New Column: David Louis Edelman on the Digitisation of Objects

Futurismic is proud to present a guest column from David Louis Edelman, who is a journalist, programmer and web designer – and the author of a fresh new science fiction novel, ‘Infoquake’. David’s essay discusses the outcomes of our ongoing ability to digitise, well, pretty much everything.

Imagine the classic situation: a fire’s engulfing your house, all of the kids are out safely, and you’ve got just enough time to run back and grab one thing. What would it be?

I asked my father this question once, and his response was that he’d save as many of the pictures on the wall as he could carry. By which he meant the photos of me and my siblings cavorting around in the ‘70s wearing an assortment of horrible plaid clothes.

Anyone who’s entered the Digital Age would find this to be a rather silly choice. You could plunk all of those photos into a scanner, back them up onto half a dozen DVDs, send a copy to every member of the family, and be pretty confident that the collection could survive any house fire. Spend a couple of hours in Photoshop and you could clean up the tears and blotches and red-eye moments. You could actually improve upon the originals.

So obviously the wise choice for our proverbial man in a house fire would be to find something tangible, something that you couldn’t digitize and spread around the Internet.

But that list of undigitizable things is shrinking. Rapidly.

The process of backing up things has already begun. Teams from Stanford University and IBM went to Florence in 1999 to start scanning Michelangelo’s sculptures with a customized 3D laser scanner. According to the infallible Wikipedia, “the scans produced a data point density of one sample per 0.25mm, detailed enough to see Michelangelo’s chisel marks.” Someone digitized Thomas Jefferson’s entire Monticello mansion, and someone else is working on a complete digitization of ancient cuneiform tablets.

So what can you do with all these backed-up things? What use are they?

Academic applications seem to be the primary focus of these efforts today. Scan Michelangelo’s David and post the whole thing on the Web for researchers around the world to study without actually having to travel to Florence. Run the kind of sophisticated tests you can only run on computer models so that you might be able to determine, for instance, exactly which scrapes on the David were done with which type of chisel.

But couldn’t we one day use these same digitizations to actually reproduce a work of art that was damaged or destroyed? We already have the ability to haul another block of marble into a lab and laser etch it to match the digitization. Eventually, if nanotechnology pans out the way some scientists and engineers think it might, we could actually modify that block of marble on a molecular level to conform to the actual block of marble the original artist used. Or we might eventually be able to just assemble one from scratch.

And once we have an accurate digitization of an object, we could even improve on the original. Just like Photoshop can “de-age” a photograph, so someone might use a similar piece of software to “de-age” Michelangelo’s David. We could reverse the effects of all those centuries of erosion (not to mention that nut job who attacked the sculpture with a hammer a few years back). We could theoretically produce a David that would actually seem more authentic to its creator than the time-dusted one we have now.

There are, of course, contentious questions of art preservation to think about here. Can a reproduction ever entirely recreate the effect of the original? What if the reproduction was an exact molecule-for-molecule copy? How much is it worth to have an item that was actually touched by the artist, as opposed to an indistinguishable replica?

But the fun part of backing up things isn’t in the vaunted world of art; the fun part comes when the march of technology brings the 3D laser scanner down to the masses.

Right now, Cyberware’s website tells me that a 3D scanner capable of digitizing a full human body costs $200,000. The custom job they built to scan Michelangelo’s David certainly cost much more. Remember that the ENIAC computer built in the 1940s cost half a million dollars, in 1940s money no less. So at that rate, you might be carrying a 3D laser scanner in your pocket in thirty years (alongside the microchip that holds the contents of the entire Library of Congress).

Nanotechnology is in its infancy right now, so the odds of being able to actually reproduce anything you save in your lifetime are somewhat slim. But there’d be nothing to stop you from backing up your things in the meantime, to keep in case the nanotech dream happens quicker than we expect, or simply to pass down to future generations.

What things would you digitize if you could slap down a few hundred bucks for a 3D laser scanner at Office Depot? What would you want to back up and keep safe from that potentially devastating house fire?

My wife has a hundred-year-old wedding dress from a distant relative sitting up in our closet that’s a good target for digitization. I’d pay large sums of money to go back in time and digitize the beat-up 1973 Mercury Capri I drove around in high school. And funny as it sounds, I might want to digitize my computer.

That brings up another potential benefit of digitization. By scanning my computer with a 3D laser scanner, I could actually show my grandkids what that boxy piece of crap on my desk looked like — and I wouldn’t actually have to, you know, save that boxy piece of crap.

3 thoughts on “New Column: David Louis Edelman on the Digitisation of Objects”

  1. A digital scan of an object isn’t a backup unless you can create a replica with it; it’s only incrementally better than a set of Polaroids of the object. If you told someone, “Don’t worry that your great-grandmother’s wedding dress is burning up in the fire; I took some Polaroids of it beforehand,” I doubt they’d get much comfort out of that.

  2. Great story, but talking Photoshop is barely, barely scratching the surface. Just in the past few weeks we’ve seen things like the fingertip digitizer (, virtual open heart surgery ( , real-time ray tracing and body tracking (, Photosynth (, just to name a few. Not that I think this stuff is cool or anything 🙂

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