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Synthetic Pasts is a critical-creative inquiry into what future(s) for personal and collective memory our algorithmic present anticipates and paves the way for. It explores how fragments from the past - photos or audio recordings of our deceased relatives for example - are remediated/animated through algorithmic systems, and with what consequences for how we remember and commemorate. The creation of unanticipated ‘afterlives’ in the present has ethical, emotional, and political dimensions, and it is crucial that we critically examine these unprecedented processes, as well as the socio-technical infrastructures and platforms that enable and encourage them (for example, genealogy sites, Amazon, OpenAI and Google). 

For the first time, the project explores how the ‘resurrection’ of our ancestors and public figures in this way (1) affords new networked, technological, temporal, spatial and affective realities for archival materials, and (2) impacts individual, collective, and cultural memory work as a consequence.


Synthetic Pasts speaks to a range of pressing concerns about what futures our uses of AI will facilitate, what ethical challenges these systems suggest in the present, and how our relationship to the past is oriented and experienced. It bridges from Digital Memory and Heritage Studies to Critical Algorithm Studies in order to explore these developments and their socio-/mnemo-technical implications. Through a series of work packages, the project creates and interrogates original datasets, offering unique insights in a nascent interdisciplinary research field. It will result in a range of outputs, including a book and this website.


Research Questions

haunting image representing digital memory

1.  How do different kinds of users - from members of the public, to artists, to heritage workers - use deep learning algorithms to automate and remediate media fragments of/from the past [creating ‘synthetic pasts’]? What kinds of representations do they produce? 

2. How does individual, collective, and cultural memory-making operate in and through such materials? What affects, thoughts, beguilements, deceptions, or diversions (for example) might they produce?

3. How is the design of these tools shaped by corporate interests and logics? (That is, business models that rely on data accumulation/extraction and are optimised to operate in the orbit of social networks and platforms). 

4. What challenges do these practices bring into focus for everyday users, developers, or for those working in the cultural and creative industries? What ethical considerations do they suggest?

Project aims

... to critically analyse the use and implications of synthetic media for our interactions with the past: Shaping an agenda for research in this emergent interdisciplinary field, informed by the collection and analysis of robust original empirical data.

... to break new theoretical and methodological ground: Interrogating perceptions of algorithmic afterlives, digital memory-making, and responsible uses of AI. Trialing innovative methods to explore synthetic pasts’ impacts on individual, collective, and cultural memory-making.

... to bridge research and social concerns in relation to these technologies: Paying due attention to their ethical implications, including their potentials for extraction, exploitation, and bias.

... to explore creative ways of communicating research into AI and memory: Co-designing findings and offering innovative creative and conceptual tools for those researching and/or working with synthetic pasts in the coming years.

Image credits for this page: Canva's Magic Media, 30 Nov 2023, prompts by JK.

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