To comment on the pervasiveness of information technology in general, and computer technology in particular, has become something of a cliché. To become caught up in the thrill of technological development and talk enthusiastically of the benefits of wider communication, of unlimited flows of information, of the dilation of time and space, has become a commonplace. To talk of caution in the face of the information society in a post-industrial age, to question the inexorability and the inevitability of modern technological development and the utopianism that frequently accompanies it, can lead to accusations of luddism (although as Robins and Webster (1999, 39-62) point out, the Luddites did not oppose technological innovation so much as its socio-political context).
In an earlier paper that in certain respects adopted a somewhat negative, luddite tone, I suggested that the social and cultural context of information technology developments affected the practice of archaeology through a range of essentially utopian and often deterministic approaches to the application of computer-based technology (Huggett 2000). Rather than simply retrace the arguments there, this article seeks to develop them as the basis for a more wide-ranging study. The starting point, is, however the same — the simple observation that, despite our concern as archaeologists with, for example, technological, social, cultural, political, ideological, and economic changes in the past, we have shown little interest in the same changes taking place within contemporary society and impacting upon the present-day practice of archaeology. It is widely accepted that computer-based technologies to a greater or lesser extent affect the world around us, so by extension should they not affect the way we do archaeology in some respects? Yet publications relating to computers in archaeology almost exclusively focus on applications and techniques (for example, Martlew 1984; Richards and Ryan 1985; Cooper and Richards 1985; Ross et al. 1991; Reilly and Rahtz 1992; Lock and Stançic 1995; Lock 2000, and, of course, the various annual Computer Applications in Archaeology conference proceedings). Rare exceptions include Richards (1986) and some contributions in Cooper and Richards (1985) and Lock (2000). Probably the most sustained critique to date is found amongst the contributions in Lock and Brown (2000).
For the most part, however, computers in archaeology, and the technologies, ideologies, and philosophies surrounding them, are essentially taken for granted. The fact that a computer is used and results are achieved is justification in itself, and needs no further comment. The truth of commonplace statements such as 'That the micro-computer should play a major role in the collection, storage and analysis of archaeological data is now widely accepted' (Powlesland 1985, 23) and 'There is general agreement within the archaeological profession that the computer is essential' (Hassall 1986, 1) is undeniable and so widely accepted that similar comments are rare today. Nevertheless, they start from a position that accepts the value of the computer and go on to seek applications within archaeology. Thus, for instance, Ross (1991) begins with a discussion of the application of systems methodology to archaeology and hence takes the desirability of computers essentially for granted. In other instances, the question of whether or not a computer should be used may be raised, but is answered in terms of how best to apply it (for example, Lock 1985). In other words, questions are usually couched not so much in terms of whether a computer should be used, but how it should be used — the application of the technology in the first place is already determined.
Such questions alone, however, would not be sufficient to lay claim to developing an 'archaeology of information technology'. The motivation behind the use of computers in archaeological situations is only part of the picture. The ubiquity and embeddedness of computer technologies mean that it is not enough simply to consider whether current or future applications are appropriate. We should also consider the social, cultural, cognitive, behavioural aspects of the environment surrounding and underpinning both the development and use of the technologies and their implications for the archaeological results thereby achieved and conclusions drawn. To use a computing metaphor, we need to analyse inputs, outputs and processes, not just at the application scale, but at the technological scale. After all, archaeologists are accustomed to undertaking such analyses for past societies: by attempting to implement similar methodologies in relation to information technology, we behave as archaeologists rather than simply end-users or consumers.
While the introduction of new technologies may have obvious consequences — and indeed, such an observation is self-evident — the social consequences are often underestimated. For example, Perolle (1998) points to the way in which a change in harvesting technology on the island of Java was predicted to result in more efficient food production and higher standards of nutrition, yet, while production did increase, so did poverty and malnutrition. Perolle makes the point that it was not the technological differences that caused the change, but the rearrangement of social relationships. In other words, the use of a new technology in the context of a complex pattern of social relationships can have unexpected consequences (Perolle 1998). Furthermore, examining the use of pre-computer information technologies shows that their functions were not embedded into them — telephones, television, radio and so on are today all used for quite different purposes and to quite different ends than were originally anticipated (for example, see Huggett 2000, 19). For such a ubiquitous, pervasive technology as the computer, it seems all the more likely that this will be true.
A health warning should be inserted here — the ideas and thoughts which follow form a work in progress, and at present raise more questions than answers. They also draw upon a huge body of material from beyond archaeology, including anthropology, ethnography, history of science, sociology, philosophy, ethics, business and management studies, and information studies. Consequently, and almost inevitably, a rather piecemeal approach may be apparent in what follows, borrowing ideas — quite possibly taken out of context — from all sorts of different areas. In this I take comfort from the work of Marcia-Ann Dobres, who, finding herself in a somewhat analogous situation, argues that it is nevertheless
'a properly "undisciplined" way to circumvent the limits of conventional reasoning and to further an unabashedly humanistic perspective on technology'
(Dobres 2000, 70).
In much the same way, Pierre Lemonnier notes that borrowed technical features are sometimes interpreted in a way that differs from their initial technical milieu, which, in turn, may give rise to more innovation (1993, 25).
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Last updated: Wed Jan 28 2004