If you gaze long into your toolbox…

In reference to the old joke: There are 10 types of humanists: Those who are digital and those who are not. But this is not a post about some technical elitism or my best one-liners1. It is not even going to be a post about the role of the digital in the humanities is general and in archaeology in specific (As I am a digital humanities student and no archaeologist my answer would be both predictable and unqualified). Rather, I want to talk about a thing called introspection and why any serious discipline needs it.

To start out, we need to briefly look at a debate between Andre Costopoulos and Jeremy Huggett from 2016. Costopoulos wrote an editorial for the Frontiers in Digital Humanities journal in which he sets the direction of the journal:

I would like to lay the groundwork for the journal as a place primarily to do archaeology digitally, rather than as a place to discuss digital archaeology. In the social sciences and humanities, we have an unfortunate tendency to make approaches and tools into objects of study (literally, we essentialize them) and to organize the conversation around them. (Costopoulos)

I am going to leave most of the the critique of this writing to Huggett, who responded in a blog post defending introspection in archaeology. In short, he replied by asking:

is there a problem with making […] approaches and tools into objects of study and organising conversations around them as Costopoulos suggests? In my view, not to do so would be an abrogation of responsibility and indeed, seems to negate the very idea of having a digital archaeology section in a journal called Frontiers in Digital Humanities. (Huggett, “Let’s Talk about Digital Archaeology”)

The debate is well worth reading into, and two important points can be extracted from it:
Firstly, we should not define disciplines by tools. This means that an archaeologist is not suddenly turned into a digital archaeologist by using a computer, Google or GIS. Here Costopoulos is right in arguing against assuming too much agency in one technology. But to conclude from this that tools are neutral and introspection is unnecessary, I can not agree with. The second point derived from the first, and well made by Huggett: We must account for the effects out tools have on us, it is part of our responsibility to understand how the results are shaped by the possibilities of the chosen tool set.

But to bring the argument back from archaeology to waters I am somewhat more familiar with , and to give another example, let us consider briefly the effects of technology on the development of the American frontier and the 19th century USA. To name just a few, the frontier was the space that offered a continuous challenge and opportunity for the application of technological tools. To name just a few, the telegraph, the self-turning plough, the steam engine and the repeating rifle did not invent the process of internal colonization but transformed it. Those tools did not appear in isolation but in a context of already existing technologies and practices. As the self-turning plough increased farming productivity, demand for new farmland rose. This expanding territory could only be conquered and controlled through a modern army enabled through the combination of rail transport, telegraph communication and repeating rifle firepower. A historic approach would argue that those inventions determined the direction, speed and fault lines of this internal colonization project. To return to our debate, tools never exist in a vacuum. Any scholarly approach to them must be understood as a scholarly investigation into their intended use and beneficiaries.

Huggett proposes a “third wave” within digital archaeology that is:

one which seeks to examine the ways in which digital technologies may have changed what we do, how we do it, how we represent what we do, how we communicate what we do, how we understand what we do, and how others understand what we do. This constitutes a much wider and more fundamental approach to the understanding of the digital transformation of archaeological knowledge which goes beyond the programming and considers the intermediation of digital technologies at every stage of the production of archaeological knowledge. (Huggett, “A Manifesto for an Introspective Digital Archaeology” 88)

This demand shows us that the debate we were looking at did not appear in isolation, and is not only relevant to the field of (digital) archaeology. Rather it stands for the engagement with a phenomena dating back to Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics, the Black Box. Alexander Galloway here provides us with a concise definition:

Across all of these many investigations into the black box a number of key points emerge: a black box performs a definite function; yet it is not known how the function is performed; one only knows that it is performed, via access to the inputs and outputs of the box. Black boxes thus realign the forces of the world according to a functional arrangement with strict proscriptions governing legibility and knowledge. (Galloway)

Introspection is thus not to look at something that is too obvious to spend time with, it is the attempt to understand the black boxes within a field. A critical engagement with tools is part of critical examination of any field. It is not enough to do things digitally, what is required for scholarly independence is to understand how our things are done.

Costopoulos, Andre. “Digital Archeology Is Here (and Has Been for a While).” Frontiers in Digital Humanities, vol. 3, Mar. 2016. CrossRef, doi:10.3389/fdigh.2016.00004.

Galloway, Alexander. “Black Box Architecture.” Culture and Communication, 13 Jan. 2015, http://cultureandcommunication.org/galloway/black-box-architecture.

Huggett, Jeremy. “A Manifesto for an Introspective Digital Archaeology.Open Archaeology, vol. 1, no. 1, Jan. 2015. CrossRef, doi:10.1515/opar-2015-0002.

—. “Let’s Talk about Digital Archaeology.” Introspective Digital Archaeology, 10 May 2016, https://introspectivedigitalarchaeology.wordpress.com/2016/05/10/lets-talk-about-digital-archaeology/#more-389.

“Mathematical Joke.” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mathematical_joke. Accessed 2 Dec. 2017.


1For more humor, see (“Mathematical Joke”)


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