Digital Humanities, virtual heritage

Descriptive Theory Does Not Build Place

This is from the Hong Kong New Heritage Place Panel in 2006. Seems such a long time ago! One day I should revisit all these grand claims that arose from a younger me, and aim for more substantiation and logical structure.

Descriptive Theory Does Not Build Place

New media, virtual heritage, cultural heritage, and place are all hotly contested concepts, of interest to many different fields. They have in common a slippery definitional outline, and they all feature in fiery interdisciplinary debates. They also pose many difficulties for those of us attempting to create a lucid prescriptive and descriptive theory that explains and employs them effectively.

For real world cultural heritage projects one must consider actual problems of preserving the present, while allowing people to in some way understand the past. According to constructivist and constructionist theories, the best way of creating understanding for people of different learning abilities and interests is to allow them to interact with the object in question. Virtual heritage, for all its difficulties, can augment and afford experiential understanding via interaction in a way not always directly accessible through present day cultural sites. It may sound flippant, but place can actually get in the way of cultural understanding for both the public and for archaeologists. For what survives may not always be accurate, authentic, or revealing.

On the other hand, many critics have argued that virtual environments lack a sense of place. In trying to answer these critics, the danger lurks that in attempting to create a sense of place, we convince the public of a hypothetically constructed past. With technology currently used by many VR centres, such issues might appear to be easily resolvable. I reluctantly disagree.

Virtual heritage environments typically encounter issues of meaningful interaction, authenticity, accessibility, maintenance, non-intrusive evaluation of cultural understanding of inhabitant values and beliefs, and of course the ethical issues of site ownership, management and identity. It is also possible that many in the virtual heritage community may benefit from revisiting heritage studies to see how real world places have attempted to answer similar issues.

My suggestion is that new media (i.e. small n and m) technology offers more accessible, user friendly, and innovative ways of capturing and expressing place qualia to current generations. New media has challenged Presence research to study not just response to virtual environments, but also virtual environments with suitable content. The artistic expansion of new media in terms of enhanced sensory input and output may help virtual reality break free of the mouse and the screen as creative constraints to digital expression.

New media has started to separate data from platform, which may eventually also help port VR to the wider public. New media has addressed consumer demand for personalisation, social sharing, and social identity, in entertainment media. Virtual heritage, by contrast, has been slow to address audience and user issues. New media, through its holes, hacks, and add ons, has also helped foster a community-based network of developers who are working together to create open source projects. Virtual heritage needs to utilise such technology so that the training of designers and owner-operators can help distribute and manage the content.

New media has started to separate data from platform, which may eventually also help port VR to the wider public. New media has addressed consumer demand for personalization, social sharing, and identity, in entertainment media. Virtual heritage, by contrast, has been slow to address audience and user issues. New media, through its holes, hacks, and add-ons, has also helped foster a community-based network of developers who are helping create open source projects. Virtual heritage needs to utilize such technology so that the training of designers and owner-operators can help distribute and manage the content.

Update: the original panel abstracts are here:
http://l3d.cs.colorado.edu/~giaccard/research/pdf/GiaccardiKalay_NH06.pdf

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