Markos Kounalakis

Disrupting Islamic State, saving ancient civilization and employing virtual reality

This photo released Tuesday on a social media site used by Islamic State militants, which has been verified and is consistent with other Associated Press reporting, shows smoke from the detonation of the 2,000-year-old temple in Syria’s ancient city of Palmyra.
This photo released Tuesday on a social media site used by Islamic State militants, which has been verified and is consistent with other Associated Press reporting, shows smoke from the detonation of the 2,000-year-old temple in Syria’s ancient city of Palmyra. The Associated Press

Cultural touchstones hold a special place in the human heart. War and death that take place in far off regions often go unnoticed until the publicized destruction of iconic structures or famed antiquities finally bring the war home.

Yugoslavia’s civil war was widely unnoticed until 1993 when centuries-old Mostar stone bridge crumpled under sustained bombing. The depravity of the Taliban’s widespread violence hit many policymakers’ radar screens in 2001 only after the giant sixth century Afghan Buddhas of Bamiyan were dynamited.

Last week’s leveling of Palmyra’s famed temples at a protected UNESCO World Heritage site in Syria remind the world that a new culprit, the Islamic State, is fighting to wipe out large numbers of people and nearly all history. The world has taken note.

While struggling refugees stream out of the region, racing to Europe for survival, immobile sites and artifacts also need to survive. If there is hope for reconstructing what is left behind, destroyed, lost or stolen, however, it is in the virtual digital world developed in Silicon Valley.

The majestic Temple of Bel is only the latest inanimate victim of a brutal ISIS war that has killed tens of thousands of people, destroyed monuments and museums, and aims for total social and cultural cleansing. There is no resurrecting the individuals killed by Islamic State’s cold cruelty and calculated killing, but defaced and destroyed objects could find a second life. The world has a history of cultural resuscitation.

In the past, shunned ideas and destroyed books survived in far-off lands. Texts were meticulously hand-copied, often in illuminated volumes as recounted in Thomas Cahill’s bestselling “How the Irish Saved Civilization.” This story of a salvaged past reminds us that distant societies can revive foreign cultural and intellectual heritage.

Mostar’s Old Bridge was rebuilt by labor, mortar and love, and reopened in 2004. Bamiyan’s Buddhas are still faceless hulks, but 3D holographic laser projections onto the pocked remains earlier this summer gave a realistic glimpse of what once proudly stood.

If the promise of today’s Virtual Reality 3D programmers and tool developers is realized, a future history could be written on “How Tech Geeks Saved Civilization.” Pornography and gaming may be the economic drivers of today’s 3D VR development and innovation, but one of the real promises of this technology is its potential to digitally preserve the world.

In the mid-1990s, Silicon Graphics developed expensive supercomputers that powered virtual car crash tests, predictive weather environments, seismic modeling and also a UCLA “Rome Reborn” project (I worked at Silicon Graphics at the time). This project continues to re-create a living A.D. 320 city, not a Rome of ruins, but does so now with inexpensive, off-the-shelf consumer technology.

Facebook recently spent $2 billion to buy the developer of the VR device Occulus Rift. This head-strapped device is able to immerse individuals in virtual ancient worlds beyond imagination and preservation. On the cheaper end of the cost spectrum is Google Cardboard, a simple foldable viewer using a smartphone’s accelerometer and screen to project 3D images that move as you move.

Project Mosul is a crowdsourcing attempt to collect multiple images with enough perspective variations to re-create and digitally restore museum artifacts recently destroyed by Islamic State in Mosul, Iraq. The project’s partners are also working to re-create historic Kathmandu, a city devastated by last April’s 7.9 magnitude earthquake. Programmers and archaeological researchers today are experimenting with advanced photogrammetry in order to save a wide range of cultural heritage.

Mostar’s Old Bridge was rebuilt by labor, mortar and love, and reopened in 2004. Bamiyan’s Buddhas are still faceless hulks, but 3D holographic laser projections onto the pocked remains earlier this summer gave a realistic glimpse of what once proudly stood. Historic reconstruction and resurrection comes in high-tech and low-tech flavors.

Mass murdering Islamic State fighters deserve protracted punishment for their crimes against humanity just as all cultural assassins deserve global condemnation. Part of that punishment should be the knowledge that they can never wipe out the world’s cultural patrimony.

It might very well be little consolation, but we can bring back to life dormant artifacts, monumental memories or entire destroyed ancient cities like Palmyra. All we may need to do is reboot.

Markos Kounalakis is a research fellow at Central European University and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at markos@stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @KounalakisM.

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