What is Introspective Digital Archaeology?

Introspective Digital Archaeology seeks to examine the ways in which digital technologies within archaeology may have changed what we do, how we do it, how we represent what we do, how we communicate what we do, how we understand what we do, and how others understand what we do. This is in contrast to the more traditional approach, in which archaeological perspectives of digital technologies tend to cluster around the context of application, accounting for and justifying the use of a particular digital methodology in a specific circumstance. An introspective approach to Digital Archaeology represents a much wider and more fundamental approach to the understanding of the digital transformation of archaeology and considers the intermediation of digital technologies at every stage of the production of archaeological knowledge.

Introspective Digital Archaeology, therefore, seeks to understand the nature of the computational turn in archaeology and its effect on every stage of knowledge creation – from the theories we develop and use to the recognition of archaeological features on and in the ground, from the definition and capture of archaeological data through to the methods of structuring and recording those data, from their manipulation and analysis through to the presentation and synthesis of those data, and, ultimately, through to the construction, management, and publication of the resultant knowledge. This introspective or more self-aware Digital Archaeology consciously seeks to understand the underlying processes and behaviours that sit behind the tools, technologies, and methodologies applied. In some respects, it is not dissimilar to the kind of digital introspection commonly applied to the examination of the state and behaviour of software at runtime, whether it is monitoring virtual machines, examining processes, tracing tasks performed by agents, etc., but it goes much further in that the emphasis is not simply on looking beneath the surfaces, at processes and functions, but considers the larger picture: not just the context of application but the implications of that application in the first place. Taken to an extreme, introspection can lead to the reverse of what is intended – self-awareness can lead to a level of self-consciousness such that actions become frozen by indecision. That might appear to be a risk, but in the light of the risks of not adopting a more introspective mode – a somewhat naive, technocentric, consumer-oriented, technological determinism – it is arguably one worth taking. Introspection may also appear to imply an undue focus on the adverse effects of digital technologies, to be anti-technological in some sense, but that is certainly not the intention here – the objective is to gain a greater understanding and appreciation of these technologies within their disciplinary context, and in the process advance the exercise of Digital Archaeology.

As Samuel Florman observed in his preface to The Introspective Engineer,

“We begin with introspection. But the implicit conviction … is that thought will lead to action.” (1997, xii).

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3 thoughts on “What is Introspective Digital Archaeology?

  1. I very much enjoyed reading your piece. Thanks for sharing. The established view seems to be that the ‘introspective’ view is generally neglected within digital archaeological circles. Do you think that this is really the case? And if so, what or who do you think might be the exceptions? Frank

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    • Thanks, Frank. Yes, I think that is the case – but that’s not the same as saying that digital archaeologists are an unreflective bunch. It’s more to do with levels of reflection: for instance, most of us demonstrate a knowledgeable application of the tools we use, and indeed we have to in order to demonstrate the validity of what we present as a consequence. However, we’re much less likely to go much beyond this for a variety of reasons – some might feel it isn’t valuable, or that it is self-evident, or that it in some way undermines what we do, for instance. I wrote about this in a bit more detail in a commentary on contributions to a book on ‘Thinking Beyond the Tool’ (http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/61333/) which on the whole seemed to me to demonstrate lots of thinking about the tool but not so much beyond it …

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      • It is about levels of reflection. You are absolutely right. I always think that archaeologists have a lot to answer for in the way that they have come to use the phenomenology idea, for instance. I’ve read so many articles at this stage that reference the word and as if by magic, their paper has ticked the ‘philosophical importance’ box. I guess it goes back to the old chestnut of the referential power of the word. We use these terms without consciously and explicitly thinking about what they actually mean. We outsource that effort to someone else.

        Anyway, thanks a million for sending on that link. I work mainly on archaeological semantic web topics and the McLuhan 4 artefact law model might just be the perfect way of framing something I’m currently working on.

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