The Future of Experiencing the Past #25 #cong16

By John Tierney.

*Big Data*

Selfies build timelines for personal history. In time they become a source for family history & family histories are a key source for micro histories,  those histories which delve into the details of the past in order to better understand the macro history of a people or place. Selfies represent the growth of big data and it's potential for future historians.

The surge in web-based historical research has used **copies** of historic documents, often incomplete and difficult to read. In the coming decades we will be using native digital media to develop personal and family timelines and then using other sources to add flesh to these bones. Big data will be delved with huge potential for good and for bad.

*Dangerous Data*

All historians, academic or citizen historians, wish to tell stories of the past which reveal something new & truthful. In the process history can appear light-hearted and interesting or it can address the difficult topics about the past. Topics such as who had the power and how did they use it? How did gender politics manifest itself? What is the history of sexual abuse in a country or parish? Stories of violence, mental health and religious practice are stacked deep across Ireland and the rest of Europe.

Institutional historic datasets and public health records can be very dangerous (Breathnach & Gurrin 2016). In a country where people object to historic documents which describe their grandparents as labourers how do we think they will feel if and when we publish datasets from a lunatic asylum?

*Contextualising Big Data*

Perhaps even greater than the risk of dangerous data is the risk of bad science in future histories. Proper research methodologies must be used & currently universities are playing a very important role in increasing the quality of research being conducted. But as citizen research grows will the quality of research be maintained? Probably not. How can we address this issue in a realistic manner?

We can hack good methods into the tools people will use for future histories. A key hack is to contextualise the dataset - where did this happen and when did it happen? If those questions must be answered when recording digital media then maybe gross or deliberate errors can be minimised.

And then to link where and when in a mean meaningful manner we need to determine sequence and causality of events - can this be hacked? We think so and point to examples from archaeological excavation where spatial and temporal elements are woven together for meaningful interpretation.

*Experiencing the past*

When it comes to experiencing the past 2016 is probably the first year when VR has been widely available. 3D models are being made of objects, structures and places. My first experience of 360 degree imaging was at Cong 2015 but this year we have created equirectangular images for Google Cardboard from graveyards and historic sites all around Ireland and the UK. A step up from Google Cardboard using the HTC Vive has resulted in the building of visceral experiences - standing on a cliff top and veering down in a VR is  treated the same as doing it in RL and already people have been sexually assaulted in VR! Why is this not surprising? What does it mean about human behaviour in VR?

Right now we can be the cowboy riding into town in Red Dead aboard a stagecoach with a Colt .45 on our hip and a VR headset over our eyes. Very soon we will fix our grandparents photographs to avatars in VR and will be able to relive some of their own experiences.

The future of experiencing the past will combine VR and Augmented Reality. Big data and dangerous data combined with citizen researchers will reveal previously unidentified causal relationships and as a result experiencing the past will become a strong tool for affecting the future.


© Eoin Kennedy 2017 eoin at congregation dot ie