Buttons figure large in the world around us. Just in the last year we’ve seen everything from presidents boasting about the size of their nuclear buttons to Apple being faced with a class action over the failure of their new ‘improved’ butterfly keys to Amazon’s Dash buttons being barred in Germany for not providing information about price prior to being pressed. In archaeology, we’ve become accustomed to buttons and button-presses generating data, performing analyses, and presenting results, ranging across the digital instruments we employ and the software tools we rely on. So, to pick a random example, “researchers will be able to compare ceramics across thousands of sites with a click of the button.” (Smith et al 2014, 245).
Rachel Plotnick has recently discussed the place of buttons in our cultural imaginary:
… push a button and something magical begins. A sound erupts that seems never to have existed before. A bomb explodes. A vote registers. A machine animates, whirling and processing. A trivial touch of the finger sets these forces in motion. The user is all powerful, sending the signal that turns on a television, a mobile phone, a microwave. She makes everything go. Whether or not she understands how the machine works, she determines the fate of the universe. (Plotnick 2018, xiv).
This seemed fair enough at the time, if admittedly challenging. What I hadn’t appreciated, though, was the controversial nature of such a claim. For sure, in that piece I referred to Yoshua Bengio’s argument that we don’t understand human experts and yet we trust them, so why should we not extend the same degree of trust to an expert computer (Pearson 2016)? But it transpires this is quite a common argument posited against claims that systems should be capable of explaining themselves, not least among high-level Google scientists. For example, Geoff Hinton recently suggested in an interview that to require that you can explain how your AI systems works (as, for example, the GDPR regulations do) would be a disaster:
To what extent does our use of digital devices to capture and process archaeological data affect our perceptions of what was there? Mark Altaweel (2018) has recently asked a similar question in relation to GPS technologies – how do these affect our understanding and experience of place? He suggests that they diminish our sense of place and experiences that we might otherwise have as we navigate according to their recommendations. Certainly, satnavs are notorious for taking our navigational cognitive load upon themselves and consequently leading drivers who are insufficiently aware of their surroundings into undesirable, even dangerous situations. We might think that the human cognitive load that is thereby freed up by such devices ought to be capable of being diverted into more useful, more extensive, areas – we literally have the space to think about bigger and deeper things as a consequence of their application. This kind of argument frequently arises in relation to the value of automation, for instance, and can be seen in the kinds of discussions surrounding the use of structure-from-motion photogrammetric recording on archaeological excavations, for example. But is this supposed release of cognitive space an unalloyed good? Or is this a case of the technologies distancing us from the physicality of the archaeological material and space in front of us?
In his book Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari rather randomly chooses archaeology as an example of a job area that is ‘safe’ from Artificial Intelligence:
The likelihood that computer algorithms will displace archaeologists by 2033 is only 0.7 per cent, because their job requires highly sophisticated types of pattern recognition, and doesn’t produce huge profits. Hence it is improbable that corporations or government will make the necessary investment to automate archaeology within the next twenty years (Harari 2015, 380; citing Frey and Osborne 2013).
It’s an intriguing proposition, but is he right? Certainly, archaeology is far from a profit-generating machine, but he rather assumes that it’s down to governments or corporations to invest in archaeological automation: a very limited perspective on the origins of much archaeological innovation. However, the idea that archaeology is resistant to artificial intelligence is something that is worth unpicking.
Some time ago, David Berry introduced the term ‘infrasomatization’ (Berry 2016) which he defines as the production of constitutive infrastructures; specifically the way that digital algorithms are deployed and change existing infrastructures, and how they alter rationalities by introducing computational interdependencies and structural brittleness into our systems (Berry 2018). In the process, he has just coined another new term: the Datanthropocene, the data-intensive society. This is closely linked to ‘big data’ approaches, data-intensive science, and he suggests that it “creates new economic structures but also new social realities and data-intensive subjectivities and hence new problems for society to negotiate”.
Of course, debates continue about the Anthropocene, not least whether or not it can even be defined as a specific epoch – does it start with the atomic era, for instance, or maybe even with the introduction of agriculture, or is it primarily associated with human-created climate change, pollution and extinctions?
If a visualisation is to be perceived as realistic, is it increasingly required to respond to the viewer’s actions? Is static visualisation becoming old hat? Has interactivity become a necessary part of engendering perception, action, and emotion in our response to a visualisation? And what do we mean by interactivity?
Of course, interactivity may take various forms. For instance, it may entail navigation facilities: an ability to change the viewpoint, to move through the visualisation. It may also entail manipulation facilities: the ability to modify the visualisation, to move and re-organise elements. But what are we actually interacting with?
Evidently we see a visual representation or simulation of an environment so we are interacting with that simulation. But this implies a single interface, between us as the physical embodied viewer/actor and the visualisation. Indeed, Virtual Reality is characterised as the transparent invisible interface which is all-encompassing and three-dimensional; the user is surrounded by an immersive, total simulation in which the interface both disappears and becomes the experienced simulation at one and the same time (Pold 2005). But is this true?
We sometimes underestimate the impact of digital data on archaeology because we have become so accustomed to the capture, processing, and analysis of data using our digital tools. Of course, archaeology is by no means alone in this respect. For example, Sandra Rendgren, who writes about data visualisation, infographics and interactive media, recently pointed to the creation of a new genre of journalism that has arisen from the availability of digital data and the means to analyse them (2018a). But this growth in reliance on digital data should lead to a re-consideration of what we actually mean by data. Indeed, Sandra Rendgren suggests that the term ‘data’ can be likened to a transparent fluid – “always used but never much reflected upon” – because of its ubiquity and apparent lack of ambiguity (2018b).
Is everything in archaeology computable? Does digital archaeology reach to the furthest corners of archaeology, or are there limits to what can be addressed digitally or computationally? This was a question that came up at the CAA conference in Tübingen earlier this year: Juan Barceló argued that the term ‘digital’ was fundamentally associated with numbers and formal logics, and that this constituted an unrealised ‘dark side’ to digital archaeology which required us
… to rebuild the way we think about the connection from the past to the present using a new language – mathematics, geometry – that should allow new explanations. The trouble is that most researchers do not know the language nor the tool, and they are still linked to a traditional way of doing things. (Barceló 2018).
Juan’s proposal was met with a mixed response: while some (a few) recognised this and agreed that the future success of digital archaeology lay in this language of mathematics and associated analytical methods (see, for example, Iza Romanowska’s (2018) abstract in the same conference session), others clearly felt that they did not recognise this view of digital archaeology. So why was the response so ambivalent?
Although there has been a dramatic growth in the development of autonomous vehicles and consequent competition between different companies and different methodologies, and despite the complexities of the task, the number of incidents remains remarkably small though no less tragic where the death of the occupants or other road users is involved. Of course, at present autonomous cars are not literally autonomous in the sense that a human agent is still required to be available to intervene, and accidents involving such vehicles are usually a consequence of the failure of the human component of the equation not reacting as they should. A recent fatal accident involving a Tesla Model X (e.g. Hruska 2018) has resulted in some push-back by Tesla who have sought to emphasise that the blame lies with the deceased driver rather than with the technology. One of the company’s key concerns in this instance appears to be the defence of the functionality of their Autopilot system, and in relation to this, a rather startling comment on the Tesla blog recently stood out:
No one knows about the accidents that didn’t happen, only the ones that did. The consequences of the public not using Autopilot, because of an inaccurate belief that it is less safe, would be extremely severe. (Tesla 2018).
In the face of the controversy surrounding Facebook/Cambridge Analytica, and in part as a response to the loss of trust in big tech companies (for example, Chakravorti 2018 and Yao 2018), there’s been some discussion which has sought to revisit the original ideals of the World Wide Web and hypertext. Anil Dash recently suggested:
the time is perfect to revisit a few of the overlooked gems from past eras. Perhaps modern versions of these concepts could be what helps us rebuild the web into something that has the potential, excitement, and openness that got so many of us excited about it in the first place.
That seems a rather forlorn hope, perhaps, but his revisiting of core concepts such as ‘View Source’, ‘Authoring’, and ‘Transclusion’ rang bells in my mind and led me to exhume a paper I gave back in 2004 in a session on Archaeology and the Electronic Word at the ‘Tartan TAG’ conference in Glasgow (amazingly the programme and abstracts, if not the website, are still available via https://www.antiquity.ac.uk/tag). At that time, I suggested that discussion of hypertext within archaeology had been relatively limited, especially in relation to issues such as access, power, communication and knowledge (which admittedly overlooked the contributions on digital publication in Internet Archaeology 6 (1999) for instance). This was despite the number of archaeological theorists who were enthusiastic proponents of hypertext in archaeology. For example, Ian Hodder wrote of enhanced participation and the erosion of hierarchical systems of archaeological knowledge together with the emergence of a different model of knowledge based on networks and flows – an environment in which “interactivity, multivocality and reflexivity are encouraged” (Hodder 1999a and see also Hodder 1999b, 117ff). Michael Shanks wrote of the benefits of collaborative writing in his Traumwerk wiki (no longer available) and the new insights that such activity can throw up through using an environment in which anyone could create and edit web pages on a particular topic, and add or alter the content of any contributions. Cornelius Holtorf published a number of papers discussing electronic scholarship and his experience in creating and publishing a hypermedia thesis (e.g. Holtorf 1999, 2001, 2004). In contrast, I proposed that there was a significant dislocation between the rhetoric and the reality – that what was actually being presented on our screens was masquerading as something which it was not and that consequently there might be a utopian or even a fetishisitic dialectic at work.