Virtual Worlds and Preservation

The summer issue of The American Scholar arrived in my mail slot a day late. You might wonder why I receive a publication called The American Scholar. Well, I am American, so one out of three ain’t bad.

I was struck by a brief essay by Edward Hoagland titled “Spaced Out in the City.” A native of New York City, the author enjoys the “grand potpourri of ego-crowing towers” and the hustle and bustle of street life, of important people and not-so-important people mingling and banging into each other. But he’s noticed in the last decade that the people on the street are less engaged with their surroundings and more engaged in talking on their cell phones, texting, or just fiddling with games and such. He wonders what will happen to the city when the people who live there aren’t really “there.”

This section especially made me think about the possible broader effect of our increasingly virtual world on the preservation movement:

The dilution of space by cyberspace may be earthshaking, as species dwindle ever faster, unobserved, and vintage neighborhoods are steamrollered without grief. Not that human nature changes, but the scale and pace of its operations are new. To google Tibetan tarns devalues as well as demystifies them. Union Square, Abingdon Square, Sheridan Square, Washington Square, Tompkins Square, Stuyvesant Square, Madison Square, Sheep Meadow: these locations, precious to me in memory, should not change unrecognizably anytime soon. The question is whether people will continue to live in them, or primarily inside the digitry of their screens.

I admit I’m kind of in a gloomy phase in my assessment of the current state of preservation, so maybe I’m overly susceptible to doom-saying. I do sense, though, that for all our society’s talk about “heritage,” “preserving the past,” etc., preservationists seem to be increasingly struggling to connect with the general public in meaningful ways. And by meaningful ways, I mean ways that actually preserve and protect buildings and places–as actual living places inhabited by engaged humans. That “steamrollered without grief” is a scary prediction–I hope it doesn’t come true.

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Categories: Historic Preservation

7 replies

  1. Preservation has long been viewed by the average American as belonging to those who have a good deal of money and time. That was most likely compounded by the fact that we were more apt to save the home of a former senators house than one built by a Pullman porter. While preservation has been changing over the past years to focus more on shotgun houses and sharecropper shacks, we haven’t done a very good job of getting the message out to the general public. We need to re-direct some of our energy into a new public message and take our story and our fight to the people themselves. The “not-so-important” folks who make up the majority of the population, especially in places like your Mississippi and my Arkansas, have a bit of an inferiority complex and they just need a little urging to understand that their stories matter just as much as the senator or the industrialist. Hang in there! It’s only going to get better!


    • I’m a vernacularist to the core, so I completely buy into bringing preservation to The People instead of just to The Elite. But . . . since I’m being pessimistic this week, haven’t preservationists been preaching that message for a couple of decades at least now? And meanwhile it seems as if during that same period, preservation has become less a part of the national culture rather than more, almost as if, by telling everyone that their history is also important, we have devalued the concept of history in the minds of the general public.

      Kind of like how Antiques Roadshow, while I think started with the goal of educating the public about the important artifacts in their own homes, has kind of initiated a commodification of our own personal histories–placing more value on Granny’s jewelry or prized artwork as financial instruments than as the meaningful heirlooms they started out as.

      Boy, I’m a downer this week! I should have just taken the week off maybe. :-)


  2. I guess I should have proofread better before I hit the “post” button. Make that second line read, we were more likely to save the home of a former senator than one built by a Pullman porter. I’m only on first cup of coffee this morning!


  3. Definitely worth pondering. I wonder if my even considering the purchase of a Kindle is somehow traitorous to the grand tradition of the printed word. Cyberspace can and does open up new worlds even as it disconnects us from the real world around us.


    • I agree with that (Cyberspace can and does open up new worlds), though I don’t want a Kindle, Tom. I’m having a hard time understanding how Googling “Tibetan tarns devalues … them.” Isn’t it, perhaps, more helpful to preservation to have more information and more accessibility? If I don’t know something cool exists halfway around the world, how do I know it needs to be preserved? On the other hand, I have learned, in the midst of globalization, how important it is to tend one’s own garden.

      I think that, really, nothing’s changed much in the world though we’re more “connected.” It seems like the same [number, percentage, kind] of people care about the same things they’ve always cared about; the real difference is the exponential change in what we now have available to us to satisfy our personal proclivities.


    • I thought the googling bit was perhaps going too far as well. I know that in my recent trip to France, being able to find information about the buildings I had seen or was about to see helped me immensely in understanding what I was looking at.

      But, on the other hand, I have heard people in leadership positions in the Mississippi preservation world say things like, “Well, my grandson spends all his time on the computer, so why not just take pictures of all these old buildings and put them on the internet instead of trying to maintain them and preserve them?” I was, of course, speechless. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I wonder how many other people are coming around to that point of view.


      • That’s where the tending one’s own garden comes in. People are far more likely to get involved (if given a chance) in the preservation of something they’ve always known and loved than in something cool somewhere else. I know that all of those people who comment on the pictures of, say, the Restaurant history of Jackson on Facebook, would far rather still have the Green Derby than just pictures of it on the Internet. The problem seems to be in getting the information to the right people in time to do something (and inertia which is one of the worst problems we have in the South; must be the heat).


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