The Ethical Challenges of Digitizing Our Cultural Heritage

Alain Dubois is the Head of State Archives of the canton of Valais, and founder of the Sion Time Machine project. Dr. Johann Roduit is the founder of Conexkt – Innovation Studio. Together they present the Sion Time Machine project: an initiative that aims to create a digital twin of the city of Sion, in Switzerland, in the same vein as the Venice Time Machine.

«Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.» Applied to our digital societies, this famous quote from George Orwell’s novel 1984 implies that whoever controls our collective memory, i.e. the cultural heritage left to us by past generations, controls our societies’ future.

The recent Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which the personal data of several million Facebook users was misused without their knowledge, seems to be one example of Orwell's science fiction coming true. Regaining control of our individual and collective data, both past and present, is therefore a major and fundamental challenge for the proper functioning of our democracies.

Europe and Switzerland have thus lagged behind in the race to digitization. It is indeed a race, and the finish line is information control. If the institutions for preserving public heritage, such as municipal, cantonal and national archives, do not become proactive in this field, they run several risks.

The first risk concerns the possible privatization of our collective cultural heritage. In recent years, some private companies have already succeeded in industrializing the digitization and data analysis processes through extensive use of algorithmic tools. The issue is not identifying who can do the work better, but rather who will ultimately own the results of the work: our public authorities, private individuals, or corporations?

An era where Google or Facebook offer history courses financed by a third party is not so far off (See Harry Verwayen, ARTE, Europe Time Machine (1/5) Digitizing Europe's Cultural Heritage, 2018). Facebook could already compile all the information shared on its platform over a given year and publish a historical summary of it.

In addition, the issues of data completeness (as data is often incomplete) and interpretation bias both arise with acuity. Thus, the aim here is to ensure that historians and other concerned parties all have access to authentic, accurate, reliable and usable data. Without such access, we may face insurmountable obstacles in writing our history.

The second risk is the disappearance of our cultural heritage and collective memory. Armed conflicts, intentional destruction, natural disasters, climate change, and economic and political pressures, all threaten to permanently erase entire facets of our cultural heritage. Venice and Notre-Dame de Paris, both UNESCO World Heritage sites, are some recent, tragic and emblematic examples.

As Frédéric Kaplan, founder of the Time Machine project, rightly puts it: "When a site disappears, when no traces of it remain, it’s like a wave has disappeared; it’s an entire field of knowledge that we can never use again to understand the present and anticipate the future" (Kaplan, Arte, Numériser nos archives: La sauvegarde du patrimoine en danger, 2018).

Time Machine's projects may be part of the solution in reducing these two risk factors (See Le nouveau storytelling numérique de l’Histoire,, 09/22/2019). They have been launched in Europe, following the Venice Time Machine, with the goal of digitally simulating certain cities across space and time.

One critical factor for success remains free access to data (open data) and research results (open science). Another is the ability to store all this data over the very long term. No suitable or definitive solution has yet been found for this issue. The digital storage devices used today are actually extremely fragile and less durable than paper, parchment or even clay tablets.

This is the paradox of our modern societies: highly advanced from a technological point of view, yet unable to preserve our collective memory, due to our dependence on technologies subject to programmed obsolescence. Preservation of information via synthetic DNA, as recently proposed by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), is certainly one interesting avenue, but will require extensive investigation insofar as it still requires specific technologies to access the stored information, and there is no guarantee that these technologies will still exist or be accessible after several centuries. As a result, an ideal, energy-efficient storage system for transmitting our cultural heritage to future generations has yet to be developed.

Thus, the issues related to preserving, interpreting, and showcasing our cultural heritage remain colossal for our modern societies, and constitute a major strategic challenge for our democracies. We are convinced that a better knowledge of our past will enable us to make better decisions to solve the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Some institutions in the field of heritage conservation in Europe and Switzerland have already begun to digitize the past. The Sion Time Machine project, which is part of the European Time Machine consortium, is an example of this. The project’s objective is to use new digital tools (such as machine learning, big data, etc.) to reclaim and enhance the past by digitally simulating the last 10,000 years of Valais’ history. Creating the city’s digital twin could also help us gather better information on climate, geological or migratory changes, for example.

_STM - background blank.jpg
Musées cantonaux du Valais – Musée d’histoire | Creative Commons

Thus, we must make sure that we preserve and showcase our cultural heritage as well as possible, as it will permanently affect the future of our democratic societies. We must also seize the various opportunities presented by the digitization of our cultural heritage. Reclaiming our own past or the past of the region in which we live, showcasing our heritage through new experiences, developing data analysis tools for researchers, developing technological expertise: these are all elements that could lead to the creation of new economic opportunities. The Big Data of the past is a key to unlock our future. We’re sure of it!