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Retrojunkies: Why History is Most Excellent, Dude, in the Digital Age

Think about it. All that physical, analogue, pre-Internet media. Millions upon millions of inanimate resources, each representing some facet of human history, slowly getting sucked into the World Wide Web. From Google Books to the Library of Congress or archive.org, a record is being made of as much material as digital archivists can get their hands on. It's not just awesome for opening up history to future generations, it's significant for having accelerated our ability to learn about history through various media.

Many of us seem to get a real kick out of doing that learning in a self-motivated and collaborative way online, with a full array of formats at our fingertips. Online, history is often encountered via the motif, the soundbite, the visual encapsulation of our past. This is history gone viral. Consider blogs like Brain Pickings and Letters of Note. They constantly prove the virulence of the historical and entertain us with anecdotal gems full of colour and personality.

Furthermore, the engrossing image archive Retronaut is constantly updated with images that act as visual snapshots of the past. The pictures are predominantly of subjects which indicate how the way we live our lives has changed. The apparentness of that distinction is probably what makes the site so popular.

But also, it's about dipping into a randomised array of historical artefacts and finding the ones which resonate with us the most. Chris Wild, founder of Retronaut, told me that this is his way of capitalising on the effects of the Internet. The effects, that is, in terms of how we experience time itself, online. "What the Internet does in terms of content, is it collapses time," he argues, adding, "being able to move from content from one time to another is pretty much instantaneous."

"What the Internet does in terms of content, is it collapses time"

Chris looks specifically for images which do not conform to our preconception of what the past was like. Instead he hopes to "disrupt" our assumptions. "I look for pictures," he explains, "which tear a small hole in people's model of time."

Retronaut "time capsules" are little nuggets of the past served in daily digital chunks; human history re-imagined for the Pinterested generation. We see hyper-condensed, cherry-picking of the past. History is not just dull facts but first and foremost stylised and surprising - the facts creep in alongside. Users who then share that experience through social media, Chris believes, are fundamentally different from visitors to a museum: "They curate it; they become the curators."

I think what we're looking at here is a new kind of engagement with history, or at least a new kind of resource for that. The rise of Instagram, filters and a consequent romanticisation of historic image processing have meant that choice fragments of our long and varied past as a species have provoked new interest in old stuff - but importantly something which gains value through the act of sharing.

Museum Interior

The content explosion is feeding our desire to discover and share in a big way. In recent years, initiatives to digitise and make freely available all kinds of otherwise difficult-to-access archive material have exploded on the web. The re-launch last year of British Pathé's online film archive was a highlight for me. British Pathé have been making their incredible store of 20th Century films available via the Internet since 2002 and, like the British Council's smaller but very well preserved collection, the films tell us a great deal about life long before we were born.

I'd argue that public interest in historical film archives has grown especially in the last five years with the widespread availability of broadband connectivity and the arrival of additional material such as that continually deposited into archive.org.

These old films, stored on ageing celluloid in climate controlled rooms deep inside libraries with imposing facades seem, by their very nature, ill-suited to the digital age. The thing is, the content of the films secreted on that delicate celluloid is perfect for entertaining contemporary audiences. It's just a matter of converting to new formats or, as it were, digitisation.

And when we watch those films we marvel at people's clothes, their speech, the way they framed the world as they saw it. Because of the intensity of the moving image, famously an example of McLuhan's "hot" category for media, archive footage has always seemed particularly vital to me. It presents the tantalising illusion that time travel is possible, at least in a purely sensory (or virtual) way. There is the world, albeit in black and white, as lively as we know it today.

And when "lost" footage is found, the overwhelming public sensation that a piece of history has been significantly restored is difficult to suppress, even though the footage itself may be of limited use to professional historians.

Personally, I've spent hours watching old TV commercials, newsreels and public information shorts. Most of all, perhaps, I like how these resources project to us the voice of the past. We can decode the values of those who made the films; speculate about their motives and techniques. We are a secondary audience viewing these films as artefacts - we try to see the filmmakers' agenda for what it was and we think about their original, primary audience too as we watch. We're trying to view context and content at once.

"We're trying to view context and content at once"

Chuck Shnider, creator of a new archive film app called Linger, has helped make this secondary viewing even more accessible. His app allows iPhone users to search and watch films from the vast American Prelinger Archive of historical films. Alexis Madrigal, in The Atlantic, described the collection as "a series of unintentional selfies of times and places that no longer exist."

"Early in 2012," Chuck says, "I had started exploring the video collection at the Internet Archive. I concluded there was a lot of great material there, but it wasn't always easy to browse for interesting things to watch. Furthermore, the site wasn't optimized for browsing on iPads or mobile phones. I don't mean this as a knock on the Internet Archives. They have a broad, very ambitious mandate that they work towards with what I assume to be modest funding. However, the somewhat frustrating experience browsing archive.org on my iPad led me to believe that there could be a better way to go about things."

It was that acceleration of interface, notably, which Chuck was searching for. History needed to be at his fingertips - and rightly so. "Even in very rudimentary form, the app very quickly became my favourite way to browse and watch these films," he says.

Online film archives have helped cater to those with specific interests. This example from York in England and this one from the East Anglian film archive appeal to local historians and people who have family roots in the area. Equally, the London Transport Museum provides a neat collection of films about the London Underground for tube nuts like myself while other institutions like The National Archives and this slightly obscure Russian film archive project catalogue a range of clips and short films.

And you constantly find stuff that is full of character and impact. This terrifyingly dramatic 1956 public information piece about the rise of atomic energy is astonishing to behold:

(Part 2 of the above film here).

And this RCA Victor demonstration of an early stereophonic home music system from the same era reveals how marketing about the latest gadgets used to be genuinely informative:

If we are witnessing a growing public curiosity over the discovery of historical artefacts through digital media - and I believe we are - then new technologies on the horizon imply that even more immersive engagement with the past will be a feature of our future. With gadgets such as Google Glass and Oculus Rift soon to become publicly available, digital time travel may increasingly be a familiar way of indulging in the look and feel of not-quite-forgotten eras.

What about this for a Google Glass app? You walk down a street in, say, London and you are prompted to select a period about which to receive information. "Victorian" for example, or "the 1960s". As you continue your walk your field of vision is periodically superimposed with detail about events on that street or what you might have expected to see in an urban environment during the years selected. Maybe images of people dressed in historically accurate costume are inserted into your line of sight too.

It would be an conceptual update to the Museum of London's fabulous "Street Museum" app which is available on iPhone and Android. Users of the app are shown historical pictures of the area they are currently in via a combination of GPS technology and a fantastic archive of images. As Chuck Shnider said to me, technology like this, "means more possibilities for serendipity - people getting happily lost following the trail of information they were not even looking for."

And as for Oculus Rift, virtual historical reality may one day be all the rage as we attempt to immerse ourselves more completely in fully-fledged simulations of the past. A friend of mine who has tried the device commented to me that he thought it would be better suited to "slow" applications rather than high-octane games. So, instead of running around with a machine gun, a user of Oculus Rift might get a great deal more value out of wandering around an old castle and meeting its historical inhabitants.

I think there's plenty of time to develop new interfaces for these amassing resources, and to learn about the way in which we use those interfaces. For now I'm joyfully overwhelmed at the enthusiasm people clearly have for making history freely accessible online in detailed, interesting ways.

You just start down a historical rabbit-hole on the net, never knowing in what century you might end up. How's that for time travel?

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