But last week a good friend was in a car accident and I got to revisit the analogy from a new angle: that of compositional authority. My friend was hit head-on by another car with such speed and force that she was whiplashed and dazed. She never lost consciousness but her memory of the event was dubious. I met her at the hospital soon after and talked to the police officer who documented the accident. Whereas she told me that there was no police officer on the scene before she was ambulanced away, the officer assured me that (1) not only was he there, (2) he spoke with her and took her statement. Nothing too interesting here. Such discrepancies are to be expected.
What I found interesting was the problem of authority. At the scene of the accident the officer relied on the testimony of the eyewitnesses to get an overview of the details and construct an official narrative: the police report. He accounted for the relative and incomplete testimonies and the remaining artifacts. But as soon as he wrote his report—in fact within minutes of the event—the eyewitnesses were no longer authoritative. Moreover, all involved agreed on this social arrangement. After relying on eyewitness testimony, the witnesses themselves relied on the officers account as the authoritative narrative: because he had the big picture which made sense of all the different perspectives.
Days later my friend mentioned to me that she would like to read the police report to find out what really happened. She wanted to hear the bigger picture, the one she couldn't get from her own limited perspective. So she, an eyewitness, conceded authority to the police report, a document composed by man who did not himself see the accident.
This is where the social memory theorist will want to pay attention. The interesting thing is not that details vary. The interesting thing is that our social arrangements force us to concede authority to an external artifact that was composed by an authoritative collector of facts jointly perceived and reported. Importantly, it is the composition of a non-eyewitness that frames all subsequent debate about the event.