Inadvertent Algorithms

As the end of 2014 approaches, Facebook has unleashed its new “Year in Review” app, purporting to show the highlights of your year. In my case, it did little other than demonstrate a more or less complete lack of Facebook activity on my part other than some conference photos a colleague had posted to my wall; in Eric Meyer’s case, it presented him with a picture of his daughter who had died earlier in the year. In a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece, he describes this as ‘Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty’: it wasn’t deliberate on the part of Facebook (who have now apologised), and for many people it worked well as evidenced by the numbers who opted to include it on their timelines, but it lacked an opt-in facility and there was an absence of what Meyer calls ‘empathetic design’. Om Malik picks up on this, pointing to the way Facebook now has an ‘Empathy Team’ apparently intended to make designers understand what it is like to be a user (sorry, a person), although Facebook’s ability to highlight what people see as important is driven by crude data such as the number of ‘likes’ and comments without any understanding of the underlying meanings which are present.

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Reproduction or revolution?

Emma Bryce (2014) has recently written about her autistic brother’s interest in technology – something that is quite commonly associated with folk on the spectrum. I deliberately wound up a conference audience some years ago by characterising computer-usage amongst archaeologists as fetishistic, but I’m not about to claim that digital archaeologists are autistic. However, one phrase at the end of her article jumped out at me: that regardless of where we are, on or off the spectrum, we all use technology as a form of comfort and security.

“By its very structure, technology invites us to practice repetitive behaviours and keep familiar habits alive. It transports us to places we feel comfortable…”

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Digital Discovery

Matt Edgeworth (2014) has recently sought to consider how the computers used by archaeologists mediate the production and reproduction of archaeological knowledge (2014, 41) and the way the act of archaeological discovery has changed since his innovative ethnographic study of an excavation was carried out around 1990. In particular, he points to the way that the ‘site of discovery’ has in some instances moved to the computer screen from the physical world. He describes how the archaeological workplace has changed in the intervening years, and estimates that most archaeological project managers now spend an average of 70-80% of their time working in digital environments (2014, 43). He points to the increased pace and quantity of work that is consequently achieved, which may lead to an increasingly stressful working environment. That is not to say computers are involved across the board – as he says, some areas of archaeological work remain resistant to computerisation with excavation itself remaining a largely manual process despite the various attempts to use computers onsite (2014, 45). As a result, he suggests archaeologists typically move in and out of different modes of perception – from computer-based work to manual work and back again (2014, 47).

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Disruptive technology

Curiously, according to Bloomberg’s recent ‘The 85 Most Disruptive Ideas in Our History’, the microchip comes second to the first-place jet engine. And their justification seems stranger still – the way in which the jet shrunk the world is perhaps fair enough, though the claim that for the first time the entire surface of the planet was reachable is open to question. Tell that to the likes of Alcock and Brown (first non-stop transatlantic flight, 1919), Macready and Kelly (first non-stop transcontinental flight, 1923), Smith and Nelson (first round the world flight, 1924) (and see Famous Firsts in Aviation for more in this vein). And yet in almost the same breath it is noted that the jet engine technology has become remarkably static.

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Digital transformation?

The digitisation of archaeology over the past twenty years or so could be said to be an unprecedented transformation of the subject. The move from field notebooks (or quite literally in some cases the backs of envelopes, receipts, bus tickets and the like) to site databases, the move from desktop recording and hand logging to digital data capture in the field, the move from local databases to distributed databanks, the introduction and development of CAD, GIS, 3D modelling, and a host of innovations such as agent-based modelling, reflectance transformation imaging, structure from motion, and increasingly refined and ‘intelligent’ search tools … all these would seem to support the idea of a digital transformation of the subject. The democratisation of technology appears to underline this – the fact that we have moved from a time when computers were in the hands of a few, usually academic, archaeologists to a situation in which everyone has a computer in their pocket, in their bag, and on their desk.

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