Illich and Slow Archaeology

As you might have gathered from my post earlier in the week, I’m interested in applying Ivan Illich’s ideas of conviviality to archaeological practices as well. One of the longterm failures in my argument for slow archaeology is that beyond advocating for a more critical engagement with digital tools and practices in the field, I’ve struggled to articulate why a slow archaeology is a better archaeology.

My efforts along these lines have centered on three critiques that I’ll summarize briefly here:

1. Fragmentation. Digital tools fragment the archaeological landscape into smaller and smaller fragments that archaeologists then need to re-integrated typically away from the field using another set of digital tools. 
2. Efficiency. Some archaeologists have argued that digital tools will increase efficiency and this will lead to more time for intensive analysis while in the field. I remain unconvinced and evoke claims as early as the industrial revolution asserting that more efficient production practices would lead to fewer hours at work, more abundance, and more leisure. While it is hard to deny that industrialization has improved our quality of life in some ways, the utopian visions of a world without poverty and with abundant free time have not come to pass.   
3. Deskilling and Blackboxing. Finally, I argue that our growing dependence on digital tools in archaeology runs the risk of deskilling archaeological practitioners. While some recent work has suggested that the use of more digital tools will lead to the retooling of archaeological knowledge rather than the deskilling, it is hard to deny that the latest generation of digital tools remove the archaeologist from moving archaeological information from the field to the lab.

Over time, I’ve added little observations here and there that expand these points. For example, I’ve argued that the use of digital tools is unevenly distributed across projects of different sizes and funding levels. Others have observed that digital tools distinguish well-funded foreign projects from local archaeologists and could evoke longstanding colonial practices in archaeology. And others have suggested that the adoption of new technologies in archaeology have sometimes reinforced gender differences in the discipline and the pace and expectations of research often force the hand of junior or non-tenure track faculty to embrace digitally mediated archaeological work.

(Full disclosure: as I am writing this I’m waiting for our new 17 inch laptop (code name: War Daddy) to generate a mesh from a dense point cloud… oh, good, it restarted 4 hours into the process.)

After reading Ivan Illich’s Tools for Conviviality I got to thinking about which tools in our archaeological kit are genuinely convivial and which promote more alienated and abstract forms of engagement with knowledge production. Illich was particularly concerned with matters of professionalization and specialization and how institutions (especially schools) used various forms of credentialing to limit access to professions and services. This generated wealth for those with various credentials, but also exacerbated inequality. For Illich, conviviality was the opposite of industrial practices and offered a path toward a more just, more equal, and ultimately, more happy society. I suspect that most practicing archaeologists would apply at least some of Illich’s goals to the ongoing course of our discipline. Equality and justice within archaeology are as important as finding common ground between archaeologists and the various communities that they serve. This is especially visible when we work abroad or among groups who have less access to expertise, technology, and wealth.

(I just scrapped the entire project and started to process photos again after the software crashed. PROGRESS!)

The question then becomes which tools offer opportunities for more convivial practice in archaeology. At a conference on digital tools, I recall a colleague – in a bit of puckish way – noting that if a project couldn’t afford iPads, maybe they shouldn’t be doing fieldwork. While his comments were meant in a bit of lighthearted way (and in response to a wide ranging discussion), I think he expressed how certain kinds of practices produce unconvivial environments in the discipline. The need for digital tools in archaeology produces new forms of specialization from data managers to folks to set up servers, design applications, manage digital processes, and even use particularly complex tools like differential GPS units, drones, or various devices designed to analyze the chemical constitution of artifacts. This isn’t to suggest that archaeology hasn’t always had some degree of specialization with material experts and technicians making certain aspects of field work and analysis more efficient, but in some ways, the advances in digital technologies in archaeology has led to greater specialization, at greater cost, and at greater distance from the disciplinary core of archaeological practice. At the same time, people can make reasonable arguments that technology opens up the field of archaeology and all of its practices to individuals with less specialized skills. Anyone with a phone can now produce 3D models of a site. Portable XRF technology makes it possible for even a non-specialist to analyze the chemical composition of an artifact. As GPS units become cheaper, more accurate, and easier to use, projects no longer need dedicated architects to plot points. Yet, these tools all require investments in money, shift part of the expertise in measuring, observing, and building to hardware and software that is beyond the user’s control, and require complex, usually institutional, data management practices to be accessible to other people. The stakes here are complicated especially as we realize that Illich’s tools for conviviality are not necessarily anti-technological, but emphasize that some tools open the door to more convivial practices than others.

Of course, Illich would see the very disciplinarity of archaeology part of the problem with its exclusive or at least relatively narrow claims to knowledge making. I still think that a convivial approach to understanding knowledge production within the discipline offers perspectives that are useful for thinking about how to keep archaeology moving toward both more just as well as more sustainable and open practices. 

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