Digging up the past in cyberspace
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #48

One usually thinks of the information society as part of some future civilization, saturated with high technology and correspondingly sophisticated forms of four- dimensional art. So it may be surprising that soon after the most spectacular find in recent paleontology - a cave full of beautifully preserved paintings some 20,000 years old - was stumbled upon in France late last December, the Internet became one of the only ways the world could see them. The value of electronic networking to historians is in fact immense, as the information society heralds not only the future, but also a closer connection to civilizations of the distant past.

History is fragile, and not just figuratively. The older objects of art, monuments and rare documents are, the more vulnerable they are to the ravaging intrusions of cultural tourists, the forces of nature or even careful study. Yet they cannot be preserved in isolation, for historians need them to understand the rest of us, while we appreciate their beauty that often seems in proportion to their age and hence frailty. What we have, as a compromise, are museums that display a fraction of what they could, and expensive grants for those who have to be physically close to the rare objects they study under carefully controlled conditions, for want of anything better. Except that there is something better - obviously, it's cyberspace.

It is certainly possible to digitize what museums exhibit, and also what they don't. While it's impossible to print and publish a book of all cave paintings ever found for a wide audience, digital museums can reach vast audiences at relatively no cost. And they can allow their audience to explore a finding, rather than stare at the object frozen behind a sheet of glass. Very simple technologies allow viewers to see a shard of pottery from different angles, with different lighting, or on different scales. More complex technologies would let one walk through a simulation of a pyramid, or share in an archaeologist's imaginary reconstruction of now destroyed relics of the Mayan empire - such things have actually been demonstrated, although for the present they remain too expensive for large scale implementation.

But as France's Ministry of Culture showed when it put up images of the paintings found near Avignon only days after they were discovered, the Internet is ideal for this purpose. The images were available to the on-line community before they were widely circulated elsewhere, and may be the closest most of us ever get to seeing the real thing - visits to caves discovered previously are restricted, with a waiting list many years long, but their fragility is hardly a barrier to electronic distribution. The Dead Sea Scrolls crumble at the touch, but can be seen unharmed on the World Wide Web. The beautiful sculptures of the Ajanta and Ellora caves of west India are so sensitive to light that visitors have to peer at them in the dark, but in cyberspace they would be better available to many more.

That's one of the best reasons to wire the past - the enormous access of the specialist would then belong to everyone, and history would spread beyond painful textbooks pages and aloof museum walls. In the infosphere, it is often said, distance disappears. Perhaps this is true for distance not only across space, but also across time.

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