The Venice Time Machine: 1,000 Years of Venice’s History Gets Digitally Preserved with Artificial Intelligence and Big Data

Along with hun­dreds of oth­er sea­side cities, island towns, and entire islands, his­toric Venice, the float­ing city, may soon sink beneath the waves if sea lev­els con­tin­ue their rapid rise. The city is slow­ly tilt­ing to the East and has seen his­toric floods inun­date over 70 per­cent of its palaz­zo- and basil­i­ca-lined streets. But should such trag­ic loss­es come to pass, we’ll still have Venice, or a dig­i­tal ver­sion of it, at least—one that aggre­gates 1,000 years of art, archi­tec­ture, and “mun­dane paper­work about shops and busi­ness­es” to cre­ate a vir­tu­al time machine. An “ambi­tious project to dig­i­tize 10 cen­turies of the Venet­ian state’s archives,” the Venice Time Machine uses the lat­est in “deep learn­ing” tech­nol­o­gy for his­tor­i­cal recon­struc­tions that won’t get washed away.

The Venice Time Machine doesn’t only proof against future calami­ty. It also sets machines to a task no liv­ing human has yet to under­take. Most of the huge col­lec­tion at the State Archives “has nev­er been read by mod­ern his­to­ri­ans,” points out the nar­ra­tor of the Nature video at the top.

This endeav­or stands apart from oth­er dig­i­tal human­i­ties projects, Ali­son Abbott writes at Nature, “because of its ambi­tious scale and the new tech­nolo­gies it hopes to use: from state-of-the-art scan­ners that could even read unopened books, to adapt­able algo­rithms that will turn hand­writ­ten doc­u­ments into dig­i­tal, search­able text.”

In addi­tion to pos­ter­i­ty, the ben­e­fi­cia­ries of this effort include his­to­ri­ans, econ­o­mists, and epi­demi­ol­o­gists, “eager to access the writ­ten records left by tens of thou­sands of ordi­nary cit­i­zens.” Lor­raine Das­ton, direc­tor of the Max Planck Insti­tute for the His­to­ry of Sci­ence in Berlin describes the antic­i­pa­tion schol­ars feel in par­tic­u­lar­ly vivid terms: “We are in a state of elec­tri­fied excite­ment about the pos­si­bil­i­ties,” she says, “I am prac­ti­cal­ly sali­vat­ing.” Project head Frédéric Kaplan, a Pro­fes­sor of Dig­i­tal Human­i­ties at the École poly­tech­nique fédérale de Lau­sanne (EPFL), com­pares the archival col­lec­tion to “’dark mat­ter’—doc­u­ments that hard­ly any­one has stud­ied before.”

Using big data and AI to recon­struct the his­to­ry of Venice in vir­tu­al form will not only make the study of that his­to­ry a far less her­met­ic affair; it might also “reshape schol­ars’ under­stand­ing of the past,” Abbott points out, by democ­ra­tiz­ing nar­ra­tives and enabling “his­to­ri­ans to recon­struct the lives of hun­dreds of thou­sands of ordi­nary people—artisans and shop­keep­ers, envoys and traders.” The Time Machine’s site touts this devel­op­ment as a “social net­work of the mid­dle ages,” able to “bring back the past as a com­mon resource for the future.” The com­par­i­son might be unfor­tu­nate in some respects. Social net­works, like cable net­works, and like most his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives, have become dom­i­nat­ed by famous names.

By con­trast, the Time Machine model—which could soon lead to AI-cre­at­ed vir­tu­al Ams­ter­dam and Paris time machines—promises a more street-lev­el view, and one, more­over, that can engage the pub­lic in ways sealed and clois­tered arti­facts can­not. “We his­to­ri­ans were bap­tized with the dust of archives,” says Das­ton. “The future may be dif­fer­ent.” The future of Venice, in real life, might be uncer­tain. But thanks to the Venice Time Machine, its past is poised take on thriv­ing new life. See pre­views of the Time Machine in the videos fur­ther up, learn more about the project here, and see Kaplan explain the “infor­ma­tion time machine” in his TED talk above.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Venice Works: 124 Islands, 183 Canals & 438 Bridges

Venice in Beau­ti­ful Col­or Images 125 Years Ago: The Rial­to Bridge, St. Mark’s Basil­i­ca, Doge’s Palace & More

New Dig­i­tal Archive Puts Online 4,000 His­toric Images of Rome: The Eter­nal City from the 16th to 20th Cen­turies

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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