March 13, 2007

Finding History at Home 2

Today in Digital History Hacks, Bill Turkel imagines a not-so-distant future of “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.

Turkel goes on to suggest a kludge of current and near-horizon technologies that could fulfill this vision. Though plausible, I suspect we’re still some way off from a history appliance that the average consumer could install and operate. But the idea is very compelling. I agree wholeheartedly with Bill that such a device would present fantastic opportunities for public historians, and it seems to me that even if we have to wait a while for the home version, museums could start working on this now for their galleries.

First and foremost, “history appliances” would allow public historians to provide audiences with the kind of deep historical immersion that’s currently only available through years of long study. Sometime in the depths of their researches, I think all professional historians have experienced fleeting moments of time travel. “Turkel’s Time Machine,” if it ever comes to pass, could offer something similar to lay publics at the turn of a dial.

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