Unconscious Bias

Modified from the original by grahamc99. CC-BY-2.0

My employer has decided to send all those of us involved in recruitment and promotion on Unconscious Bias training, in recognition that unconscious bias may affect our decisions in one way or another. Unconscious bias in our dealings with others may be triggered by both visible and invisible characteristics, including gender, age, skin colour, sexual orientation, (dis)ability, accent, education, class, professional group etc.. That started me thinking – what about unconscious bias in relation to digital archaeology?

‘Unconscious bias’ isn’t a term commonly encountered within archaeology, although Sara Perry and others have written compellingly about online sexism and abuse experienced in academia and archaeology (Perry 2014, Perry et al 2015, for example). ‘Bias’, on the other hand, is rather more frequently referred to, especially in the context of our relationship to data. Most of us are aware, for instance, that as archaeologists we bring a host of preconceptions, assumptions, as well as cultural, gender and other biases to bear on our interpretations, and recognising this, seek means to reduce if not avoid it altogether. Nevertheless, there may still be bias in the sites we select, the data we collect, and the interpretations we place upon them. But what happens when the digital intervenes?

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Shaping Boxes

Flight recorder black box
Flight data recorder black box:
image by Rameshng [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons
Bethany Nowviskie has written recently about black boxes:

“Nobody lives with conceptual black boxes and the allure of revelation more than the philologist or the scholarly editor. Unless it’s the historian—or the archaeologist—or the interpreter of the aesthetic dimension of arts and letters. Okay, nobody lives with black boxes more than the modern humanities scholar, and not only because of the ever-more-evident algorithmic and proprietary nature of our shared infrastructure for scholarly communication. She lives with black boxes for two further reasons: both because her subjects of inquiry are themselves products of systems obscured by time and loss (opaque or inaccessible, in part or in whole), and because she operates on datasets that, generally, come to her through the multiple, muddy layers of accident, selection, possessiveness, generosity, intellectual honesty, outright deception, and hard-to-parse interoperating subjectivities that we call a library.” (Nowviskie 2015 – her emphases)

Leaving aside the textual emphasis that is frequently the focus of digital humanities, these “multiple, muddy layers” certainly speaks to the archaeologist in me. The idea that digital archaeologists (and archaeologists using digital tools for that matter) work with black boxes has a long history – for instance, the black-boxing of archaeological multivariate quantitative analyses in the 1960s and 1970s was a not uncommon criticism at the time. During the intervening forty-odd years, however, it has become a topic that we rarely discuss. What are the black boxes we use? Where do they appear? Do we recognise them? What is their effect? Nowviskie talks of black boxes in terms of the subjects of enquiry – which as archaeologists we can certainly understand! – and the datasets about them, but, as she recognises, black boxing extends far beyond this.

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