Accessing pasts and futures
Archivology and Big Data Help Recover Our Memories of Time
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If an 18th-century person could observe the naturalness with which we deal with the technology present in our lives today, he or she would say that we are all endowed with mystical powers. Arthur C. Clarke, science fiction writer, translated the same relationship between humanity and the technologies to come in the sentence:
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
In thinking about the developments of the following technologies, the same phrase holds true when comparing what our “magical” ancestors who studied time have left behind as legacy and that has become knowledge we have forgotten or not yet reached: science and spirituality will meet again in the newly-developed theory in the field of quantum physics? Will solutions to any kind of problem be available in rituals of access to an infinite array of permutations of possibilities like Akashic records? Did the myths and stories told by ancient tribes about the beginning of time already describe the most widely accepted versions of the Big Bang and the formation of our universe?
Library of Babel
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The unprecedented transformations of the present have created a vital need to restore and intensify our engagement with the past as a way to build a common path for future generations based on shared values and the building of communities with access to this complex and diverse social memory.
Tradition and innovation, memory and imagination
Imagine a joint initiative between several countries that is willing to digitize all the memory contained in historical documents already produced across a continent, a true time machine. At first, such a coalition may seem a little out of place in the present time in which we live. After all, in the current effort to always look to the future, we become short-sighted about the importance of revisiting the past. But imagine the possibilities and learnings that such dive can provide.
At the first meeting in a partnership series between TORUS and Time Machine Europe, Gustavo Nogueira (Gust) welcomed Thomas Aigner for a conversation.
Thomas holds a PhD in History from the University of Vienna and has shared his experience in the field of archival and architecture of digital information. Thomas Aigner has long worked as an Archivist with many experiences in the field of European project management — Creative Europe, Econtentplus, EU Culture, Interreg IVA, Leader +, ICT-PSP to name a few. Since 2008, he is the President of Icarus — International Center for Archival Research.
For Thomas, historical archives have always been viewed as tedious or even boring. These are piles and piles of documents with a language of their own, which we know little about, and which demand an excessive amount of time to evaluate information that may be more or less relevant. In addition to the fact that access to files has always been very restricted to a few people, as a form of preservation.
Past and future crossing paths in the present
ICARUS emerged as an initiative to digitize Austria’s historical archives, but soon realized its potential and spread as a network of cooperation between various institutions and organizations inside and outside the country. Today, it is an association comprising more than 180 archives and scientific institutions from nearly 40 countries in Europe and beyond and seeks to address the many challenges of the digital age. ICARUS engages in a variety of projects and activities to spread its knowledge and experience internationally.
The digitization initiative of all this documentation makes archives relevant to society at last. But more than a digitized copy, it is about being able to extract the various layers of knowledge contained in these documents. ICARUS’ main ongoing project today is done in conjunction with the Time Machine Organization. Faced with the challenges of a globalized and increasingly digital world, the project stems from the need to ask ourselves: “To which extent can local traditions and memories of the past help us in these new times?”
“Having and making these records accessible to everyone is a big revolution, but what we also seek is to go a step further. It is capturing all the information contained in these records and being able to process it through artificial intelligence. I believe that never before has this historical information been so relevant as it is today. And the Time Machine is making it possible.”
Time Machine addresses this need by proposing a large-scale distributed scanning and computing infrastructure that will profoundly change the dialogue between past, present, and future.
”The Time Machine Project makes many dreams come true. To be able to realize centuries of history and everything they contain in all their information, whether through documents, photos, objects, maps, papyrus, in a digital way is amazing. As well as making them available for consultation. This is a lot. It is maximzing what historical information can bring us, more than anything that has been done before.”
Collective complexes of social memories
Based on the principle of complementarity, they understand that the challenges resulting from the advancement of digital technologies can be viewed together as a community. They believe that in order to succeed, it is essential not only to effectively create and maintain electronic infrastructures and shared standards and strategies but also to jointly develop new approaches to international cooperation.
“I think this is not only important in terms of potential new forms of collaboration, but it is also important in terms of creating a common responsibility for our history, of what we do with it.”
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For Thomas, these initiatives also enable the community building. Until recently, these archives and historical data were the responsibility of specific institutions that, in isolation, were looking for the best way to preserve them. The association’s projects seek a connection between these institutions and the entry of a new element: the public, by making these records available to anyone who wants to access them.
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The potential of futures
We tend to think that these past data points are not relevant, and Thomas attributes this precisely to the access difficulties we often have to these records. Being able to access this information with the touch of a smartphone makes this extremely relevant because everything we do now is based on history. Regardless if it’s something that happened 5 minutes ago, 10 years ago or 10,000 years ago.
“Think of something simple: You want to buy a house. Now you can know when it was built, what is the context, what is the history of that region and so on. And that may be relevant in your decision. Or if you are a creative or an artist, you can now have examples of inspiration and access to everything that has been produced in these terms and you can create something completely new. And the list of examples go on.”
The ability to access historical information for which there were numerous barriers before is, for Thomas, invaluable. They become part of our present, available to all and in all their transformative power.
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Much of this potential for transformation also comes from insights into new learnings. Thomas points out that the projects developed jointly at ICARUS come from an association with institutions from different areas of knowledge, such as mathematicians, geneticists, futurists, among many others. Providing access and expansion of knowledge in the application of technological innovations in historical archives has a significant impact on the way learning processes are thought.
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“It’s amazing how we can already see a whole business that could be affected by this research. I have the impression that we are seeing the flourishing of a new business niche.”
By creating new learning and knowledge expansion tools, these impacts can reach beyond the academic field and reach companies and organizations.
Time Machine Conference 2019
All of these points and many others will be discussed in more detail by Thomas in his panel at the Time Machine Conference October 10–11, 2019 in Dresden, Germany. Its idea is that sharing these experiences and presenting their full potential can stimulate both further research in the area and similar initiatives.
“The most important thing about Time Machine Organization is that we were able to create an alliance between hundreds of institutions not just about cultural heritage and science, but also from industry and business, like big corporations. I think we have hardly seen such an alliance before, with this intersection, focused on this goal and aware of its potential. These are different worlds and we are finding a way to cooperate. It’s really historic and possible.”
We really live in interesting times. These initiatives are a way of reconstructing our memories and also redefining what we understand as our experiences in time. Being in connection with time and different dimensions provides a new and privileged perspective of observation about the world around us and about which futures we will have the ability to glimpse and then build.
As part of a partnership between TORUS and Time Machine Organization, and seeking to broaden access to the Time Machine Conference 2019 learnings, throughout September, every Thursday, we will hold a live online meeting with the keynote speakers that are part of the conference schedule. Meetings will be in English and you can access them by registering here:
Register here for free for our online Conference warm-up sessions. Every Thursday. Next session is on September 12 (sessions will be held in English).
In this article: digital archives, digitization, digital libraries, cross-border cooperation projects, project management, archivology, intercultural dialogue and historical research.