From times of great antiquity, Venice was the hub of maritime commerce, the link between West and East.
As Robert Zimmerman quotes in his blog Behind the Black
Only metres away from the tourist throngs that bustle through Venice's crowded piazzas, the silence inside Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari is so profound it hurts the ears. State archivists long ago took over this fourteenth-century friary, but they are just as studious as the Franciscan brothers who once lived here, as they tend the historical records that fill some 80 kilometres of shelving within. Now, a crew of scientists laden with high-tech equipment is stirring things up in these hallowed stacks.
History hangs heavy at the Frari, and computer scientist Frédéric Kaplan likes it that way. He has an ambition to capture well over 1,000 years of records in dynamic digital form, encompassing the glorious era of the Most Serene Republic of Venice. The project, which he calls the Venice Time Machine, will scan documents including maps, monographs, manuscripts and sheet music. It promises not only to open up reams of hidden history to scholars, but also to enable the researchers to search and cross-reference the information, thanks to advances in machine-learning technologies.
If it succeeds, it will pave the way for an even more ambitious project to link similar time machines in Europe’s historic centres of culture and commerce, revealing in unprecedented detail how social networks, trade and knowledge have developed over centuries across the continent. It would serve as a Google and Facebook for generations long past, says Kaplan, who directs the Digital Humanities Laboratory at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL).
Although the previous decade has seen many digital-humanities projects that scan, annotate and index manuscripts, this one stands out 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.
A reader that can scan the contents of a book without that book being opened?
Marvelous for scholars -- but rather spine chilling for writers and publishers. Could these dedicated scientists open a Pandora's box of unintended consequences? After all, that is the story of the internet so far....