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Is Technology Bringing History to Life or Distorting It?

History is coming to life, and scholars are debating the merits of this wave of re-creation and manipulation.
When John F. Kennedy’s convertible was crossing Dealey Plaza, he was five minutes from the Trade Mart in Dallas, where 2,000 people were waiting to hear him give a speech. The president never spoke those words.

Until now. Sort of.

Fifty-five years later, in one of the many groundbreaking and controversial ways history is becoming less about dates and more about data, technology has extended Camelot by another 18 minutes. JFK finally delivered that last speech in his own “voice.”

Taking more than 116,000 snippets of speech from samples of the 35th president’s other recordings, a Scottish “voice cloning” firm has produced a Kennedy-esque rendition of his final scripted words:

“America’s leadership must be guided by the lights of learning and reason,” a virtual version of that unmistakable Boston Brahmin accent intones, “or else those who confuse rhetoric with reality and the plausible with the possible will gain the popular ascendancy with their seemingly swift and simple solutions to every world problem.”

The effect is powerful, if not perfect. At its best, Kennedy is clearly doing the talking; hearing him complete his mission for that day has moved many listeners to tears. At its worst, a robotic inflection on some phrases makes it sound like JFK inhabits an automated voice mail system. (“Press two for racial justice in our time.”)

Whatever its shortcomings, the Kennedy speech is just the latest way that history is being digitally re-created, updated and manipulated as never before. From meticulously colorized photographs to immersive virtual-reality battlefields, scholars, artists and entrepreneurs are dragging the old days into the computer age. And scholastic standards are straining to keep up.

The U.S. Military Academy is working on a phone-based app along the lines of Pokémon Go that will let visitors see how George Washington’s troops strung a massive iron chain across the Hudson River. A team in North Carolina has synthesized an important but unrecorded 1960 speech by Martin Luther King Jr., acoustically accurate down to the echoes in the Durham church.

Another has created a visual and acoustic model of John Donne’s 1622 “Gunpowder Plot Sermon” in the courtyard of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, complete with archaic English and murmuring yeomen. A future, theater-based version may include the smells of horse dung and rotting fruit.

The digital-age ability to make history more visceral has many in the field giddy.
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