Using digital media to explore Peru's recent memories of violence

About the Project


May 2013


Cambridge, MA

The Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created in 2001 and tasked with investigating the process of political violence Peru went through during the 1980s and 1990s. In 2003, the Commission presented its Final Report, a document spanning eight thousand pages in nine volumes and several appendices that represent the broadest, most detailed investigative work ever performed on this complicated period of recent Peruvian history. For two years, a massive team of researchers went through documentation, performed site visits and carried hundreds of interviews and public hearings, collecting all sorts of material to document the time span between 1978 and 2001 - a complicated period where interpretations remain heavily contested. Despite its name, the Commission did not understand its own work as coming up with the definitive, final truth on the matter, but rather as uncovering a significant amount of material that had been “swept under the rug” for many years, enabling the nation to open up a space of discussion as to what made the violence possible in the first place, and how to address the structural issues that split the country apart and pushed it almost to the point of civil war.

But precisely because the Commission covered so much material and generated such broad output, the Final Report is not easily accessible to most readers (Hatun Willakuy, an abbreviated version of the Report in a single volume, is an effort at providing a friendlier version). Most public conversations, in the media or in politics, happen without a real understanding of what the Report claims, and how those claims are layered and supported in documentation and testimonies. The Report has become controversial enough that in many cases it is just thrown around as an empty signifier: a hollow object, standing in for evertyhing a groups may either believe in, or radically oppose. This, in turn, leads to the Report’s contents being brandished around as absolute facts, rather than as the foundations for the construction of collective memories and narratives that attempt to make sense of the process of violence.

The mem0r1a project attempts to develop an alternative access point to the Report by using computational analysis tools: taking the text itself as if it were a massive database, the goal of the project is to create digital tools that enable a user to interrogate the Report interactively. By doing this, we can explore the possibilities afford by forms of “distant reading” in providing us with a sense of narrative throughlines and big picture arguments happening through the Report or any of its sections. This sort of big picture understanding can then help the reader in deciding where to jump into the larger text in search for more detail and a clearer understanding of an event, or how a theme unfolded over time. Using computational tools such as natural language processing, we can draw inferences as to the language used in the report, and what themes, words, places, and characters are mentioned more or less frequently. This enables a user to not only ask factual or content questions from the Report, but also larger overarching questions: why does the Report portray things one way, or the other? What are the implications of its conclusions or its recommendations? How can the Report be expanded, ammended or improved?

The project looks to developing a series of explorations involving content analysis of the Report by leveraging the affordances of computational analysis - by identifying patterns, trends, generatin data visualizations or reinterpretations based on different combinations of text, image and sound. It is also an illustration of how research in the humanities and social sciences can be expanded by the use of digital tools and computational resources, and how increasingly, narratives are being constructed as an interplay between text (as text itself, as audio, or as video) and code (as rules, interactions, and interfaces). Using the resources now available we can explore collective memory in ways that were previously too costly or hard to access, and the results might be interesting enough that we can probe and push them further, or leverarge them to bridge the gap between research and public awareness. The intention of the project is not to replace a traditional reading of the Report, but rather to provide an alternative access point that allows for interactive exploration - with the hope that, in turn, this will motivate more people to become acquainted with its contents, and encouraged to perform a critical, informed discussion of the Final Report.