Archaeology’s Digital Sublime

Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fog
Wanderer above the sea of fog: Caspar David Friedrich, c.1818  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
At UCL’s recent Digital Heritage ‘Big’ Data Hacking and Visualisation Workshop (22nd May 2017) , Shawn Graham spoke about the ‘Big Data Gothic and Digital Archaeology’. He did this in the context of rethinking our place in the world in the face of the ongoing data revolution, the way in which we sublimate ourselves in the data: part of a critique of the unintended consequences of algorithmic agency in Big Data. This immediately chimed with me, because I’ve been recently thinking along similar lines, though more specifically related to the concept of the Sublime rather than the broader Gothic.

The sublime is derived from the 18th century philosophy of Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke (for example, see Hirshberg 1994). As Coyne describes it (1999, 61-2), the sublime consists of:

… awe and admiration at the various spectacles of nature that raise the soul above the vulgar and the commonplace, arousing emotions akin to fear rather than merely joy … manifested in the contemplation of raging cataracts, perilous views from mountaintops, the forces of nature, expanses of uninhabitable landscapes, the infinity of space and time, but also breathtaking artificial structures and powerful machinery … the concept of the romantic sublime provided a substitute for Christian cosmology displaced by the growth of science … The romantic quest frequently discovered the sublime in the technological.

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Seeking Digital Excellence

(by Nick Youngson, CC BY-SA 3.0)

What constitutes a truly excellent research publication in Digital Archaeology?

This question arises in the context that, like every other subject area in the UK, we’re under pressure to prepare for the next round of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), the periodic review of research quality across UK universities which is anticipated to take place in 2021. The results of these reviews affect institutional and subject-based rankings and also feed into the calculation of the annual research block grant (Research Excellence Grant) from central government which here in Scotland was just under £232,000,000 for 2017-18. So money and reputation are at stake: small wonder University administrators across the country are turning their minds to interim reviews and internal assessments in anxious anticipation.

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Ghosts in the machine

spectre3We’re accustomed to the fact that much archaeology is collaborative in nature: we work with and rely on the work of others all the time to achieve our archaeological ends. However, what we overlook is the way in which much of what we do as archaeologists is dependent upon invisible collaborators – people who are absent, distanced, even disinterested. And these aren’t archaeologists working remotely and accessing the same virtual research environment as us in real time, although some of them may be archaeologists who developed the specialist software we have chosen to use. The majority of these are people we will never know, cannot know, who themselves will be ignorant of the context in which we have chosen to apply their products, and indeed, to compound things, will generally be unaware of each other. They are, quite literally, the ghosts in the machine.

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A Digital Detox for Digital Archaeology?

Digital Detox sign
Adapted from original image by davitydave (CC BY 2.0)

Digital detox has been very much in the news of late, with celebrities from film stars to pop singers to video bloggers attempting to digitally detox for a host of different reasons. Ten years ago, Thomas Friedman, the New York Times op-ed columnist and three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, wrote about continuous partial attention – the consequence of our attempts to multitask when on the Internet or cellphone while watching television, typing an email or paper, and trying to hold a conversation with someone – he called it “the malady of modernity. We have gone from the Iron Age to the Industrial Age to the Information Age to the Age of Interruption”.

He was certainly not the first to draw attention to this – for example, in 1971 Herbert Simon, an American political scientist and Nobel Prize winner, wrote

“In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.” (Simon 1971, 40-1).

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Unconscious Bias

stencil
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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A Post-Digital Archaeology?

Given the current state of digital archaeology, is it more properly referred to as post-digital archaeology? What does this mean? There’s a lot of confusion about the term ‘post-digital’, not least because it’s often used by techno-boosters in the sense of “what next?”, assuming that since everything is now digital, we’re looking to the next ‘big thing’ – a presumption that is questionable to say the least.

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