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Can Technology Fight ISIS's Iconoclasm?

The danger of digitizing art.
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The Temple of Bel in Palmyra, Syria. (Photo: Bernard Gagnon/Wikimedia Commons)

The Temple of Bel in Palmyra, Syria. (Photo: Bernard Gagnon/Wikimedia Commons)

It took a while for ISIS to destroy the millennia-old Temple of Bel in Palmyra, Syria. The explosion from an initial bomb, which was reported yesterday, was relatively minor. "Any damage done was partial, and the basic structure is still standing," Maamoun Abdulkarim, head of the Syrian Department of Antiquities and Museums, told the BBC. But by Monday it was clear that the damage had been underreported; the bombings had, in fact, made good on their promise. Satellite photos of the spot provided by the United Nations reveal a flat, rubble-covered ground in the center of a still-standing square perimeter wall.

The before and after of Temple of Bel is striking for the completeness of its demolition; what's left looks like the remains of a disused stadium that had collapsed in on itself by dynamite. Nothing is left except the vague outlines of the structure, once a collection of proud stone walls and perfectly vertical columns that had withstood the test of time, until time suddenly caught up in a hurry. The iconic Lion of Al-lāt is now gone. The ground is reportedly strewn with mines.

In being "restored" on the Internet, the Syrian artifacts, the entire temples, lose an emotional specificity and cultural resonance that they had in situ.

ISIS's campaign is one of historical iconoclasm, the destruction of what they see as false idols offensive to their practice of Islam. It's a brand of vicious dissidence that likely has its most recent precedent in the Byzantine empire. And now, the physical objects—once cherished by tourists and Syrians alike—are irrevocably gone. But they remain on the Internet, in tourist photographs and archaeological diagrams and virtual tours. As Colleen Morgan put it on Twitter when sharing a photo of the demolished temple, "All my photos of Syria are becoming memento mori."

The digital replica of Palmyra and its central temple is networked, decentralized, and next-to-impossible to erase. Iconoclasm is a very singular method of protest: The shock works, and the tragedy lasts, but you can't do it twice. What makes our era different from previous outbreaks of iconoclasm is that we have the capability to document and archive, and indeed have passively documented, our cultural heritage for the public to share.

Efforts at developing this virtual archive are also expanding. In June, the BBC reported on the work of Harvard archaeologist Roger Michel, who hopes to blanket Syria with high-definition digital cameras in an effort to document the remaining architecture and relics before ISIS expands further. From a large enough cache of photographs, three-dimensional models can be re-constructed as the images are knit together—it's the same technique the Metropolitan Museum of Art used when it invited artists to render and re-mix its collection. There are even plans for a collaboration with MIT to host and 3-D print the resulting Syrian models.

In this way, destruction is mitigated, to some degree but not nearly enough, by replication, in conjunction with archaeologists working on the ground to preserve and catalog whatever Syrian artifacts might make their way into the black market, so police can identify them when they're sold and mark them for confiscation. Yet the long-term consequences of this cultural digitization are harder to reckon with, even in the context of a political emergency.


The novelist and photographer Teju Cole has been exploring digital replicability—the omnipresence of certain artistic artifacts—in the age of social media through his Instagram account (see his selfie in front of the Mona Lisa). Cole has also commented on the iconoclasm in Syria by posting museum artifacts, writing on his account, "The destruction of a ruin is like the desecration of a body. It is a vengeance wreaked on the past in order to embitter the future."

For me, the two projects flowed together. In being "restored" on the Internet, the Syrian artifacts, the entire temples, lose an emotional specificity and cultural resonance that they had in situ—where they were designed, built, and consumed by Syrians. As an image is repeated endlessly, shared over and over, it also thins out, its unique aura as an art object, as Walter Benjamin might describe it, slowly degrading into impotency.

A 3-D-printed version of an ancient Syrian temple is not a Syrian temple.

These "poor images," as artist Hito Steyerl named them, trick us into feeling that we are interacting with the whole cultural object. We can see the Mona Lisa on Instagram and Google Images, so aren't we experiencing it? But we have to be wary of the image's lack of authenticity, its status as a reproduction. The poor image "defies patrimony, national culture, or indeed copyright," Steyerl writes. "It is passed on as a lure, a decoy, an index, or as a reminder of its former visual self." A 3-D-printed version of an ancient Syrian temple is not a Syrian temple.

In allowing artifacts to be destroyed and then believing that we "save them" online, we risk accepting a culture of poor images, with pixels rather than things. What physical remains that are preserved will be those already in museums, already well-protected from time and destructionist ideology.

The quandary of Palmyra (does protecting culture merit a militaristic ground invasion that would doubtless incite more damage?) reminds me of the Metropolitan Museum's Temple of Dendur, an ancient Egyptian monument that dates to 10 B.C.E. It was given to the United States by Egypt in 1965 and installed in the Met, block by laborious block, in 1978. In its glass enclosure abutting Central Park, it is nothing short of magnificent. But it is still a re-construction, a well-crafted facsimile.

This is what we risk being left with: ahistorical models, virtual reality tours, the single stone column divorced from its origins and encased in glass. If we don't protect our artifacts as a global culture, we will be forced to settle for a shallow echo of what once existed.

Disruptions is Kyle Chayka's weekly column for Pacific Standard about personal technology and the way it influences our daily lives.