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Detailed overview

Digital environments offer a multitude of ways for us to interact with the past, to the extent that we might now say technology is where the past lives (see the work of Elaine Kasket or Davide Sisto for example). The introduction of automated processes which classify, rank, and sort the past has been subject to increasing academic enquiry (in for example Jacobsen and Beer), but there has been less focus on how computational processes are inserted (or seemingly insert themselves) into the very ‘fabric’ of personal or institutional archival assets, ‘remediating’ our memories through recursive and mechanised algorithmic logics (although see our article in Convergence). 

In this project we are able to critically explore synthetic pasts in new ways, offering, for the first time, an expansive exploration of their significance and implications.

The project participates in an urgent turn toward algorithmic and data cultures within the arts and humanities, demonstrating intellectual curiosity in response to these developments, and offering inspiration and conceptual tools for researchers who find themselves working in - or adjacent to - this growing field in the coming years.

​The project’s novel contributions matter given the creeping personalisation, popularisation, and commercialisation of machine learning technologies, and the elasticity and pliability of media texts – and our memories – in digital environments. This is where Synthetic Pasts intervenes.

Image credit: Wix, 13 Dec 2023, prompts by JK_

Synthetic Pasts focuses on technologies that seek to ‘revive’ archival materials; for example, animating photos of our deceased ancestors or historical figures. It considers the interplay between audio/visual archives and algorithms, seeking to explore what mnemonic and socio-technical concerns flow from our increased interaction with synthetic pasts. It is careful not to treat forms of synthetic media as mere ‘technological curiosities’ (a term used in Vaccari and Chadwick 2020), instead seeking to understand their richness and ambiguity.

 

Synthetic Pasts explores whether and how these outputs might be considered new expressive creations, derivative works, or deceptions, or whether, conversely, their formulaic and repetitive qualities mark them as banal. The projects Work Packages will create an expansive original dataset exploring varied users’ experiences of these processes with depth and richness, embracing the ‘nuanced and oblique’ impacts of these technologies (summed up in Simone Natale's Deceitful Media).

Synthetic Pasts explores a range of apps and platforms as ‘mnemotechnologies’ (following Prey and Smit 2018), showcasing how synthetic pasts emerge or are situated at the interstices of the social and (techno-)material world. Bringing perspectives from Critical Algorithm Studies into dialogue with Memory and Digital Heritage Studies it will interrogate the ambivalent logics of the platforms and processes that make synthetic pasts possible. It will highlight the critical importance of charting the past’s adaptive and pervasive qualities, not least where those intersect with corporate interests and narratives, as is so often the case (Amazon, Meta, OpenAI, genealogy companies etc.). it showcases how, within these contexts, memory is increasingly encoded within a ‘machine habitus’, where machine learning systems ‘as socialised agents’ ‘recursively’ interact with users.

 

Synthetic Pasts also centres emergent questions about responsible and ethical practices where archival work meets algorithms, paying particular attention to how these questions play out in the context of synthetic forms of ‘algorithmic afterlife’. A number of studies have explored ‘digital immortality’ within the context of social networks, and there is formative work on death-tech (thanatechnology) more generally. There are fewer explorations of these concerns within Digital Heritage research however.

 

As the promotion of deepfake and voice-synthesizing technologies intensifies, the ethics of working with algorithmic afterlives is likely to become an increasing concern for scholars and those working within the creative and cultural industries, and Synthetic Pasts asks a series of important questions: What ethical considerations should inform work with digital human remains? Can a deceased person be considered to have consented to a (remediated) algorithmic afterlife, created posthumously on their behalf? How do datafied bodies interact with one another in the context of synthetic pasts? And what kinds of ‘work’ is it appropriate for synthetically recreated persons to do (economic, affective, creative etc)? 

 

Central themes in the work

Image credits: [1] Picsart, 19 Jan 2024, prompt by JK. [2] Google Gemini, 22 Feb 2024, prompt by JK. [3] Canva magic Media, 30 Nov 2023, prompt by JK. [4] Picsart 19 Jan 2024, prompt by JK._

What stage are we at?

In our previous work we have been exploring these themes and beginning to set out a research agenda (e.g. Kidd 2019, Kidd & Rees 2021, Kidd & Nieto McAvoy 2023 and Nieto McAvoy & Kidd 2024).

 

The next stages of the Synthetic Pasts project will allow us to accelerate and strengthen this critical work.

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