Timothy Brennan has just published an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education called ‘The Digital-Humanities Bust’ (behind a paywall but Google the article and on the first results page you’ll currently find a short domain link direct to the full piece). It’s a critical reflection on the state of Digital Humanities, in which he points to a decade’s worth of resources being invested in Digital Humanities, and asks what exactly they have accomplished: “To ask about the field is really to ask how or what DH knows, and what it allows us to know. The answer, it turns out, is not much.” Not surprisingly, the article has ruffled feathers amongst the Digital Humanities community, coming a year after an equally critical and hence controversial article by Allington, Brouilette and Golumbia (2016) in the LA Review of Books, ‘Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities’.
Digital Archaeology is rather different in terms of its situation (and levels of investment!). However, are there any lessons for Digital Archaeology here? If Digital Humanities are indeed a bust, is Digital Archaeology too? As an exercise, we might look at some aspects of Brennan’s diagnosis through a Digital Archaeology lens …
Recent years have seen a flurry of publications and statements concerning the importance and value of the open science movement in archaeology. Examples include the collection of papers published in 2012 in World Archaeology (see Lake 2012), the volume on Open Source Archaeology edited by Andrew Wilson and Ben Edwards (2015), and, most recently, a series of papers by Ben Marwick (2016; Marwick et al 2017). The idea that publications, data, and methods (including code) should be freely accessible in order to make archaeological research more reproducible is evidently a ‘good thing’ and very much in vogue.
“Our very diverse work ranging from excavation, over lab tests, to interpretations is often only made available through a summarising publication that is rarely accessible to anyone other than institutions paying huge amounts of money. This is just not the way science works anymore. In such a system, how can we find out all the details of excavation results? How can we reproduce lab tests? How can we evaluate the empirical and historical background to a published interpretation in exhaustive detail? The answer is: we can’t.”
Rob Barrett has recently said something similar specifically in relation to 3D reconstruction. The value of opening up archaeological research seems undeniable, and the set of practices outlined by the new Open Science Interest Group (Marwick et al 2017, 12-13) put forward make a great deal of sense and are highly desirable. But there are some implicit underlying assumptions behind all this which don’t seem to have been addressed. They don’t detract from the importance of pursuing a truly open archaeology, but not recognising them risks not learning from past experience.
Quartz, the digital news outlet, recently published an interview by Adrienne Matei with Peter Kahn, a psychology professor at the University of Washington. In it, they discuss how technology is affecting our lives and becoming a means to mediate the real world. The item references some of the research that Kahn and his colleagues at the Human Interaction with Nature and Technological Systems Lab (HINTS) have undertaken, aspects of which have direct relevance for understanding technology within archaeology. They raise issues such as the limitations of technological devices, questions of authenticity, changing perspectives, and what they call the ‘shifting baseline problem’, all of which have their echoes within digital archaeology.
For example, in one study, they compared the experience of subjects presented with natural views from a window to those given real-time views of the same view on a large plasma screen (Kahn et al. 2008). The physiological recovery of subjects from low-level stress was faster with the glass window, while there was no difference between the display and a blank wall. Problems identified with the plasma display included the inability of viewers to change their perspective on outside objects by shifting their position (the parallax problem), as well as issues to do with pixilation and depth perception (Kahn et al. 2008, 198). They also report that subjects made judgments about what it means for a view to be ‘real’ as opposed to ‘represented’ and how these judgments then fed back into the physiological and psychological system to affect the outcome of the experiment.
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.
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).
I’ve commented here and here about the question of data reuse (or more accurately, the lack of it) and the implications for archaeological digital repositories. It’s frequently argued that the key incentive for making data available for reuse is providing credit through citation. So how’s that going? I’ve not seen any attempt to actually quantify this, so out of curiosity I thought I’d have a go.
A logical starting point is Thomson Reuters Data Citation Index – according to its owners (it’s a licensed rather than public resource), this indexes the contents of a large number of the world’s leading data repositories, and, on checking, the UK’s Archaeology Data Service (ADS) appears among them. So far so good.
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.
As archaeologists, we spend a great deal of time and effort looking at interfaces, be they between soil horizons or between cultural horizons, for instance. We pay rather less attention to the digital interfaces through which we access and analyse our evidence. And yet it is important that we do consider the nature of the negotiations that take place through the mediation of those interfaces. As Johanna Drucker has argued:
No single innovation has transformed communication as radically in the last half century as the GUI. In a very real, practical sense we carry on most of our personal and professional business through interfaces. Knowing how interface structures our relation to knowledge and behavior is essential. (Drucker 2014, vi, emphasis in original).
We often hear of the active archive, but what about an idle one? In a post on Digital Data Realities, I suggested that, although we might wish otherwise, our digital archaeological data repositories seemed relatively little-used. The Archaeology Data Service access statistics did not suggest a large uptake for the project archives it holds, and the ADS had not found it easy to attract entries to its Digital Data Reuse Awards in the past. In that light, I commented that it would be interesting to see how the OpenContext & Carleton Prize for Archaeological Visualization would get on. Well, the jury is now in, and the winner is … the ‘Poggio Civitate VR Data Viewer’, an impressive-looking data viewer, though as it requires an HTC Vive to use, I can sadly only watch the video rather than experience it myself …
“We offered real money – up to a $1000 in prizes. We promoted the hang out of it. We made films, we wrote tutorials, we contacted professors across the anglosphere. We had very little uptake.”
(accompanied in his presentation by an image of tumbleweed) … Indeed, only the one winner was announced for the team prize – no individual or student prizes were awarded as was originally intended. So what’s going on?
We’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.