Thursday, 2 June 2016

Privatising the Digital Past

This is the text of a short 'provocation' I presented at an event called Cityscapes: Past, Present and Future.  The event took place at Senate House on the 1st of June 2016, and marked the launch of Cities@SAS - an initiative to create a cross-disciplinary dialogue about cities between the institutes of the School of Advanced Studies in the University of London.  The evening was fun, and my co-provocateurs were provocative.  My contribution was an attempt to worry at the uncomfortable and frequently unnoticed ramifications of putting the remains of the dead online.

 I am a historian – even an urban historian - and certainly a historian of London.  And as part of my professional role I have spent much of the last twenty years making sure that the records of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century London are available to everyone at the click of a mouse.  In the process it seems to me that I have also been complicit in the creation of a new economy of knowledge.  The academic component of this has been small beer – bespoke websites catering to minority interests – but it has been tied to a much bigger effort.  

Led by Google, Microsoft and Elsevier, Cengage Gale, ProQuest, and FindMyPast; in partnership with great global libraries and archives – the British Library and the Bodleian, the National Archives and a dozen others – we have created what is sometimes described as an ‘infinite archive’ of material inherited from the dead.  As a result, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century London is the most digitised where and when in the world.  
Every book published in London is pretty much available in Google Books, every census entry and map; every statement in Parliament, and newspaper published in London is there.  I can locate a single person in a single room on a backstreet anywhere in London at any point between 1841 and the First World War, and in twenty minutes put together a substantial biographical statement.  I can know their age and gender, their neighbours and their relations; and what they might have read over their morning tea.  This is a remarkable thing – and as a historian it changes what I do in remarkable ways; but if you were to stand back and create a national, or even a global policy that selected what should be digitised and what should be available, it would look very different.  

In digitising this particular history we have inadvertently made it more exclusive and more conservative – ever more dead white western men – to the exclusion of the rest of the world.

We talk a lot about the ‘affordances’ of the digital and the disruptions caused by the internet – from journalism to taxi cabs – from the Huffington Post to Uber.  But, what is not so often noticed is that in the last twenty years as part of ‘digitising’ the past we have both privatised our inherited culture and given a new hyper-availability to a subset of that culture – to the leavings of the same old rich dead white, men – and pre-eminently the leavings of dead Londoners.  Ironically London – as the metropole of the nineteenth century – the privileged recipient of the wealth of a global empire – has become the beneficiary of that wealth recast in a digital guise in the twenty first century.  Historical privilege has profoundly re-enforced contemporary privilege.

In part, this was a result of that largely unacknowledged privatisation.  In the analogue world, archives and libraries were run by the local council – a public service for a clear public good; and by national institutions – pre-eminently the British Library and National Archives – run as components of a national system of knowledge and memory.  

But in the rush to create a digital version of this we have simply handed the stuff of the dead – everything we have inherited from everyone who came before - to major corporations.  In the short term the interests of those corporations appeared to coincide with our broader social interests – Google Books looks pretty much free even if we pay every time an advertisement appears on our screen.

But, in handing over our cultural inheritance to for-profit organisations we have ensured just a few things.

First and foremost, we have ensured that the objects read and desired by a western, educated elite – with money to spend in response to all those adverts – will be the kinds of objects that will be most easily available. privileges the family records that a paying middle class audience is most likely to want to use.  Google privileges the canonical books in the great libraries of the academy; while most historians have added their tuppence by digitising the archives of the likes of Jeremy Bentham and Isaac Newton.  This inherent selection bias was then multiplied by the fact that elite western text culture was microfilmed in the 1940s and 1950s – all English books, for instance, published before 1800 – making it a tenth the cost to digitise and put online.  

As a result of both these forces, the selection of whose pasts to digitise has been profoundly conservative – giving new breath to old ideas and old texts.  It is easier to find details of the Gordon Riots of 1780 online, than it is to locate the archives of the Mau Mau uprising and its suppression; easier to look up the financial records of 19th c. slave holders; than the records of Apartheid.  Easier to trace a 19th-century history of glorified empire, than the messy details of decolonisation.

Issues around Intellectual property in combination with this selection bias also ensures that the critical thinking that arose in response to the painful histories of the mid-twentieth century – post modernism and second wave feminism – have been made ever less prominent.  It is now easier to read books and articles written in the 1940s and 1950s – easier still for works from before 1923 - than it is to access material from the 1980s and 1990s.  The relative decline of post-modernism, and the relative invisibility of the major insights of second wave feminism, as critiques of power, has partially been caused by a simple lack of access, determined by commercial choices made by powerful companies. 

The internet and the privatisation of knowledge has not so much dumbed us down as erased thirty years of hard graft directed at creating a more equal and compassionate society.  For history, the ‘affordance’ and disruption of the internet has been its ability to close down radical critiques in favour of older, safer and less challenging analyses.

And getting back to the urban – this selection, this conservative bias - means that the transition to a new economy of knowing ensures that this particular city – London – has become the norm – the ever present example of how a city should be.  

London’s new hyper-availability means it is the model of the evolution of a city – not Kolkata.  And by extension, it means New York not Lagos; Paris and not Beirut.

We have made the west hyper available and in the process flattened out the range of human experience, and the diversity of cities and urban life.  Without intent and purpose we have made normal London’s lack of central planning and governance – it’s democratic deficit; and we have made normal it’s ridiculous and historical over-reliance on finance.  In the process, and just by way of a single example of unintended consequences, we have made normal the idea that a great city can survive without effective democratic systems – leaving a powerful financial elite largely free of democratic accountability. 

And more subtly, because that digital memory is inherently conservative we build the cultural inequalities that we inherited from a much more small-minded and bigoted era directly into the DNA of the online. 

For the last three hundred years there have been dominant western models of urbanism – from London in the 18th century; Paris in the 19th and New York in the 20th.  But, by creating a singular western urban archive as the most readily available reservoir of memory for the urban modern, we take a singular city and make it painfully global – erase through the bright light of a single memory the incredibly varied world of cities – other.

This is not just globalisation, it is a form of cultural homogenisation and cultural hegemony.  And I think it is a bad thing.  And I very much hope that the initiative we are here to help launch contributes something to the solution – even if its very location is part of the problem.


  1. Interesting and provocative indeed! They are many things to argue about this paper and not the least would be to say about which kind of digitized sources are available for accessing 19-20th centuries history of London: only white middle-class men are visible? Gender bias and social bias did conditioned the big digitization? Are we sure? Could we say that Tim Hitchcock is too much hit by a kind of post-colonial bad conscience ? I would focus instead on why digitization of all kind of primary sources has been left -in the UK especially, but also in other countries (much less in France)- in the hands of big commercial multinational publishers like Gale, Proquest, Chadwick, Elsevier, etc.. Here we have a social issue and a cultural issue with access to sources: who can pay and continue to pay for and who really access and use them, not to say outside the UK itself where often you have to pay a lot of money for accessing what is free in the UK?

  2. I liked your post. I am interested in social history and can find myself clicking on links and reading for hours on sites like the British History Online site. Do you have a list of other good sources of which you speak?

  3. I liked your post. I am interested in social history and can find myself clicking on links and reading for hours on sites like the British History Online site. Do you have a list of other good sources of which you speak?

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  5. Excellent piece! Digitization practices often start with low-hanging fruit--the stuff that's already in the archive, even though those archives were created by colonial and imperial powers with particular purposes in mind. As Michel Rolph-Trouillot has shown, archives are not neutral. In my own research on the recent history of immigrant detention in the U.S., I've run up against similar problems. That gap of digitized knowledge in the 80s and 90s is real and all about copyright and intellectual property. It has a chilling effect on the histories we tell. I've written a bit about this here: .

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