8.2 Software compactants

If close reading of the program code is unrealistic for the majority, raising the level of introspection from the algorithms themselves to the software they reside in is perhaps more feasible. Approaching a software package as a cognitive artefact in its own right offers the prospect of achieving a closer appreciation of the ways in which the software subtly holds us at arm's length amidst an illusion of transparency. This is not to deny the levels of digital abstraction that are employed to shield us from the complexities of the software, or the levels of literacy required to understand its operation, but it recognises the limitations of unpicking our relationship with the digital while providing a means of better understanding the ways in which archaeological cognition is affected by these tools.

Such a focus needs to go beyond the application of the software to include its interfaces, operation and use; we need to understand:

'… what functions it offers to create, share, reuse, mix, create, manage, share and communicate content, the interfaces used to present these functions, and assumptions and models about a user, his/her needs, and society encoded in these functions and their interface design.' (Manovich 2013, 29 – emphasis in original).

Few software tools used by archaeologists over the years have received the same level of attention as Geographical Information Systems (GIS). However, relatively little of that attention has been paid to acquiring an understanding of how they may have affected archaeological practice since, for example, Lock and Harris (2000, xvii) pointed to the spatial determinism imposed by the requirements of points, lines, polygons, and pixels, and the constraints imposed on complex data through the requirement to partition them into layers. More recently in a critique of the implications of GIS within archaeology, Hacıgüzeller asked:

'… how did our GIS representations and practices come into being across time and place and how did/can they become part of the complex process of creating past worlds in the present?' (2012, 257).

This epistemological critique is undertaken at a broadly conceptual level of GIS, focusing on theory and representation rather than more specifically the functionality, interfaces, and assumptions embedded within the GIS software. An alternative approach that looked more closely at functions and underlying assumptions (Huggett 2012a, 210-12) sought to examine GIS through the application of McLuhan's four 'laws' of media (McLuhan 1977, 175): how GIS amplified function, obsolesced practice, retrieved or re-emphasised theory and practice, and, to some extent, what GIS reversed into or become. This was followed by a consideration of the oppositions between the laws that drew out the often paradoxical or contradictory effects of using GIS (Huggett 2012a, 212). Again, this examination does not really address either the basic characteristics identified by Manovich or the cognitive dimensions defined by Heersmink. Instead, these approaches sit alongside Heersmink's dimensions, although the idea of inherent oppositions within McLuhan's laws might suggest that there could be value in explicitly examining oppositions between the dimensions of cognitive artefacts as a means of pursuing the overlaps and interactions between them that Heersmink (2015, 594) refers to.

Such studies are very much in the minority, however, and the few historiographies of archaeological computing that there are (most recently Djindjian 2015, Moscati 2015) tend to focus at a high level on people, organisations, and techniques rather than software applications. What is missing are critical historiographies of the tools themselves, including software that might be perceived as mundane – for instance, examining the relationships between word-processing and archaeological report writing (analogous to Kirschenbaum 2016), or spreadsheets and post-excavation analysis. However, it should not be assumed that this is a simple proposition – focusing on a software package all too easily becomes a case of accounting for and justifying its use in a specific context. The cognitive approach helps avoid this by emphasising the range of implicit, explicit, and tacit assumptions and beliefs wrapped within the social, political, and technical environment (Huggett 2012a, 207).


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