On the Quickening of History

September 12, 2011

Writer and urbanist Brendan Crain writes about the role of new digital tools in preservation efforts. In the existing conflict between preserving buildings to slow the process of loss and the dynamic nature of people, digital layers can maintain a sense of urgency around long-passed events that lend the built environment much of its import.


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Museum Without Walls app that gives you instant access to the thousands of pieces of public art and architecture you’ll find on our website, plus tour routes, historical info, and analysis. © cultureNOW.

If it is less artful for the change, storytelling is more potent as it becomes more democratic. History, once written by the victors to be recited and accepted as inerrant fact by schoolchildren, is more contested today as individual accounts color public perception of events. This changes the very pace of how history is made and, inherently, how it is remembered. In cities, this necessitates a radical shift in how we think about preservation. Traditionally, we preserve pieces of the built environment in order to slow the process of loss, but buildings are static proxies for the dynamic people who built and occupied them, and the social histories of these places are often lost. Indeed, the current debate around preservation seems largely preoccupied with the question of whether or not the whole operation has gotten out of hand, watered down by a reactionary attitude toward change and a purely aesthetic understanding of the urban condition.

If architectural preservation has long been limited by the difficulty of attaching meaningful social narratives to physical structures, new tech is creating exciting possibilities for reinvigorating the practice. Already, we are using digital databases and mobile apps to augment the contemporary cityscape. CultureNOW’s Museum Without Walls app features thousands of geo-tagged sites in dozens of cities, allowing users to learn about historical and cultural sites of interest as they move through the city. In London, apps like Historypin and the Museum of London’s StreetMuseum allow users to hold their phone up to view historic images layered over the contemporary cityscape. Tools like these allow for the communication of past uses and conditions in ways that preservationists could have only dreamed of a decade ago.

The creation of more tools for sharing historical information, though, has coincided with an even more dramatic spike in the number of people doing the sharing. Thanks to the rapid rise of the smartphone over the past four years, you can take the world with you wherever you go. We’re learning newer and faster ways of communicating our own stories at the same time that we’re being exposed to an evermore diverse array of viewpoints. We weave each other’s narratives, built across multiple platforms, into our own. Curation used to be something that we left to people in museums, but in an info-rich, globalized urban society, to exist is to curate. The records that we create as we log our reactions to current events could some day be layered onto the physical places in which those events took place, creating an in-situ record of not just what happened, but how that happening was interpreted from various vantage points. This is a boon to preservationists, as people can sympathize much more deeply with human narratives than glass and stone facades or any bronze plaques that may adorn them. Preservation of the built environment is, ultimately, a slowing of loss; digital layers can aid greatly in this endeavor by maintaining a sense of urgency around long-passed events that lend the built environment much of its import.

Of course, these new layers of information also complicate the practice of historic preservation. Intangible as they may be, mobile apps like Layar and Junaio are fundamentally changing the way that people interact with the world around them, meaning that the platforms themselves are becoming important features of the cityscape — and these are just the first salvo, the Pong- or Frogger-level iterations of augmented reality apps. These applications will eventually be used not just to find a good place for Thai food or to see where a bus route leads, but to interpret and alter the physical realm, as well. As augmented reality applications become increasingly ubiquitous, it will become impossible to separate the city from its digital self. This means that, in the not too distant future, digital layers will need to be thought of by preservationists in much the same way that buildings are today. And while it’s true that digital preservation is already a subject of discussion, that discussion is currently focused on the use of digital tools to preserve the physical world, or to preserve artistic or cultural projects that were created on digital platforms. The preservation of the platforms themselves is largely uncharted territory, regardless of the outsized impact that they have had on our lives.

The tricky thing about digital versions of the urban environment is that, unlike buildings, they don’t ever actually disappear. Even if you delete something online, it exists somewhere in the electronic ether, a string of zeroes and ones just waiting to be discovered by some digital anthropologist a few decades hence. Unlike the preservation of the physical city, which is focused on stemming the loss of limited historic building stock, the preservation of the digital city will require the parsing of a near-limitless flow of information generated across thousands (if not millions) of applications. In the digital realm, preservation becomes promotion, and this raises some thorny questions. For instance: When we are talking about preserving particular versions of a city, which ones become canonical? Layar’s version of New York in 2011 is almost certainly different, however slightly, from Junaio’s, and in 2061, many imitators will have come and gone — indeed, Layar and/or Junaio could easily disappear in the interim. Preservationists concerned with the digital cityscape will need to determine which layers from which apps are the most useful, or accurate, or interesting.

If you scoff at the idea that someone would want to view a long-outdated version of the city, just imagine if it were possible, while wandering the likes of Bleecker or MacDougal Streets in New York City, to pull up a layer on your phone that immersed you in the Greenwich Village of the 1950s, complete with William Faulkner’s Yelp reviews of several of his favorite bars (some still in operation), or a YouTube video of Bob Dylan humming through “Blowin’ in the Wind” in fits and starts as he wrote it in the back room of the Fat Black Pussycat. This raises yet another question in regards to the preservation of the digital city: which version of these versions that we are preserving is most important to preserve? You would be hard-pressed to find someone who would argue that the Greenwich Village of 2011 is as important to pass on to future generations as the Greenwich Village of 1953. Since history never stops being made, there will never be enough time or energy to preserve (promote) everything. Selective forgetfulness is a fundamental necessity in a digitally-augmented world.

Physical places, particularly those of the densely-populated, urban variety, are now so richly infused with conflicting narratives that their immediate history (what has happened in the past two weeks) is just as important as their distant history (what has happened in the past two hundred years). The stories of mis- and/or under-represented minority groups that might have been swept under the rug in the past can now be tagged directly to the places in which they occurred. Digital layers even have the potential to make preservation into a more participatory process by allowing people to build robust narratives that root them to their physical communities in ways that are harder to erase. The incorporation of proactive digital tactics could dramatically broaden support for the preservation movement. Positing storytelling that is both artful and democratic as a principal goal for the historic preservation movement in an augmented world, the need for the legitimization of the digital cityscape, so integral to the sustentation of the physical, is both immediate and vital. As history speeds up, we must consider the preservation of all things present, for tomorrow, they will be long past.