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, Ancestry.co.uk 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.