Preliminary Thoughts on Digital Practices in Archaeology

Before you read my blog today, head over to Shawn Graham’s Electric Archaeologist and check out his critique of my idea of slow archaeology. I agree with 98% of what Shawn writes in his post; in fact, I started writing the following post prior to reading his. You’ll not that it is not a perfect response, but that’s ok.

I’ve been trying to systematize my ideas about digital archaeology in light of recent (and largely deserved) critiques of slow archaeology (for my most recent and formal publication on this, go here; for a bit of an idea how my ideas developed incrementally go here (and read this here)). This is just kind of a draft of ideas, but maybe it’s a helpful way to organize my own thinking moving forward.

The critiques that have stung the most are not that I’m some kind of Luddite archaeology with my dumpy level and notebook, but that slow archaeology by appropriating the popular “slow” moniker carried with it the elitist baggage of the slow food movement or the hipster movement or whatever. From my privileged position as a tenured professor with a number of successful (let’s say) field projects under my belt, I’m changing the rules of the game when I preach the benefits of archaeological practices that privilege reflexive practice over systematic “data collection” and digital analysis. Shawn Graham delicately hints that this kind of rhetorical posturing could represent a kind of gate-keeping that excludes a vast number of good, working archaeologists who spend their days interpreting data, racing before the bulldozers in salvage projects, or living hand to mouth as an adjunct professor.

Of course, this critique horrified me!  I have always considered my interests in digital archaeology as much a work toward ethical practices as methodologies. What has become clear to me at this point is that my ideas of slow archaeology and my critiques of digital practices have become pretty muddled (probably because I’ve been working them out in a very public way at conference, on this blog, and in conversations).

Here’s another effort to systematize my ideas and to bring to the fore the ethical issues not so much in response to Shawn’s critiques, but as a kind of counterpoint that argues for slow archaeology as an reflexive archaeology of care as much as prescriptive set of practices. 

My interest in digital archaeology centers three key, but interrelated issues. To my mind (right now), each of these has their own issues related to them, but also overlap with other categories in meaningful ways. A slow archaeology – or whatever – would represent a critique that runs through all of these categories.

1. Ethics of Access.

A few years ago, I wrote a paper for an AIA panel where I basically said that the digital revolution (or whatever) was pretty uneven in archaeology. Big projects could afford big, bespoke digital systems and small and midsized projects tended to use off-the-shelf solutions in ad hoc and DIY ways. At the time, I think that I imagined that this was a pretty disturbing revelation to many people (and in the spirit of Punk Archaeology). Small projects, in my mind, represented the future of archaeological work because, to my mind at the time, disciplinary and economic realities had long ago eroded the preeminence of large projects in our field.

In hindsight, I probably underestimated the degree to which big projects have set the standard for small and mid-sized projects. For example, my little project, PKAP, used a version of the Corinth Manual as a our field manual and adapted databases that had been in use for decades earlier on the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey (EKAS).

Despite these reservations, I continue to think that access to digital tools remains a crucial concern. In the most obvious way, we can talk about how digital tools tend to be developed among wealthier academic projects in the Mediterranean and South America rather than local archaeologists (who, as we all know, innovate in different ways). At a conference once, a colleague once said (with a bit of a wry smile) that projects that couldn’t afford iPad maybe shouldn’t be doing field work. This was directed at academic excavators and there is maybe a kernel of truth there, but most archaeological projects in the world today still do not use tablets or iPads for economic and historical reasons. In fact, the rather lavishly funded (by global standards) archaeological project in Greece, the Western Argolid Regional Project, does not use iPad, in part, because we thought that the expense of maintaining iPad for 6 or 7 field teams over a 3-year season and attendant infrastructure was too high. 

Issues of access take on a more dire cast when we consider the extreme example of how digital technologies bring the tools of the surveillance state to our discipline with all of the panoptic exclusivity that this entails. At its most extreme, we have projects using drones and satellites taking images to track the progress of looting in war torn regions. At its most mundane, we’re talking about projects using “inexpensive” drones that allow archaeologists to map out landscapes in a ways that are both arresting and invasive.

New tools from iPads to drones are shaping both explicit models of “best practice” and our disciplinary expectations in ways that embrace both the spirit and costs of technological solutionism.

An ethics of access considers how uneven levels of technological knowledge and expertise functions at the level of the dig. For example, we all know projects where senior project directors don’t really “get” the database or the GIS and this has a significant impact on how the project is run on both a day-to-day level and over time. The fragmentation of digital data (as I’ll discuss later) quite literally reinforces the fragmentation of archaeological expertise which is both a vital part of the larger professionalization process of the discipline, but also challenge and a barrier for any model of knowledge production that seeks to synthesize specialist knowledge to produce holistic or totalizing views of the past. As professionalization is – first and foremost – an ethical concern, the transparency and compatibility of various forms of specialist knowledge, whether mediated by digital practices or not, intersect vitally with issues of access.   

Finally, there are also issues of who and how much access the “public” has to our data especially when projects are funded from pubic funds.

It seems to me that these are all issues of access that are not exclusively digital (after all access to material has always been a key aspect of archaeological knowledge making), but have emerged with particular vividness in discussions of digital technologies in the discipline.

2. Ethics of Process

I originally wanted to call this the “ethics of practice,” but I supposed that issues of access are important elements of practice as well. What I’m really trying to get at with this the issue of process is how digital technology has shaped the process of knowledge making in the field. I think this is where Mobilizing the Past has made the greatest contribution and where my views on things are both most out of sync with the field, but also perhaps least clever.

With slow archaeology, I tried to argue that digital tools are transforming how we produce knowledge “at the trowels edge.” The application of slow archaeology to this process was not to tell archaeologists that digital practices were bad, but to encourage archaeologists to think reflexively about digital technologies. This largely grew out of an anxiety that there are folks who want to see digital technologies as “tools” that are somehow value neutral or who offer a simple cost/benefit binary as a the best way to understand the adoption of a particular technology. In the most simplistic application of this “toolbox” mentality, digital technologies replace existing “analogue” archaeological practices with a cheaper, more accurate, and more efficient alternative. This level of methodology is not very helpful to my mind because the “tools” we use shape the knowledge we create.

On the other hand, I probably pushed the argument too far when I started to become overly fixated on archaeological knowledge making as a holistic or somehow integrative process from the first day of planning to the final publication. Of course, viewing archaeology “holistically” (or systemically?) is important, but I suspect that my tendency to understand the entire process of archaeological work as irreducible caused me problems. Archaeologists have long devoted critical attention to the various phases in the larger interpretative project, and practical attention to how technology transforms these processes is vital to understanding how the discipline is changing.

As folks know, I see most of how we talk about digital technology being shaped by either industrial practices like Taylorism or the empiricism of New Archaeology. Both of these things tend to like to fragment archaeological processes in the field and in analysis and interpretation, and I see a parallel between these processes and the way digital technology fragments data. Maybe there’s a parallel between Wheelerian pixelization of archaeological sites into Wheeler boxes and open area excavations?

The role of Latorian “black boxing” contributes to the ethics of process in archaeology (as well as to issues of access) and real conversations about how much control over archaeological processes digital technologies offer and how fragmented we make our sites remain of interest to me. How do we understand the dense networks of technology, interpretative assumptions, historical practices, and objects creating archaeological knowledge?

Perhaps the ethical issues, for me at least, involving the use of digital technology in archaeological processes center on how we talk about these technologies. I do not see archaeology as reducible to a series of practices and tools grounded in efficiency, accuracy, and economy. I am not even sure that I see archaeology grounded in the “proof of the pudding is in the eating” (although that does play a part). After all, we regularly make ethical decisions in practice and on a disciplinary level that do not require such proof. We don’t need to prove, for example, that greater gender balance in projects produces better results, for example.

So for me, (and this is why some of these critiques have stung a bit), slow archaeology or critical attention to processes and practices is not simply about producing better results, but about producing a better, more inclusive, and more reflexive discipline. 

3. Pulling Apart Publication

So if an ethics of process asks archaeologists to pull apart archaeological practices in the field to understand how both current and longstanding technologies have shaped archaeological knowledge, pulling apart the publication asks archaeologists to think about how the same digital tools will challenge how we understand the boundary between the published and the unpublished, the public and the private, and the provisional and the final.

I think the same pressures that have fragmented archaeological knowledge production at the digital trowel’s edge are fragmenting publications as well. For example, platforms such as Open Context are highly specialized and the needs for a project to present different kinds of data within particular technological contexts will continue, I suspect to drive a kind of specialization within publishing. I am really excited about Eric Kansa’s idea of slow data as step toward conceptualizing digital publishing in practical and ethical ways. 

I think there is some interesting cross pollination between folks working on the history of the book (I was particularly intrigued by Laura Mandell’s Breaking the Book (2015), but she essentially summarized a vast (and intimidating) body of recent scholarship that has located the book (and the scholarly article as well) at the intersection of particular historical, social, cultural, and technological circumstances (which I know can be said of anything)). But Mandell’s point (among many) is that the nature of the book itself produces a kind of authority. It’s physical shape, the role of publishers, authors, and even copyright promoted the integrity of the book or article as as source of authority.

Without becoming one of those people who call everything revolutionary or disruptive, I do think that digital practices will lead us – particularly in technical publications – to publish our work in different ways as we look to adapt the concept of publication to the structural strengths of digital technologies. Maybe this will allay Shawn’s concern that by adopting the concept of “slow” from the slow food movement that we are advocating a kind of anti-technological or worse intentionally impractical approach to archaeological knowledge or attempting to drive a wedge between “digital archaeologists” and “analogue archaeologists.” Nothing could be further from the truth! At its core, slow archaeology is nothing more than a targeted rebranding of long-standing conversations in archaeological methodology and reflexive practices. Slow offered a convenient foil to calls for increased efficiency and speed so closed aligned with dominant narrative of technological solutionism and the speed of capitalism.    

 

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