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The Past Fascinates, Informs, Entertains and Employs People

In the modern world, does the preservation of the past matter? Is it a disaster if tomorrow has a historical amnesia because today allowed yesterday to vanish without trace?

Received wisdom over the years has concluded that those who neglect the past are condemned to repeat it. And we learn from history that we don’t learn from history.

There is a tendency nowadays to assume that old technology (cameras, documents, music, medicine, transport) will stay that way. Redundant. But some genuinely prefer a scratchy record to a digitalised version; some like the depth of quality in old roll film.

Most cities, towns and villages around the land seek to cash in on their past for tourism purposes. Museums, monuments, old battlefields, historic re-enactments, restored mines/factories/mills, famous residents past and present and related catering and accommodation are essential parts of local economies employing millions.

The broader issue is that every generation doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel. Technology should be able to keep the past alive to inform the present. It was George Orwell who wrote in his Nineteen Eighty-Four novel (1948), ‘Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.’

Events like Royal occasions, weddings, public spectacles are all steeped in history, and each time they are used they demonstrate man’s needs for roots and history.

Cultural Inheritance

Technology is increasingly being used in the discovery, exploration and preservation of history around the world.

It has always been the case that graves at sea or on land have been plundered by thieves. Today some people continue those practices, regarding the past as fair game rather than something to be treasured for future generations.

Wikiloot is an online database of known stolen artifacts published with photos and documents which allow members of the public to track them down. Heritage theft is a serious crime in many countries of the world, especially those with ancient history they want to keep.

They hope that by harnessing collective crowd knowledge, vulnerable resources can be better protected.

Conflicts of Interest

There have always been tensions between archaeology and tourism, between even recent history and the environment and between preserving the past to inform the future and the needs of business, energy and employment.

Take just fishing. It is an industry employing 45 million people, landing 80 million tons of fish from 4 million vessels and worth over $93 billion a year.  In many areas of the earth whole communities depend on fishing, which is naturally a renewable resource. But pollution and man’s greed frequently fish the seas dry.

The nets often snag old cannon and statues beneath the surface. Nets can haul up bones, weapons, coins and all sorts of relics of past life which may have value. Finders fee can supplement fishermen’s wages.

But raking the seabed can also decimate old shipwrecks, and once they are gone, they are gone forever. Now technology is being used to protect known sites of historical importance.

Microchips in nets warn of marine parks, but unscrupulous hunters can see that as an advantage rather than a prohibition. The next step may be exclusion zones round wrecks and valuable sites, ‘geofenced’ by equipment-jamming systems.

Contemporary Technology Illuminates the Past

In education, most teachers of history and the sociology of mankind, deploy technologies. Resources for lessons, activities, games, projects, data, social networks, maps, virtual field trips and old archives are freely available to bring the past alive in classrooms, integrating learning with practical materials.

Innovative and imaginative photo manipulations, conversations with figures from bygone times and illustrated real timelines help today’s youngsters understand that we shouldn’t judge the past by the values of today.

People can research their family histories online quite easily and a fair way back. Genealogy now has data banks of old parish registers of births, deaths and marriages, military service records and old newspapers to support studies.

The causes and effects of wars, terrors and abuses between cultures and races can also be examined through interactive technology. That can only be a good thing for a more peaceful and productive future.

So, even those who say that the past is dead may realise that it isn’t. It’s in another dimension but one that we can access in many ways to inform, educate and entertain us in equal measure.

Further Reading:

Teaching History With Technology

Mash-Ups Mix the Old and the Now to Make Art for Today

Past History is Key to the Present; Present is Key to the Future

How Second World War Still Fascinates, Horrifies and Educates

Old Codes and Symbols Reinvented Through Modern Technologies

Image: Jim Champion