War, natural disasters and climate change are destroying some of the world's most precious cultural sites. Google is trying to help preserve these archaeological wonders by allowing users access to 3D images of these treasures through its site.
But the project is raising questions about Google's motivations and about who should own the digital copyrights. Some critics call it a form of "digital colonialism."
When it comes to archaeological treasures, the losses have been mounting. ISIS blew up parts of the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria and an earthquake hit Bagan, an ancient city in Myanmar, damaging dozens of temples, in 2016. In the past, all archaeologists and historians had for restoration and research were photos, drawings, remnants and intuition.
But that's changing. Before the earthquake at Bagan, many of the temples on the site were scanned. . . . [These] scans . . . are on Google's Arts & Culture site. The digital renditions allow viewers to virtually wander the halls of the temple, look up-close at paintings and turn the building over, to look up at its chambers. . . . [Google Arts & Culture] works with museums and other nonprofits . . . to put high-quality images online.
The images of the temples in Bagan are part of a collaboration with CyArk, a nonprofit that creates the 3D scanning of historic sites. . . . Google . . . says [it] doesn't make money off this website, but it fits in with Google's mission to make the world's information available and useful.
Critics say the collaboration could be an attempt by a large corporation to wrap itself in the sheen of culture. Ethan Watrall, an archaeologist, professor at Michigan State University and a member of the Society for American Archaeology, says he's not comfortable with the arrangement between CyArk and Google. . . . Watrall says this project is just a way for Google to promote Google. "They want to make this material accessible so people will browse it and be filled with wonder by it," he says. "But at its core, it's all about advertisements and driving traffic." Watrall says these images belong on the site of a museum or educational institution, where there is serious scholarship and a very different mission. . . .
[There's] another issue for some archaeologists and art historians. CyArk owns the copyrights of the scans — not the countries where these sites are located. That means the countries need CyArk's permission to use these images for commercial purposes.
Erin Thompson, a professor of art crime at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, says it's the latest example of a Western nation appropriating a foreign culture, a centuries-long battle. . . . CyArk says it copyrights the scans so no one can use them in an inappropriate way. The company says it works closely with authorities during the process, even training local people to help. But critics like Thompson are not persuaded. . . . She would prefer the scans to be owned by the countries and people where these sites are located.
In Dr. Thompson’s view, CyArk owning the copyright of its digital scans of archaeological sites is akin to:
- the illegal downloading of content from the internet.
- the seizing of ancient Egyptian artefacts by a Western museum.
- tourists uploading photos of monuments onto social media.
- digital platforms capturing users’ data for market research.
Based on his views mentioned in the passage, one could best characterise Dr. Watrall as being:
- dismissive of laypeople’s access to specialist images of archaeological and cultural sites.
- opposed to the use of digital technology in archaeological and cultural sites in developing countries.
- uneasy about the marketing of archaeological images for commercial use by firms such as Google and CyArk.
- critical about the links between a non-profit and a commercial tech platform for distributing archaeological images.
Of the following arguments, which one is LEAST likely to be used by the companies that digitally scan cultural sites?
- It provides images free of cost to all users.
- It helps preserve precious images in case the sites are damaged or destroyed.
- It allows a large corporation to project itself as a protector of culture.
- It enables people who cannot physically visit these sites to experience them.
Which of the following, if true, would most strongly invalidate Dr. Watrall’s objections?
- CyArk uploads its scanned images of archaeological sites onto museum websites only.
- There is a ban on CyArk scanning archeological sites located in other countries.
- CyArk does not own the copyright on scanned images of archaeological sites.
- Google takes down advertisements on its website hosting CyArk’s scanned images.
By “digital colonialism”, critics of the CyArk–Google project are referring to the fact that:
- countries where the scanned sites are located do not own the scan copyrights.
- CyArk and Google have not shared the details of digitisation with the host countries.
- the scanning process can damage delicate frescos and statues at the sites.
- CyArk and Google have been scanning images without copyright permission from host countries.
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