YouTubers are upscaling the past to 4K. Historians want them to stop

Shiryaev’s YouTube channel is a showcase for his company Neural Love, based in Gdansk, Poland, which uses a combination of neural networks and algorithms to overhaul historic images. Some of the very earliest surviving film has been cleaned, unscuffed, repaired, colourised, stabilised, corrected to 60 frames per second and upscaled to vivid 4K resolution.

But these vivid videos and images haven’t wowed everyone. Digital upscalers and the millions who’ve watched their work on YouTube say they’re making the past relatable for viewers in 2020, but for some historians of art and image-making, modernising century-old archives brings a host of problems. Even adding colour to black and white photographs is hotly contested. Luke McKernan, lead curator of news and moving images at the British Library, was particularly scathing about Peter Jackson’s 2018 World War One documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, which upscaled and colourised footage from the Western Front. Making the footage look more modern, he argued, undermined it. “It is a nonsense,” he wrote. “Colourisation does not bring us closer to the past; it increases the gap between now and then. It does not enable immediacy; it creates difference.”

The colours that suddenly flood into the streets of 1910s New York aren’t drawn from the celluloid itself; that information was never captured there. The extra frames added to smooth those New Yorkers’ 60 frame-a-second strolls are brand new too.

“There’s something that’s gained, but there’s also something that’s lost,” says Mark-FitzGerald. “And I think we need to have a conversation about what both of those things are.”

All watched over by machines, Surveillance Valley

Google building military drones, Facebook watching us all, and Amazon making facial recognition software for the police, need to be understood not as aberrations. Rather, they are business as usual.

Much of the early history of computers, is rooted in systems developed to meet military and intelligence needs during WWII – but the Cold War provided plenty of impetus for further military reliance on increasingly complex computing systems. And as fears of nuclear war took hold, computer systems (such as SAGE) were developed to surveil the nation and provide military officials with a steady flow of information. Along with the advancements in computing came the dispersion of cybernetic thinking which treated humans as information processing machines, not unlike computers, and helped advance a worldview wherein, given enough data, computers could make sense of the world.