Monday, 18 September 2017

Technology assisted (vs. replaced) Archaeologists ?

Hi everyone,

I came across the following article which others may find to be an interesting read, particularly in assessing the extent to which technology is transforming (or not) the fundamental practice of Archaeology.   

This article highlighted for me that technology is not the only force of change that is acting on Archeology at this time.   Other capitalist and economic forces are also at play that could significantly change how Archaeology might be done in the future. 

If one considers the TED talks forum to be a social lightening rod for innovation and change, then the markets will likely respond with new archaeological products and services to fulfill emergent opportunities (and make potentially sizable profits while doing so) - this could in turn result in a chain reaction of fundamental changes to the practice of Archaeology in terms of who, how, where, and perhaps even why it is done.  

The idea of Technology replacing, rather than assisting Archaeologists in doing their work would obviously represent a fundamental shift in our discipline.   Having previously worked in IT and business for several years, I generally embrace the potential value of technological advances - but not as a silver bullet or without making a conscious effort to understand the implications.   Is there an unintended consequence (risk of loss of experience, meaning, skills, etc) of technology inhibiting us from getting "off the veranda" as Malinowski encouraged us to do - to take the white gloves off and to actually get our own hands dirty while digging something up?   




Joanna said...

I am reminded of that opening scene in Jurassic Park where the paleontologists are all getting excited about ground penetrating radar, saying that in a few years they won't even have to dig anymore. While I understand Parcak's enthusiasm, I remain skeptical that archaeology would automate all fieldwork.

But to humor the idea, let's say that all human driven fieldwork will be eliminated. This touches on larger societal questions surrounding automation and what it means to be an archaeologist. There's a concept that is being popularized that work that is highly analytical and creative will be most resistant to automation:

Archaeologists will be under pressure to become more creative and demonstrate their analytical skills if fieldwork was to be replaced or removed from the process. Someone would still need to be in the laboratory to interpret the chemical analysis that was done by the tiny robot on that pot sherd. There are already many archaeologists today that rarely, if ever, dig. Even if archaeologists were replaced in the lab with high powered computing software, that software is only as good as the interpretations of the statistical output. Forensic anthropology has a good example of this with FORDISC 3.0. See the "Some Words of Caution" section:

Several aspects of such a scenario are still concerning, however, such as the potential barriers to entry that may be placed on being in that future laboratory. In the vision Parcak describes in that article, technical skills and training in technology would be essential. Currently, such technical skills are unevenly distributed and suffer from discriminatory institutional and cultural practices. There are also questions of trust and unreality that we suffer from in the information era. How will the public feel about archaeology if there are no lithic analysts that have ever held a lithic? How would that influence ethnoarchaeological and interdisciplinary work? Additionally, how does the pressure to be "innovative" and "creative" to justify your place in the process feed into market pressures that have demonstratively created challenges with irreproducible research?

In summary, I feel that archaeologists themselves are unlikely to be replaced wholesale even under that scenario. Even if archaeologists were replaced at the trench level, I believe it would be more of a matter of adjustment and reorienting the discipline. However, the practice of archaeology would not necessarily be changed for the better if eliminating digging were to make archaeology more exclusive (either through a lack of engagement with local communities, lack of intimate knowledge of the environment, or including the interpretations of only a few specialists) rather than inclusive. Which is why we need to be active participants in determining the purpose and needs of archaeological work and emphasize that it's not just about digging holes.

Arwen Johns said...

As a self-admitted (sometimes) Luddite, I have to say the prospect of technology taking on more central roles in archaeological analysis is cause for concern for me. Don't get me wrong, I wholeheartedly embrace technological advances that help archaeologists make more informed interpretations, but in my opinion, these technologies should be tools for archaeologists to employ, and never wholesale replacements for analysts.

At the risk of stating the obvious, archaeological sites and artifacts were not experienced/made by machines (historical archaeology as a possible exception here). As a result, I think there are definite limits to the extent that technologies, no matter how advanced, can aid us in archaeological analysis. While gadgets may be able to measure innumerable variables of sites and objects, there is no way for them to experience them as a human would. Aesthetics and the "feel/meaning" associated with artifacts and locations cannot be quantified outside of the human experience (which in itself is subject much variation). As of right now there is no way for technologies to have a phenomenological experience with archaeological materials in the way that archaeologists are privileged to, leading me to believe that while the role of tech in analyses will undoubtedly increase exponentially over time, there will be a definite limit to their use.

Amanda Suko said...

Thanks for sharing the article, Jeff. Certainly, your post reminds me of a rather memorable conversation I had in the field this past summer. As we sift dirt through our individual screens, my field director recalled the heritage-based CRM company I worked for had recently operated and experimented with a power-generated soil sifting machine. As a response, two lines of inquiries were raised by my colleagues: 1. How can such heavy machinery be programmed/automated to perform human tasks, particularly in carefully/effectively identifying and recovering artifacts? 2. More importantly, will technology eventually replace the “already-limited” jobs in archaeology and ultimately, eliminate the pleasure of working in the field? I acknowledge that this machinery is indeed not as well advanced as some of the technological “toys” we’ve mentioned in class and perhaps far less impressive when compared to Parcak’s satellite imagery device. However, I think that the points you raised in this post resonate these concerns. As well, though these subjects were only mentioned in passing, I believe their responses stems from: 1. (As Joanna already mentioned above) A degree of distrust toward automated machineries in performing a task as mundane as sifting through and identifying artifacts; 2. The idea that the very point of archaeology is to engage personally with the artifacts and also the stakeholders/communities.

Based on these evaluations, I do think a complete replacement of certain tasks with automated and/or digital technologies can be somewhat antitethical to the archaeological practice. Following Arwen, I cannot deny that technological assistance is proven useful (and fascinating!) in the process of documentation in the field (e.g., total station, prisms, advanced GPS, camera). However, I like to think that some tasks should be reserved for human observations. Indeed, I’m not trying to promote superiority over the materials that play part in influencing our everyday decisions. As human archaeologist, I believe in our unique position and ability to facilitate engagements between multiple communities in the present day and past materialities, particularly when thinking about my own work here in southern Ontario. These relationships are mediated by the materials we encounter in the field, but these diverse relations require personal and intimate engagements.
To my mind, this very process of exchanging viewpoints and various epistemologies, is as important as the interpretations themselves, and cannot be replaced by machines or technologies, no matter how advanced.

Jeff Grieve said...

Thanks everyone for your comments and additional reference articles. For me, this discussion thread reinforces the reality that technology is today and will continue in the future to influence our discipline in non-neutral ways. As Archaeologists soaking in information technology, I think we need to be very conscious and thoughtful about what we are using technology for and the role that it should play in Archaeology going forward.

Trevor Fowler said...

Hi all,

What a wonderful first discussion to wade into for a comment! I want to build on an aspect of this from our first lecture.

We were asked the simply-stated, impossible to answer fully, question: what is archaeology? I began with a definition not because that's where my understanding of archaeology begins and ends, but because as I have been thinking about how digital technologies assist or displace the archaeologist, I am trying to identify what the core of archaeology as a discipline is. The approach I have taken is a bit of a thought experiment from a philosopher whose name I've quite forgotten, but the essential idea is as follows:

- consider a concept and a property associated with it; if you remove that property, does the concept remain stable?

Concretely, consider archaeology as a discipline - many concepts, practices, and tools are associated with it. If you remove them, does the underlying concept change? At what point is archaeology no longer archaeology? If we remove digital tools, is it still archaeology? If we remove the total station, is it still archaeology? If we remove human-centric fieldwork - in the trench at the trowel's edge - is it still archaeology?

Returning to my definitional starting point, I think archaeology is a practice of creating or interpreting stories about the past using material from the past. Extending from this, I think digital technologies that permit "not digging anything up" do not challenge the underlying concept of archaeology so long as we are theorizing and practicing the interpretation of material remains. if technologies allow us to learn about material remains without excavation, I think the non-essential archaeological property most in peril is the romantic image of the dusty-booted adventurer, and that's not easily given up.