanese artist Lara Baladi says, archiving is an act of resistance, especially in the midst of a political atmosphere that attempts to negate memory; it is a way of retreating from the action, collecting, documenting, and “making sure that this doesn’t get diluted in time and in space.” Whether it is by way of personal narratives, road signs, clothing, food, or photographs, the tendency toward preservation is about resisting erasure. It is ultimately about survival – of self and of community.
This desire to preserve and keep alive one’s history and heritage is the motivating drive behind PIVOT theWorld, a mobile app that uses Augmented Reality (AR) technology to give users a glimpse into the past. The brainchild of two Palestinian-Americans, Asma Jaber and Sami Jitan, PIVOT aims to “streamline digital cultural preservation in areas where cultures and histories are at risk of being lost,” using archived historical images that illustrate how a place has changed over time. Their first location? Historic Palestine.
A Father’s Legacy
Born to Palestinian parents, Asma grew up in South Carolina. She relied on the oral histories and childhood memories her father provided to paint a portrait of a homeland she could only access through story and imagination. When her father passed away, she was suddenly left to piece her history together on her own. “The first time I visited Historic Palestine after my father passed away, I felt lost,” she says. “He grew up in Palestine and knew the area and history so intimately; without him, I did not have the ability to fully appreciate the rich culture and history beneath my very feet. But I realized that this did not have to be the case.”
Asma’s mission to preserve her father’s Palestine was realized when she met Sami Jitan in what can only be described as serendipitous. It was Nakba Day, May 15, a day that commemorates the Palestinian displacement the came with Israel’s creation. The two diaspora Palestinians were stuck at the border between Palestine and Jordan, refused entry by border guards. They told their story to Annie Robbins of Mondoweiss:
Coincidentally it was the exact location Asma’s father, Samir Yousef Jaber, was exiled from Palestine decades ago. A refugee, Samir Jaber eventually settled in Travelers Rest, South Carolina, where Asma was raised. Originally from Nazareth, he created Palestine for his family in Travelers Rest by planting olive and fruit trees and so much more…Oddly, Sami Jitan lived very near Travelers Rest as a child (the next town over), though their paths had not crossed before that day.
Tragically, a few months after that meeting Asma’s father died at 66. It was during the months that followed, experiencing an incredible void in her life, that Jaber became inspired to preserve her father’s heritage and her own…A year later, Jaber and Jitan turned that idea into a reality, and PIVOT was born.
The two, now engaged, devote every waking minute to their baby – an innovative, visionary young startup that was awarded the 2014 Grand Prize at Harvard Innovation Lab’s Entrepreneurship Challenge. Thus far, they have partnered with developers and designers in Palestine, Jordan, and Cambridge, MA, and will eventually expand to include locations (“PIVOT points”) all over the world. Historical content is sourced from public domain institutional archives like the Library of Congress. Where there are gaps, Jitan tells me, the app will rely on crowdsourced content.
History through an iPhone and a Shoebox
In comes “shoebox archiving.” On their website, the creators of PIVOT describe it as “a movement aimed at mobilizing communities to scan old photographs and interview the older generation to which those pictures belong, so that the images will not be forgotten or go on without context.”
As we sit in Cafe Algiers in Harvard Square, Jitan excitedly explains the process to me over Arabic coffee and pastries:
First we’re sourcing from Library of Congress, British Archives – these open archives that allow us to sort of pull old pictures, they are in the public domain, and we can make PIVOT points out of them, so when you point towards a location you see what it looked like in the past. Now, Library of Congress is not extensive, and eventually we’re going to run out of either year or location layers. By that I mean, let’s say you’re at Dome of the Rock. Library of Congress has everything up to 1930, but 1930 until present day is kind of a gap. So that’s why we’re implementing shoebox archiving, to sort of find those gaps, whether they be spatially or time-wise.
Our dashboard allows us to make a distinction between vantage point as well as location and of course time period, up to the day, of the picture that was taken. So now we’re trying to implement the best process for which people “shoebox archive.” So I’m actually going to go home this weekend and see how this process occurs – I’m going to open up the basement, take out all of our pictures, and start digitizing them and see what’s the best way to streamline the process.
We’re exploring a business model where people can receive compensation for sharing these photographs. Let’s say your family had a trip to Dome of the Rock pre-1960 and this photograph would be very important to somebody, and let’s say Library of Congress makes a tour for that and they include your picture, then you receive compensation, a percentage of that tour. So that’s kind of a way to motivate people to find really compelling photographs of interesting places that will be used by large institutions.
A Movement for Self-Discovery
It is a brilliant concept, not least because of its inter-generational community-building aspect. My dad always says, “you know you’re old when you have all the answers, but no one is asking you the questions.”
To me, the most compelling part of PIVOT goes back to its original inspiration – Asma’s father and his stories. How much history do we lose when we fail to speak to the older generations, to learn from their years of wisdom and experience? How often do we get the chance to play a role in writing our own histories and narratives? We have this repository of memory and heritage and oral history in the form of our elders, a wealth of information that is at risk of being lost if we don’t actively work to preserve it.
Jitan echoed this sentiment:
Part of the Shoebox Archiving Movement is to have the younger generation speak to the older generation, and have these old stories come out. That’s the hardest part. Not getting people to photograph, not getting people to write. Because people are already doing that on Instagram and on Facebook. But to really go back to the old generation and bring that conversation literally back to life…
The reason that we’re starting it in Palestine is that it makes the project stronger. We want to expand to places like Syria, Iraq, Egypt. The Arab World is a great proof of concept for this, because, especially in the last 50-60 years, there’s been so much dramatic change that needs to be documented and discussed more openly, and organized more distinctly.
To the founders of PIVOT, the importance of these conversations with the past lies in self-discovery – understanding how we, our families, our communities, our countries, got to this point. Our social media generation, Jitan says, is more preoccupied with “reinventing themselves, rather than discovering themselves.” Their hope is that PIVOT will bring us one step closer to resolving these “existential crises,” preserving our histories, and celebrating a multiplicity of narratives.
To read more about this initiative and support the development of shoebox archiving, check out PIVOT’s Kickstarter campaign.