Of course, archaeology has a long history of technological studies, albeit one focussed for much of the time on the individual object or artefact. More recently there has been an increased emphasis on aspects of agency within the archaeological study of technology looking beyond the traditional study of the artefacts themselves, beyond even the methods by which those artefacts were fashioned and used, towards the social and cultural practices behind them (for example, Dobres 2000; Dobres and Hoffman 2000; Schiffer 1999, amongst others). Such approaches are equally valid for investigations of information technology just as much as for prehistoric technology, and, as will become clear, many of the ideas and methodologies developed in relation to the study of past technologies have resonance for studies of the present. However, one of the more recently highlighted problems with the archaeology of technology was that approaches to (prehistoric) technology were predicated upon an essentially Western and industrial, 19th/20th century mechanistic model of technology. For example, Dobres argues that
'the particular technovision shaping the "machine age" has been projected backwards in time, and retrofitted onto societies vastly different from our own, thereby producing simulcra of the past, rather than models for the way it actually was'
As a result, she argues, ways needed to be sought to overcome this analytical bias. At first glance, this provides some encouragement for an archaeology of information technology, since issues of retrofitting inappropriate perspectives would surely not apply to an analysis of the present. Somewhat ironically, perhaps, this paper suggests otherwise: the same model impacts on present day practices just as much as on the study of technology in the prehistoric past, making it imperative to step outside the loop. As argued elsewhere (Huggett 2000, 9-11), information technology is socially charged through the activities of committed advocates and what Rob Kling and Suzanne Iacono have called 'computerisation movements' (Kling and Iacono 1990, 215; Iacono and Kling 1996, 88-90). These movements create and maintain the ideologies and 'technovisions' surrounding the application of information technologies and hence colour the contexts within which archaeologists both use and study such technologies. Consequently, we operate within a technocratic environment which has the effect of disguising and distorting the investigation of information technology — again, circumstances which archaeologists, experienced in the study of past material culture, should be accustomed to handling.
Much prominence has been given in information systems research over the years to computers as mechanisms for control within organisations, and this underlies much of the Western ideologies surrounding business and management which emphasise systems, decision making, efficiency, productivity and competitive advantage, for example (for a summary of paradigms within information systems research see Goles and Hirschheim 2000, for instance). As Gidlow reminds us,
'archaeologists who work with computers are participants in and producers of technoscientific culture in a medium acknowledged … to have a substantial connotation of authority … For the results of archaeological computing to be meaningful … requires a dialogue with the conditions of production...'
One way to attempt to circumvent this problem may be to think about information technology in a different way, by taking the ways in which archaeologists think about past technologies and incorporating them with concepts and models developed by those philosophers, sociologists and others studying modern technologies, thereby generating a new dynamic.
© Internet Archaeology
Last updated: Wed Jan 28 2004