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OP-ED: Disrupting ISIS, saving ancient civilixazation and virtual reality


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 6th century Afghan Buddhas of Bamiyan were dynamited.

The recent 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 Islamic State 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 the 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.

If the promise of today's virtual reality 3-D 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 3-D 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 (NOTE: I worked at Silicon Graphics at the time). This project continues to recreate 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 smart phone's accelerometer and screen to project 3-D images that move as you move.

Project Mosul is a crowdsourcing attempt to collect multiple images with enough perspective variations to recreate and digitally restore museum artifacts recently destroyed by the Islamic State in Mosul, Iraq. The project's partners are also working to recreate 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 3-D 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. He wrote this for The Sacramento Bee.