Cemeteries of the web: parallels between Victorian burial culture and digital infrastructure

For over ten years I’ve been working in Learning Technology, but before then I spent five years doing research as an Anthropologist. I wrote a thesis about cemeteries and more specifically about the contested nature of cemeteries as cultural and material spaces. I often get asked what the link is between my work in Anthropology and Learning Technology and for me there are many. One of the strongest is that in both cases what I am most interested in is how we deal with change – and what’s left behind.

I’ve also been catching up on a year’s worth of The Contrafabulists podcasts and episode 18, recorded 14 August 2016, deals with questions around permanency online, ownership of domains and digital infrastructure – our control or lack thereof over these issues and so forth (it’s a great podcast series by Audrey Watters and Kin Lane so if you haven’t listened to it, I think you should).

Whilst listening it struck me that there are interesting parallels between what I studied and what this episode of the podcast was about, between Victorian burial culture and digital infrastructure. Here are some examples:

The illusion of permanency: one commonality for example is that a lot of digital infrastructure gives a promise of permanency in order to secure our engagement and content and Victorian entrepreneurs created urban cemeteries with the same promise. In the digital realm your posts, pictures or updates remain in place while their are valuable to the platform, but can disappear or become inaccessible with no or little notice. The newly created burial space in Victorian cities would similarly be described as a place for eternity, not just safeguarding bodily remains, but securing status and remembrance for future generations. And like its digital counterpart, cemeteries, too, could disappear for building projects or urban development with gravestones stacked unceremoniously against a wall or used as paving material.

Ineffective legal/governance frameworks: another commonality and a key issue common to both is lack of an effective legal/governance framework. For example platform user agreements that are too complex to understand or difficult to enforce – but in particular frameworks that do not take into account what happens when things change, what happens beyond the current profit predictions. Like the commercial cemetery companies in Victorian London, tech companies often operate and grow on the basis of quickly realised profits. Not many plan for the long term.

Perpetuating inequality: similar to the way in which digital infrastructure helps shape and control the actions of and narrative around our lives, Victorian cemeteries were design to do the same. Through their architecture, which echoed classical eras, through their layout, which privileged the wealthy and powerful, to the burial culture, which assigned places to men, women and children according to their status and station as well as religion, and even extending to the landscape and natural elements like plants and views, every element of the space was designed to construct a narrative of power. The history that Victorian burial culture records is the history of the ruling class.

There are many other examples, but what is most pertinent for me is that at the height of their popularity, Victorian cemeteries and the burial culture they embodied seemed unassailable, completely dominant. They had a deep impact on contemporary culture and development. What they celebrated and assigned value to was shaped by but also influenced Victorian society and culture in turn, spreading far beyond London and even England’s physical borders across the world throughout the British Empire. There was no notion that not even a century later very little of this culture would endure. Today, many of the most political, most powerful spaces of Victorian burial culture have become nature reserves, tourist attractions or slowly decaying urban wastelands.

Similarly, parts of our digital infrastructure can seem so dominant, to ubiquitous that it is hard to imagine what’s beyond them. In both cases we have limited control over what matters to us and enforcing it comes with compromises. In general digital platforms  operate on the premise that we either ignore or accept an uncertain future or otherwise make our own provision to whatever extent that we can – by securing our own domains and data.

Back from #altc2013

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Back from the ALT annual conference, this year celebrating 20 years of ALT and catching up with all the things I missed over the past three days. In addition to all the blog posts and tweets, one news items that caught my eye this morning is the Technology in FE and Skills supplement published today by FE Week. There is a short interview with me in it and a lot of interesting features with participants from across the conference, including the Learning Technologist of the Year Award #ltaward. I will also have a look at the open online platform to watch some of the already aired YouTube interviews from the live broadcast. Looking forward to next year in Warwick!

The cemeteryscapes archives

For the past two years I have edited and compiled the cemteryscapes blog together with many contributors who kindly sent us their pictures, links and articles. The blog started as a community project during the last year of my PhD and then gained a modest, but loyal community of readers across the world. We featured cemeteryscapes from many countries and material culture from Africa, the United States, Skandinavia, Southern Europe and the UK – everything from coffin exhibitions to boneywards, from conservation to natural burial practices. Now the blog has been turned into an archive which will continue to be available online and as a PDF and I hope that it will continue to be interesting and relevant to the active community of cemetery researchers which I have had the pleasure to be a part of.