The Digital Deficit

Mind the Gap
(by Christopher Brown, CC-BY 2.0)

Nicholas Carr has just pointed to some recently published research which suggests that the presence of smartphones divert our attention, using up cognitive resources which would otherwise be available for other activities, and consequently our performance on those non-phone-related activities suffers. In certain respects, this might not seem to be ‘news’ – we’re becoming increasingly accustomed to the problem of technological interruptions to our physical and cognitive activities: the way that visual and aural triggers signal new messages, new emails, new tweets arriving to distract us from the task in hand. However, this particular study was rather different.

In this case, the phones were put into silent mode so that participants would be unaware of any incoming messages, calls etc. (and if the phone was on the desk, rather than in their pocket or bag or in another room altogether, it was placed face-down to avoid any visible indicators) (Ward et al. 2017, 144). Despite this, they found that

“… the mere presence of one’s smartphone may reduce available cognitive capacity and impair cognitive functioning, even when consumers are successful at remaining focused on the task at hand” (Ward et al, 2017, 146).

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Cyborg Archaeology

The Mechanical Mind
CC0 public domain. Original image by aytuguluturk

When we hear of augmentation in digital terms, these days we more often than not think of augmented or mixed reality, where digital information, imagery etc. is overlain on our view of the real world around us. This is, as yet, a relatively specialised field in archaeology (e.g. see Eve 2012). But digital augmentation of archaeology goes far beyond this. Our archaeological memory is augmented by digital cameras and data archives; our archaeological recording is augmented by everything from digital measuring devices through to camera drones and laser scanners; our archaeological illustration is augmented by a host of tools including CAD, GIS, and – potentially – neural networks to support drawing (e.g. Ha and Eck 2017); our archaeological authorship is augmented by a battery of writing aids, if not (yet) to the extent that data structure reports and their like are written automatically for us (for example).

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Reproducing practice

One theme that came out of the recent CAA 2015 conference in Siena last week circled around the unstated issue of whether the role of digital technology was to support or substitute current (traditional) archaeological practice. This featured particularly strongly in the day-long session organised by James Taylor and Nicolò Dell’Unto, ‘Towards a Theory of Practice in Applied Digital Field Methods’.

Proof I made it to the top of the Torre del Mangia
Siena from the Torre del Mangia

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Changing gear

There’s an interesting project run out of Durham and Newcastle Universities by Bob Simpson and Robin Humphrey, Writing Across Boundaries, which started off as a series of workshops to look at challenges faced by researchers writing a thesis employing qualitative data but has broadened out somewhat thereafter. Simpson and Humphrey suggest that in recent years

“there has been acceleration in the way researchers progress from one kind of writing to another – doctoral thesis to articles to monograph to more accessible forms of dissemination. The pressure to do in couple of years what an earlier generation might have done in a couple of decades has a variety of external drivers. These mostly come down to funding and the competition for scarce resources on the one hand, and the demonstration of public accountability on the other.”

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Innovation and apprehension

Nicholas Carr points to a new essay by Leon Wieseltier, former literary editor at The New Republic recently moved to The Atlantic, on the state of culture in the digital age. It’s a wide-ranging commentary on the impact of technology on culture:

“… words cannot wait for thoughts, and first responses are promoted into best responses, and patience is a professional liability. As the frequency of expression grows, the force of expression diminishes …”.

He talks of the way that information and knowledge have become treated as equal or equivalent, and the expectation that knowledge requires a scientific approach and so as a consequence the humanities are viewed as less relevant. He argues that we have shifted away from a worldview where humanity is at the centre of our universe to one in which impersonal forces – technologies – have become the key determinant.

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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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