As an archaeologist, I often talk about how objects have agency. They can make us move, act, and think in particular ways.
The ‘Berlin key’, for example, forces users to lock doors whenever they are closed (see Bruno Latour‘s work). Monuments make us remember certain people and events in very particular ways. Many anthropologists now argue that, in fact, we are all already cyborgs – the lines have been blurred between humans and material culture/technology.
There have also been some fantastic discussions recently about digital materiality, and digital ‘things’. This concept has implications for the ways in which we understand our relationship to digital technologies, archive and preserve virtual things, and study and discuss them.
These digital objects, then, certainly have agency, too.
This is a story about digital objects controlling digital archaeologists.
This past month, my work on the Monumental Archive Project, which seeks to build a platform for accessing and sharing monumental and cemetery records, has been focussed on bringing it all together. In the past year, there have been small steps along the way – creating an interactive map of collections, working on controlled language and linked data, cleaning data, etc, etc. The time has come to weave together all of these loose, digital threads (which have admittedly gotten a bit tangled along the way).
Yesterday was one of those rare moments where design and code seem so entrancing, so captivating that I suddenly found myself sitting in a pitch black room. Hours had passed by. My playlist had ended at some point and I had never put anything else on. The door, which was ajar to let a warm summer breeze in was now allowing the icy air of twilight enter the house.
Given that coding is generally the most painful and frustrating part for me, all these signs pointed to the fact that I had accomplished some excellent work. Feeling a rare sense of satisfaction, I hit the button to commit changes, to sync, and to refresh my page, and see the results of my focussed efforts.
I was startled by the strange creature that appeared before me.
I looked at the screen, and then at my initial sketch of the website, and then back at the screen. They looked almost nothing alike.
Digital things, like all things, have agency. The Bootstrap template and a few snippets of code that I had borrowed had agency. Even with my modifications, their underlying structure, resulting from particular histories and design, had remained intact and seemingly all powerful. I had fallen into a zombie-like trance, become (unconsciously) complacent and slotted my content into a template that was designed for something entirely different.
I can now only marvel at what power templates have over us! They structure our content, reframe the way that we originally conceived of a project, and can present something entirely different to the public, in turn manipulating the way that they see our work and our data. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.
This is not a ‘down with templates’ moment, and I am not about to stop using code developed by skilled minds that have come before me. However, it is worth ruminating from time to time on the impact that those choices to borrow have on what we create and how it will be utilised in future. Even without templates, the ways in which computer programming languages function, the apps that have been designed to make it easier to do what we do, the platforms that make it possible to share our data, they all have their own level of agency. They influence innovation and the creative process, and in so doing, have critical legacies for the future of digital archaeology.