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Journeys into History Through the Future

Date of publication: 2020-03-22 18:45:26
Дата модификации: 2020-03-22 18:45:26
Views: 1044
The article is timed to the date: 1995-01-01
Other articles related to: Date1995-01-01 Articles for: Year1995
PARAGRAPH International - Welcome to our WWW server!
Virtual Home Museum
by John Randolf
"What may not be expected in a country of eternal light?"
-- From Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
At universities across the United States, most freshmen face some dreaded "History 101," some long, forced march through history. For many, the march ends in failure -- failure, though they receive passing or good grades, failure, even though (and more often than is assumed) they know "the facts." "History 101" fails to interest students, to build a bridge between their lives and the past. Frustrated, content with the rudiments acquired, or even consciously forgetting them, students pass on, leaving history behind.
And why not? "History is the friend of tyrants!," as Jean-Jacques Rousseau is reported to have once said, and the Information Revolution is on! Students - of all ages - are struggling to find a place in this emerging electronic world, and the last thing they need is to be bullied by books. "Just do it!," as the saying goes; and there's more than a little wisdom there.
And yet -- what an irony! For centuries the written word was a good friend -- teacher, comrade and companion in "doing things." History helped people figure out what there was to do (Nike provides limited answers). In today's world of multiple medias and virtual realities, the computer is the key to great potential. But what is history's place in the Information Revolution? And what is the historian's?
To be honest (and as a professional historian I try to be), many academics still want to avoid this question. During a recent trip to libraries and archives in Russia, however, I was suddenly confronted by an intriguing vision for cyberspace -- ParaGraph International's new project, entitled AlterEgo. Dropping by their Moscow office for coffee and conversation, I began to see the promise (and problems) of history's rebirth into a world of networks and virtual reality.
I didn't go to Russia seeking answers to my questions concerning history's place in the future.
Last fall I arrived in St.Petersburg to continue the research for my dissertation. I wanted to reconstruct select scenes from the daily life of one of Russia's most famous noble families -- the Bakunins. Yet as I recopied hundreds of letters and shot slides of the house which had been the home of one of the nineteenth century's most charismatic revolutionaries (little Misha, Mikhail Bakunin, the anarchist opponent of Marx), I soon realized that a collective caricature would be far easier to draw than a family portrait. The Bakunins were romantics and idealists, full of plans and thoroughly impractical, brilliant and (of course!) doomed. Two strokes of a crude brush and they would be the perfect stereotype of Russia. Exactly what I wanted to avoid.
History should be the science of the unexpected and unknown -- that's why historians go to archives, that's what their lectures and books should communicate -- knowledge, not stereotype. So I kept digging.
But have books and lectures grown tired? As my research became more interesting, my interest in communicating it effectively grew. At Berkeley, I was part of a group of several graduate students who had discussed the potential of "multi-media" presentations of history. One of most widely held axioms concerning emerging information technologies is that they are tools, like any others, with certain strengths and weaknesses. Nonetheless, from the historian's point of view, they have no tradition. The idea of "uploading" history into a world of "virtual reality" inevitably raises the question: will this world merely be a dumbed-down version of the one we already have?
Of course, without an actual opportunity to work with this technology, all such discussions remain abstract. Which is why an article in "Moscow News" about Paragraph's new project AlterEgo immediately caught my browsing eye. I had heard of ParaGraph in connection with their work on handwriting recognition. But the article in the "Moscow Times" described an extremely grand design, beyond any one product or technology. Under the name AlterEgo, ParaGraph hopes to lay the basis for a giant interactive network -- a web of "virtual realities." In guises of their own choice (alter- egos), clients from around the world could depart for journeys into several electronic worlds, some real and some imagined. Among these, ParaGraph promised historical worlds.
They were promising a Time Machine. I figured it was worth my time to travel to them.
On the nineteenth floor of a building with twenty, ParaGraph sits at the top of Moscow's computing world. Nontheless, stopping in without an appointment, I was greeted with a cordiality only enthusiasm can explain. In the "Moscow News" article, Stepan Pachikov, the company's president, had claimed that the AlterEgo project depended on the participation of the widest possible spectrum of talents and professions. "Possibly nobody can do it. Certainly nobody can do it alone."
Perhaps with this in mind, George Pachikov, head of the company's Moscow division, met my questions as if he had expected someone would be dropping by. Yes, the AlterEgo project was well underway: the first related product, entitled "Virtual Home Museum," would soon be released. Using this application, families will be able to turn their collected photos and memories into an interactive exhibit. The frame of this "museum" can be the family's own home, or some other, custom-made structure. Every exponent can be labelled with sounds or words, every display -- carefully crafted from daily life's bits and pieces. Unlike real exhibitions in real buildings, however, this "virtual museum" can grow and change easily over time -- and, of course, it is totally portable. Shipped with the proverbial touch of a button. (I began to wonder: will our first alter-egos be our selves?)
The AlterEgo network itself is currently being developed, Pachikov continued. From the central hub (or "World Player," as ParaGraph has named it) three gateways will open into three different "layers" of interactive "virtual reality." Of these the Time Machine would only be the first. The second -- the "World of Culture and Ego" -- would allow individuals, in their alternative personae, to enter the personal cabinet of a genius -- say, a great artist or a leading expert. There, they might watch the painting of a masterpiece, or hear a brilliant reading of Shakespeare. The final gateway -- called "Mind Exchange" -- will open into completely fantastic or even "impossible" realities. (I suddenly remembered a line from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein : "What may not be expected in a country of eternal light?")
As I listened, Pachikov readied a CD-Rom multi-media presentation his company had prepared on AlterEgo. Pictures and sound rapidly dispelled the lingering sense of unreality I still had concerning this technology. A young man seated at a computer assumed the persona of an outlandish creature (a cross between a fish and a butterfly?) to travel through each of the advertised frontiers. As the creature voyaged without passport or visa through history, culture and fantasy, I wondered to myself how distinctly these worlds would or could be kept separate in the future -- and how separate they really are today.
I noticed the creature (he? it?) wasn't alone. Pachikov emphasised that, on the network, encounters would occur between travellers as well as with the individuals or places they had gone to visit. (I imagined an example: having travelled far to meet Dante, the fish- butterfly might find him already in conversation with a demon of someone else's invention. What would 'it' do then? Read "Purgatory" in the waiting room?)
Actors, historians, artists and linguists -- people of almost every profession -- would all be engaged in creating and populating these worlds...Where would the money come from? Like most companies, ParaGraph hopes to set the standard, to develop the "language" for scripting interactive experiences. This carefully-constructed "language" would then be offered to the people of various talents and skills who would, on their own initiative and by their own plans, build the massive "databases" describing the worlds open to AlterEgo. What distinguished AlterEgo's design from other proposed networks, Pachikov insisted, was its commitment to providing room for experiences beyond the limited sphere of games and amusements bracketed by the word -- he said it in English -- "entertainment." ParaGraph knew some idealism: by providing for an engaging interactive realm that would include various parts of the human cultural inheritance, AlterEgo might help bridge the distance between what we are becoming and what we have been.
It is all, Pachikov explained with the title of one of Russia's most famous novels, the same age-old question of "fathers and sons."
As I rode the elevator down to the ground floor, I tried to place AlterEgo in some perspective.
"People will have their history." These words belong to one of my college professors, not to Pachikov or ParaGraph. Idealism or realism? In my opinion, the latter. People want to know something about the past -- if they settle for nothing, that's because someone -- on purpose or by accident -- has convinced them that nothing is all they need. But the need -- the market -- is surely there.
And yet -- interactive history? What could that possibly mean? As I mentioned earlier, it seems easy to imagine interesting and effective multi-media historical presentations. Yet ParaGraph is clearly rejecting such structured experiences -- or at least rejecting the idea of limiting "alter-egos" to them. On the other hand, what is history if not a structured experience? Should history depend on us, on what we want to see (or -- more dangerously -- what we wish had happened)? Or should certain barriers between reality and fantasy be maintained?
However important, such fears are also surely part hypocrisy. Any good historian would admit that only the imagination can build history out of the shards of fact and legend left behind by the passage of time. As for "role-playing," it has long ago become an accepted pedagogical practice in American universities, a tool to help generate interest in the study of the past. Mae West's rule of thumb -- "there's no such thing as a bad reputation" -- seems applicable to history. Any discussion is better than none. Especially if history is not to become the preserve of some small, select class. (Despite the expense of interactive technology, I have no doubt it will rapidly become more widespread -- "democratic" -- than historical monographs.)
And as a tool these new mediums have great potential to destroy artificial barriers which traditional historical forms (the book, the lecture) have created. One simple example: the world of sound -- so neglected for so long, even more so than the world of sight -- can now be brought into "writing" history. The Bakunins lived their lives under the strains of nearly-forgotten piano romances and peasant songs -- now these melodies can accompany the family's recovered words.
That is, as many words (and as much music) as we can recover. The greatest danger the Information Age poses to history is the illusion that everything can be known (or worse -- that everything is already known). How can our ignorance be rendered on the net? Every day among the Bakunin papers I find letters which are fragments. I wish I knew how they end -- I don't. I note them down with a question mark. Someday I may find their missing pages -- I hope so. Similarly, our "alter-egos" should occasionally be confronted with barriers -- points where the smooth narratives of history break down into difficult questions with answers that are only partial. The search for better answers must remain part of history, even "interactive" history. Otherwise "virtual reality" will only be an alluring cul-de-sac, and networks "nets" in the literal meaning of the word.
Exiting the elevator, I crossed the foyer and walked out of the building. Leaving AlterEgo behind for now, I returned to the archive.
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Article description: Journeys into History Through the Future: A Historian's Notes on 'Alter Ego' "What may not be expected in a country of eternal light?" -- From Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

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