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Monumental Images: The Why and Wherefore



Synopsis

In this short essay, I flesh out the origins of and idea. That idea is to harvest a small percentage of the millions (or billions?) of images generated every year at monuments and other visually interesting sights and use those images to replace older images generated by for profit companies. The idea is to make practical investigation into archeological remains a possibility for any desktop user with an Internet connection.

While to many, such an idea as putting up comprehensive images of the world's treasures may seem obvious, to the majority, it is not. For many years, this idea was also unclear in my own mind and has only gradually come into focus. Even now, however, this idea is by no means clear or fully developed. I hope that by putting it forth now it will serve as an impetus to its own development and the development of better ideas.

Origins of Dreams

Museum

Once upon a time, I worked at a museum. I worked for the curator of Asian Ethnology and Anthropology. The store rooms were filled with interesting objects hidden from the view of the general public, the owners of those objects. I often thought about how wonderful it would be to have a virtual museum.

In such a museum, there would be unlimited space, so no objects would be locked in closets. All objects would be available to anyone at any time. In such a museum, all objects would be able to be examined closely. There would be no glass to keep the objects clean and undamaged, no crowds to obscure a perfect view. Everything and nothing would be a model, but these copies would be created with a level of detail unattainable by biological optics. Such a museum would never be closed and would cost nothing to visit. In short, such a museum would be a perfect environment for the study of objects.

If every museum created a complete virtual museum, armchair scholars would be able to research their subjects of interest in their free time. Inscriptions could be deciphered. Histories could be written. At the time when this idea was being conceived, there were no blogs, but imagine now, instead of crazy ideas about politics, there could be an inundation of ideas about ancient objects and the cultures which created them. Many of these ideas would be useless, yes, but a few would also be very valuable and might unlock ancient mysteries.

It was once said of software, "given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow", meaning with enough people observing, all problems can be more quickly solved. What if this idea were applied to history or archaeology? What new discoveries could be made? What ancient secrets could be brought to light?

Breaking Code

I have always been interested in ancient technology. I suppose this stems from my infatuation with technology in general, but it is always interesting to learn and understand the way things were done before the creations that modern society depends upon were invented. Many great civilizations have existed, and no individual has the time or money to study all of them at his leisure. Even studying just one costs tremendously in terms of time and money. This is without factoring in problems such as disease and living conditions while abroad.

Even if technology is not in one's interest, there are few who would say they were uninterested in seeing the pyramids of Egypt or similar monuments first hand. Travelling to these places is not an option for everybody. Access to the Internet, on the other hand, very nearly is. At the very least, Internet access anywhere is cheaper anywhere than a five day vacation.

I have also always been interested in ancient writing systems. The invention of writing is a fascinating subject, and I am absolutely enamoured with it. Learning to read, say, ancient Egyptian, though, is no simple task. Languages are difficult. This is a given, but the real problem comes in finding materials to decipher. There are probably millions of inscriptions in hieroglyphics, but most books contain a picture of the Rosetta stone and little else. Except for travelling to Egypt, how should one obtain access to these inscriptions. Books used to be the only way. Now, they are not.

Anyone who has visited a bookstore in the last few years has certainly seen the massive amount of books with pictures of Egyptian, Mayan, or other famous monuments. These books have only increased in number over the last decade and a half. A visit to the bookstore today is almost frightening in terms of the number of books with pictures on the subject of Egypt.

However, these pictures are useless. Even if they were not bound by copyright, they are still on paper. I cannot get them in any different size or resolution than the publisher has chosen. Similarly, I cannot zoom in to features I find interesting, unless the author has had the same thought. I cannot copy them or share them with my friends. In most cases, there is little documentation about where the image was taken and how it relates to the other images.

It was during my frustration with the above problems that I read a very interesting book about Mayan hieroglyphic writing entitled Breaking the Maya Code by an individual named Michael D. Coe. This book documents all the setbacks encountered by the Mayanists. The Mayan writing system, of course, has never been completely decided to this day, but the break that did come was delayed a few decades by a Mayanist named Thompson who opposed any suggestion of phonetic properties in the script.

This was made possible by the fact that the Mayanists were a small interdependent group. The team that actually cracked the part of the writing system that can be read today were working independently in Russia. Because of the dominance of Thompson, the book contended, the decipherment of the Maya script was set back decades.

While reading the book, I could not help thinking how the above situation would be completely impossible if comprehensive photographs of Maya inscriptions were available in the Internet. Many eyes make for shallow bugs, but more to the point, distributed systems are more difficult to control. People follow opinions and trends, but a man like Thompson would be unable to prevent weekend warrior Mayanists from having different approaches to the problem. He would also be unable to prevent any of them from accessing the necessary information or publishing their work.

Concrete Reality

Information

At the time I was dreaming these dreams, there seemed little possibility they would manifest themselves in the real world. Cameras are expensive. Copyright is restrictive. People are selfish. Organizations -- even charitable ones -- tend to pinch pennies.

When I first had these ideas, Wikipedia was barely getting started, and no one could have imagined it arriving where it is today. When I argued with the curator to put photos of all the collections online, his attitude was more or less like "Who is going to pay for it?" No one could imagine that people would scan whole books just to share with online friends. No one believed it could be done without major funding, and copyright was against it. The big media companies (printing, music, and movie) threatened to take their toys and go home if the Internet did not play by their rules. They drafted new legislation to this effect, and, thank God, the Internet never really did play by their rules.

In any case, my dreams seemed scarcely possible at that time. Now, things are different. We have Wikipedia and Creative Commons and Archive.org and YouTube and Google Books and of course many different file sharing networks. Many more works are online than the copyright Nazis would like, and many free or less legally encumbered alternatives are available. The possibility of a universe of useful information of every kind available to anyone with a computer and net connection -- or a library card -- is not only within reach but well within our grasp.

Copyright

Along with this explosion of information comes a demand for legally unencumbered information. Big media has created great things, but like the pirates in Treasure Island, their corpses and ghosts are still guarding their horded treasure. These monopolists are so unreasonable that they will not even allow to be shared information that they do not make available for sale, probably fearing it will compete with their for sale "products". In an environment such as this, there is only one thing to do: All new information must be generated, and the old information must be left to rot. If the toys are not theirs, they cannot take them and go home.

Cameras and Tourists

Back when I was dreaming the second dream: the elimination of the Mayanists' problem, I came up with a rather simple solution which will also seem obvious and probably has been suggested elsewhere (although I have never seen such a suggestion myself). The solution has to do with tourists and all the pictures they take.

Obscure monuments receive thousands of visitors per year. Famous monuments receive millions. Finding a tourist without a camera is something like finding a gold nugget in modern day California. There are just not any. If these tourists were assumed to take an old fashioned roll of 36 exposure film per day, and the average visit for large sites is assumed to be five days, each tourist is taking 180 pictures per vacation.

Bringing this scenario into the digital age means that the limits of rolls are removed or reduced. At full resolution, a 5Mpx camera with a 1GB memory card can hold approximately 430 pictures. Many people bring a laptop on vacation so they can offload the pictures they have taken and go fill up the card again.

This at minimum demonstrates that thousands of people are taking hundreds of photographs per vacation. This means that even small monuments are getting photographed hundreds of thousands of times per year. Large monuments are being photographed hundreds or thousands of millions of times per year. Looked at in this way, the amount of photographs on the Web should seem staggeringly small. Granted, many, if not most, of the photographs taken are principally of people and only incidentally show historical or natural objects of interest. But even a tiny fraction of thousands of millions is a large number. This large number could probably eclipse the number of books printed in under a decade if the message got out to enough people.

This idea raises certain implementation problems. How can the photographs be usefully organized? Will people always take photographs of the same things? How can people decide which objects are in need of coverage and which are not? How do interested photographers gain access to restricted access sites? I have no solution for these problems (although I have a few ideas). I can only hope that these problems will be solved as the cultural shift that brought us Free Culture, CreativeCommons, Wikipedia, and a multitude of other great innovations continues.

So this, in essence, is the idea. All of the photographs in print today could be reproduced and expanded upon by tapping the galactic volume of pictures available from casual photography. Digital images are more useful than print images and, generally, larger. Such a collection would enable a whole host of new ideas and discoveries and would free people worldwide from legal restrictions on media. Let WIPO and the publishing industries keep their old garbage. The Web can easily replace it and expand upon the replacement, and everyone can look to a new age of enlightenment where knowledge is not bounded by money.







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