Monday, March 12, 2007

Coming Soon: History Appliances

Imagine wandering into your living room after a day of work. You sit down in your chair and turn a dial to 1973. The stereo adjusts automatically, streaming Bob Marley, Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Jim Croce. LCD panels hanging on the wall switch to display Roberto Matta's Jazz Bande and Elizabeth Murray's Wave Painting. If you check your TV listings, you'll find Mean Streets, Paper Moon, American Graffiti, The Sting, Last Tango in Paris ... even Are You Being Served? In your newspaper you find stories about the cease-fire in Vietnam, about Watergate, about Skylab, about worldwide recession and OPEC and hostilities in the Middle East. If you want to read a novel instead, you might try Gravity's Rainbow or Breakfast of Champions.

With a little hacking, most of this scenario could be easily accomplished today. The dial, for example, could be implemented with a Phidgets circular touch sensor. Once you set the date, your computer could respond by switching your media player to a particular playlist, sending images to the picture frames, and feeding a stream of news from the Google News Archive to your E Ink reader. Both the Pynchon and Vonnegut novels already exist in digital form. It's only a matter of time until you can download them for a fee or print them on demand. As TV moves online, it will also become easy to filter offerings according to user-determined criteria. In short, access to the infinite archive makes it easy to immerse yourself in sources from a particular milieu.

Public historians will be able to find new roles designing historically accurate and interesting experiences for consumers, selecting from the welter of sources across media, combining and interpreting them. We tend to think of historical production in terms of writing books, but there will be many more "machines to think with." The most subtle will shape our historical consciousness by working in the periphery.

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