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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Legibility, agency, and negotiability

There’s a lot of debate in the wider world about digital data – issues of access and privacy, the case of Aaron Swartz and open access to knowledge, the Ed Snowden revelations, and, at the personal level, the way that we all leave data trails behind as we traverse the Internet. Surrendering our personal data is difficult to avoid, even if we forswear Facebook, Google, and their like who build their business models on their ability to capture data about us.

In a recent paper by Richard Mortier et al, (2015), they argue that this new world of data requires a new kind of study of human-data interaction, looking at the implications of the data we generate in all kinds of different ways, knowingly or unknowingly.

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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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Big Data and Distance

One of the features of the availability of increasing amounts of archaeological data online is that it frequently arrives without an accompanying awareness of context. Far from being a problem, this is often seen as an advantage in relation to ‘big data’ – indeed, Chris Anderson has claimed that context can be established later once statistical algorithms have found correlations in large datasets that might not otherwise be revealed.
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Open Data quality

In relation to the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) database, David Gill on his ‘Looting Matters’ blog has pondered “How far can we trust the information supplied with the reported objects? Are these largely reported or ‘said to be’ findspots?”.

Spatial information is frequently cited as a problem in relation to open archaeological data – but the focus tends to be on the risks it poses for looting (for example, Bevan 2012, 7-8; Kansa 2012, 508-9).

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