In college, I imagined a system that would record, from the moment of birth until the time of death, any person’s movements and gestures and, through the use of some sort of goggles, would superimpose those movements over the world around him. For example, you’d be able, with these goggles, to see multiple manifestations of yourself creating an enormous blur in your house. In places you’d only been a few times, you’d be able to segment out individual visits. And, for places you’d been only once, or were entering for the first time, you’d see a lonely trail of where you’d been and what you’d done. Imagine, for example, looking out of the window of your aircraft and seeing, in the middle distance, an arc of you curving through the sky where you’d made the same flight before. (The manual version of this, undertaken by a man seeking to track his toddler, infant and cat over the course of a day, seems a bit too cumbersome for widespread use. Though the result is fantastic.)
We’re a ways off from a global ability to see one’s past, of course, particularly every discreet movement. (Having to always wear mocap markers might be seen as prohibitive.) The goggles part, though, is coming to fruition, with the advent (or at least popularizing) of what’s called “augmented reality”. Mediaite’s own Ash Kalb provided the definitive look at these tools, but the geek in me needs to fawn over them just a little bit more. The iPhone application by Yelp which Kalb mentions is now mainstream, and available to any user with an iPhone 3GS. (Do not confuse this with the Apple 2GS sitting on your desk on in your elementary school. It has no such functionality.) Augmented reality is blossoming on the iPhone: two architects recently unveiled an iPhone app that will, in New York City, allow a user to see locations near them where proposed architectural projects never came to fruition. Included are rejected WTC proposals but not, rather optimistically, the Freedom Tower.
This desire for an augmented world, of course, has seen other forms. There have, for a long time, been audio tours of museums. Even now, as you walk through Central Park, you can call a phone number to learn more about a particular area or statue. But the majority of these systems deal with the present, with what is known at the moment they are created. They aren’t intended to extend into the past or, often, to be revised as new information appears.
A year or two ago, in a fit of excitement about the Google Maps API, I created a tool for my family intending to relate genealogical information to the geographical – where and when, for example, my grandparents were born, where they moved, had my parents, where their siblings ended up, etc. Such a tool was designed specifically to gather and share information about the past, in contrast to the augmented reality we see now. But what I learned most from this experiment in what I termed geneagraphy was this: my enthusiasm for doing so wasn’t broadly shared. The primary flaw was that the overlap between those with information (my family) and those willing to use my cumbersome system to log it (me) wasn’t large enough. It died on the vine. The crowd for my crowdsourcing was more of a huddle.
(For those of you cowed by the term “crowdsourcing,” it’s the Internet-friendly idea that large groups of people can, by each contributing small elements of wisdom, provide the solution to a problem or the finest of details to an information-gathering effort. To learn more, you need only know this name: Clay Shirky.) (What, you thought I was going to say Arianna Huffington?)
All of this brings me, with a surfeit of context, to the point of this column: the Virtual Shtetl Project from the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
Prior to World War II, orthodox Jewish communities in Eastern Europe were often, through choice or through edict, sprinkled in small towns (shtetls) throughout the countryside. Poland, in particular, was home to hundreds of such communities – communities decimated by the advance of the Wehrmacht. With this destruction, generations of families were disbanded and troves of information and history were dissipated or lost.
The Virtual Shtetl seeks to recover as much of that history as possible. Uniquely, it combines many of the aforementioned tools to do so. The site is predicated on something of a social network, individual contributors loosely organized by contribution and interest. Stories, photos and information that is contributed is generally predicated on a particular location. In fact, the simplest way to navigate this blend of history and what exists today is by navigating a map of Poland.
Take, for example, the randomly selected town of Otwock. Contributors have provided number of historic photos of residents, stories of the lives lived, and video of what the city looks like today. It’s an accumulation, predicated on the sad history of the area, that has begun to outline what life was like before the tragedies of the 1940’s.
The Virtual Shtetl is the first I’ve seen of what will undoubtedly become an unwieldy number of similar historic accretions. It lacks the sexiness of a virtual reality overlay, or of immediate relevance to every visitor. But it tackles the most challenging part of any historic effort: gathering and sifting pertinent information. The way it does this, by convening the efforts of people throughout the world, promises success where more limited efforts might fail.
Someday, visitors to Poland and students of the Holocaust may be able to hold up their iPhones and view the historic importance of particular roadside landmarks, or hear stories from survivors. Sure, it’s not like crossing your own path over the Atlantic, but it is inarguably more valuable.