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.