Over the last three months I’ve been fretting and toiling about a paper that I’m writing for European Archaeological Association meeting in September that is due to pre-circulate on August 1. I promised myself to have a completed draft done by July 15, not so much to fulfill some vague Germanic need to have things done on time, but because I was struggling to wrangle my ideas into something that made sense.
So here’s my a draft of my overly long introduction to the paper. Feedback is, as always, welcome:
My paper today is yet another effort to come to terms with my anxiety about the emergence of a transhuman, digital archaeology. To be clear from the start, I consider myself a bit of a digital archaeology and a digital native. I can’t remember, for example, living in a house without a computer and my role on archaeological projects has always involved data management and GIS. Over the last few years, I’ve also started an open access press, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, that privileges digital downloads over print and has featured a number of open access books that critically examine digital practices in archaeology.
My interest today is a speculative and theoretical and instead of focusing on the immediate context of field practices, I’d like to think about technology in archaeology in a more historical and expansive way. This will, of course, make many of my generalizations easy enough to dismiss with examples for actual field practices or implementation. These to me are reasons for optimism and perhaps reflect the advanced state of critical engagement with the way that digital tools are shaping the discipline. At the same time, I do think that long trajectory of digital practices in archaeology (and in our transhuman culture) remains unclear as folks like Jeremey Huggett have recognized (Huggett, Reilly, Lock 2018).
My small part in this conversation, which I shamelessly plug in the title of this paper, involved publishing a collection of reflections on ”punk archaeology” (Caraher et al. 2014) and, more recently, a couple of short articles that use the popular ”slow movement“ as an imperfect, but nevertheless accessible and useful lens for critically engaging digital archaeology (Caraher 2015, 2016) . Punk archaeology offered a view of archaeology grounded in radical and performative inclusivity, and slow archaeology considered the implications of a particular strand of scholarship that celebrated the increases in efficiency, accuracy, and precision associated with digital field practices. While both efforts have received substantive and thoughtful critiques that have demonstrated the limits to these analogies (archaeology is LIKE punk or LIKE the slow movement; see Richardson 2016; Graham 2017), I still hope that they offer some useful perspectives on the relationship between how archaeology produces the past in the present and how this shapes the organization of our discipline. It is the intersection of epistemological (and ontological) concerns and professional and disciplinary concerns that has heightened my sense of anxiety concerning archaeology’s digital future.
Some of this anxiety almost certainly comes from my growing interest in the works Ivan Illich and Jacques Ellul, mid-century Christian anarchists, who wrote critically on the rise of modern institutions and technology. Without over simplifying and eliding their different perspectives, both men saw the shift toward modern practices as profoundly disruptive to traditional values and a sense of community.
Ellul’s is perhaps the more problematic for considering archaeological practice. He suggests that the rise of rationality and technology, which he summarizes in the term “technique” after 1750 severed the careful attention of the individual from work itself (Ellul 1964). In its place emerged ”technique” which had its own abstract logic that was closely tied to the need for efficiency. Thus, in Ellul’s writing, emergence of technique in the place of individual care marked the decline in human autonomy as individual choices in how to work gave way to the inescapably logic of efficiency as the organizing principle structuring all human relations and relationships between humans and their tools. As Jennifer Alexander noted in her historical study of efficiency, “efficiency remains an iconic mantra in the high-tech industries,” and I’d argue efficiency remains a key consideration for how archaeology is organized and uses tools (Alexander 2008). In fact, a recent conference and publication dedicated to digital tools in field work, Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future, was laced with the discussions of efficiency and terms like workflow. Among the most widely cited and read articles from Journal of Field Archaeology is Christopher Roosevelt’s (and team) thorough presentation of the digital workflow from their project in southwest Turkey.
Ivan Illich shared many of Ellul’s concerns and proposed that modernity, technology, and the state disrupted the conviviality that existed in the premodern world and among premodern societies (Illich 1975). For Illich, conviviality represented the opposite of modern productivity (with its interest in speed and efficiency) and emphasized the free, unstructured, and creative interaction between individuals and between individuals and their environment. For Illich, like Ellul, the use of technology does not result in a society more free, but one that is increasingly bereft of the conditions that allow for creativity as the need for efficiency and speed create a kind of dominant logic in practice. (One can see in this tension, for example, the curiosity driven and open-ended nature of basic science in contrast to the narrower more practically focused work of applied science (Pickering 1995).)
Archaeology, of course, has always been a hybrid discipline with certain aspects of practice grounded in the world of craft and others in the world of industrial (and increasingly post-industrial) practice. Michael Shanks and others have shown that archaeology, “has never been modern” or at least entirely modern as it integrates industrial and pre-industrial practices (Shanks and Maguire 1995; Shanks 2012). Recent efforts to champion the use of digital tools within archaeology have tended, however, at least on the practical level, to celebrate their ability to improve the aspects of archaeological work that tend not to align with industrial paradigms such interpretative description, scientific illustration, and the careful study of excavated artifacts. This suggests to me that the quest to improve efficiency in archaeological practice extends equally to modern and pre-modern practices in the discipline.
Illich’s and Ellul’s critiques of technology fit only awkwardly with much recent scholarship, of course. Efficiency itself has become increasingly regarded as a problematic term deeply embedded in practice and the coincidence of human and material agency (e.g. Shove 2017). Bruno Latour and others have demonstrated that any effort to unpack the complexity of energy in any system — social, mechanical, environmental, et c. — requires abstract acts of purification that define and separate energy and effects from their complex network of entangled relationships and practices (Latour 1993; Shove 2017, 7-8). This work, on the one hand, echos recent studies of both ancient and modern technology that have challenged tradition views of agency and argued that objects and individuals co-create the world. This greater attention to the interaction between individuals and objects has provided a compelling theoretical framework for understanding the interplay of technology, tools, objects, and agency in the construction of archaeological knowledge.
On the other hand, this work has only just begun, I suspect, to inform the thriving conversation on the impact of digital tools on the organization of archaeological practice (although see Pickering 1995; Taylor et al. 2018), the nature of archaeological skills and expertise, and issues of archaeological preservation and publication (Huggett 2017). In fact, changing views of agency in the world have created new views of ethics in archaeological practice as well as in the social organization of discipline (e.g. Dawdy 2016). Perhaps this entangled view of the world gives the work of Illich and Ellul new relevance for archaeologist concerned with the social issue of disciplinary practice across the field.