Some Thoughts the Digital Tsunami

This weekend, I read with some excitement the forum in Antiquity following John Aycock’s thought-provoking article titled “The Coming Tsunami of Digital Artifacts.” The is the key text in a short debate section that features papers by Sarah and Eric Kansa, Colleen Morgan, and Jeremey Huggett. In other words, some of my favorite scholars in the field of digital archaeology. All their response are short and you should go and read them if it sounds interesting.

The gist of Aycock’s argument is that archaeologists have to do more to understand the world of digital artifacts if they want to be able to continue to apply archaeology to contemporary problems and objects. This is almost certainly true, although Aycock’s claim that archaeologists must become more digital literate and find ways to collaborate with computer scientists if they want to remain relevant is probably an overstatement. After all, most of human history did not involve digital technology and so knowing code, for example, may not necessarily change how we interrupt, say, Early Christian basilicas in Greece. 

That all said, the article did prompt me to think about how archaeologists make knowledge. On the one hand, Aycock is right that in many cases, archaeologists want to understand objects as thoroughly as possible. In most cases, efforts to extract as much data for an object, situation, context, or landscape involves a collaboration between as many specialists as possible. For a project devoted to a digital object, landscape, or context, then it seems like that a computer scientist might be part of the collaboration. 

On the other hand, I suspect that computer scientists also need archaeologists and experts on materiality as well. The detailed studies of video game machines and their context by Raiford Guins’s Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife (2014) and Michael Z. Newman’s Atari Age: The Emergence of Video Games in America (MIT 2017) offered insights into the complex lives of games and game consoles both in the home and as objects that saw use, maintenance, and repair. Newman showed that the physical forms of gaming consoles, as an example, from their faux wood paneling to their low profile designs served to adapt them to middle-class domestic standards and to make space for masculine video game playing in less more feminine space of the home interior. Guins traced the evidence for game playing rituals, from the wear marks that show where spectators would hang on or rub against the game machine while watching another player. More than that Guins traced the challenges with repairing CRT monitors and circuit boards for games that are no longer manufactured. In any event, these are two easy examples of how we can still learn a good bit from the materiality of video games and this could productively inform how we understand the code of the digital artifacts that these machines embody. 

Aycock’s article and the notion of “D Transforms” introduced in the response by Sarah and Eric Kansa also got me wondering about the stability of digital objects. It is obvious that digital objects can survive outside of their primary cultural, material, or archaeology context. But it equally obvious that files become corrupted by either digital or material failures. These corruptions can be as spectacular as glitch art or as gut wrenching as lost data and hardware crashes. The interplay between hardware and software can likewise be incredibly ephemeral, as Andrew Reinhard has pointed out, and even an incredibly detailed understanding of code will not always make the material object easier to understand (and vice versa). The notion of “D transforms” feels like brilliant way to grasp our encounters with digital objects in their material, temporal, and social (political, economic, and broadly cultural) context.

While much of this goes without saying, the conversation did get me thinking back to my dissertation. One of the challenges that I faced with my dissertation is that all that we had left behind was the “hardware” for the rise of Christianity in Greece. We had very few textual sources and almost no sources for the ritual life of the Early Christian basilica-style churches that I studied. It seemed to me that the liturgy that took places in these buildings served as kind of software that made its architectural form work for the Christian community. Despite its absence, archaeologists have nevertheless worked out, to some extent, how the software of these buildings worked. In fact, this is what archaeologists tend to be pretty good at doing.

In the end, Aycock is right, of course, archaeology of the contemporary world would do well to collaborate with computer scientists especially when dealing with the complex interplay between digital objects and their material forms. At the same time, because the digital is no less fragile and dependent on context than the material, I think it’s safe to say that archaeologists will do just fine negotiating the material even when the digital remains beyond our grasp.

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