Care-fully exploring the ‘agentive properties’ of the digital: The critical design of digital experiences for cultural heritage sites
By Dr Sara Perry (MOLA, Museum of London Archaeology) Museum of London Archaeology
Digital technologies are marked by what Gavin Smith calls their “agentive properties”—their unparalleled capacities to subvert expectations, play with ontologies, and form intimacies and companionships, among other things. These features of the digital are known to generate enchantment in people, yet such enchantment often comes about in ways that leave us naive to the potentially exploitative and adverse outcomes of our everyday digital practices.
Cognizant of this power of our digital practices to grow and entrench injustice and inequity—to solidify the “techno-quo” (after Ruha Benjamin)—I critically reflect here on multiple years of collaborative work in designing digital storytelling experiences for cultural heritage sites in different parts of the world. I review the various critical, ethical, value-sensitive methodologies that we enrolled over time into our design process, often in response to problems that unwittingly threatened to undermine our interest in social justice. In particular, I focus on multiple digitally-mediated experiences centred on introducing audiences to egalitarian life and non-hierarchical communal organisation. The effects of these experiences on individuals have been complex and not necessarily positive, and I attempt here to tease out how design choices related to the digital technologies have (and have not) facilitated critical engagement with cultural heritage sites and their egalitarian lifeways.