Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Technology and Secrets

The reunification of Germany provided an opportunity to study how secret police have operated in repressive regimes. Kristie Macrakis, in her Seduced by Secrets: Inside the Stasi’s Spy-Tech World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), opines, “The fall of the Berlin World in 1989 created an unprecedented opportunity for historians to examine the files of a defunct intelligence and secret police organization” (p. xix). The files are truly amazing – a hundred miles of files and 35 million index cards – reflective of a government out of control in watching its own citizens. Macrakis focuses on the Stasi’s uses of information technology (cameras, containers, radios, and computers), providing one of the most detailed analyses of how secret police function.

Noting that there were efforts made to destroy all the equipment and other artifacts used by the Stasi, Macrakis makes this interesting comment about the secret police artifacts: ”Artifacts often reflect the ideas, beliefs, achievements, and attitudes of long-lost civilizations; they also mirror their culture. Technology talks, it speaks the language of culture . . . . the technological artifacts offer us rare and valuable insight into a very secret culture and community within which like in a secret cult, every member was trained to keep the methods and sources of their work hidden from the enemy and outsiders” (p. 196). This is a compelling argument for why archivists need to pay attention to both the documentary sources and the devices that created and stored them. When these tools are used to watch others, they are even more intrinsically interesting and compelling than in other circumstances.

Macrakis is careful to note that the kind of spying we see reflected in the Stasi files is something we should be aware can happen in our own democracy. In fact, she is worried that all of this stems from a “faith in technology,” arguing that “as technological developments have accelerated over the last-century, our dependence on technology and faith in it have only increased” (p. 315).