As we know from Briet (2006) archives are always concerned with making evidence. I’ve often found myself wondering how archival and accounting practices intersect, especially from a critical, sociotechnical perspective. For example archives have been quick to pick up on accounting technology like blockchain in areas related to the data provenance (e.g. C2PA). I recently ran across Thylstrup, Archer, & Ravn (2022) which provides a really excellent critical overview of the idea of traceability which includes its history as a technology of control, and capitalism. It connects the dots between histories of accounting, and more recent scholarship on blockchain technologies. One thing that is highlighted is how traceability technologies like blockchain reinscribe existing systems of control while getting hitched to other ideas like sustainability and human rights:

Because multinationals often design blockchains according to their preferences, they also reinforce existing power imbalances. Thus, blockchain-enabled traceability initiatives for accountability seem to primarily operate in the interests of powerful corporate actors. On one hand, this makes sense: blockchains store information about people and things, and as philosophers from Bacon to Foucault have shown, those who have access to information about people and things tend to have some degree of power over them. Like any other tool or technology, blockchains are inseparable from the social context in which they are used. What is new is the extent to which an overarching concern with traceability has motivated the adoption of blockchain technologies, and the extent to which other desirable outcomes (such as accountability, but also sustainability, democracy, human rights, and so on) increasingly presuppose an embrace of technologically-mediated traceability. This is distinct from the motivation behind other forms of record keeping, such as national or imperial censuses, which were primarily motivated by a desire to collect the accurate amount of taxes from an accountable population. Even if traceability was also an aspect of censusing, which helps governments track migration both internally and externally, traceability seems to have only recently become a dominant ideation.

I left a note in the margins while reading this was that while census taking may have started for taxation purposes, in modern democracies it is also extremely important for determining how voting works (Nobles, 2000). How the census is conducted has real material impacts. So not just accounting for, but holding to account, which is a major theme in archival studies (Cox & Wallace, 2002).

This reminded me of my own research into the link between value and usability of archives (in my case web archives), and how archival traces can be used for manifold purposes. Some of these uses are explicitly designed into record creation processes, but some are latent and only realized later. Perhaps it’s another example of how technology is “neither good, nor bad, nor neutral” (Kranzberg, 1986), but really it feels more akin to the dual use nature of technology–except it’s not a dual either/or, it has many sides. In my own research, an archival technology of control (National Software Reference Library) took on other latent purposes as an archive of software, and a unique snapshot of the gaming industry, created by individuals who effectively became game curators. The ability to sift through file systems looking for unique files for legal purposes also had use in humanities research (Kirschenbaum, Ovenden, Redwine, & Donahue, 2010). I referred to this phenomena as Ketalaar’s Paradox in my dissertation, but I feel like it could use some further development as an idea. Maybe it’s just a rehashing of boundary object (Star, 2010), but what do we call it when companies that have a vested interest in existing intellectual property regimes promote a blockchain technology to combat disinformation?

At any rate, I think the idea of traceability is inherently tied to archives, because to have traceability you need traces, and to use the traces you need practices for making them, keeping them around, and accessing them.

References

Briet, S. (2006). What is documentation? : English translation of the classic french text. (R. E. Day, L. Martinet, & H. G. B. Anghelescu, Eds.). Scarecrow Press.
Cox, R. J., & Wallace, D. A. (Eds.). (2002). Archives and the public good: accountability and records in modern society. Westport, Conn: Quorum Books.
Kirschenbaum, M. G., Ovenden, R., Redwine, G., & Donahue, R. (2010). Digital forensics and born-digital content in cultural heritage collections (No. 149). Washington, DC: Council on Library and Information Resources.
Kranzberg, M. (1986). Technology and history:" Kranzberg’s Laws". Technology and Culture, 27(3), 544–560.
Nobles, M. (2000). History counts: a comparative analysis of racial/color categorization in US and Brazilian censuses. American Journal of Public Health, 90(11), 1738–1745. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.90.11.1738
Star, S. L. (2010). This is not a boundary object: Reflections on the origin of a concept. Science, Technology & Human Values, 35(5), 601–617.
Thylstrup, N. B., Archer, M., & Ravn, L. (2022). Traceability. Internet Policy Review, 11(1). Retrieved from https://policyreview.info/glossary/traceability