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6. Communities of practice?

6.1 Computer archaeologists

Since earliest times, technologies have been associated with social politics. Technical knowledge, skills and competences convey power and authority on the owner, whether it be the knapper, the smith, the engineer, or the computer scientist. Thomas Hardy's engineman in Tess of the d'Urbervilles is a remote individual, almost magical or shamanistic:

'The isolation of his manner lent him the appearance of a creature of Tophet, who had strayed into the pellucid smokelessness of this region of yellow grain and pale soil, with which he had nothing in common, to amaze and to discompose its aborigines. … He was in the agricultural world, but not of it … the environment might be corn, straw or chaos, it was all the same to him.'
(Hardy 1891, chapter 47).

There are obvious parallels here with Voorips' description of the computer archaeologist:

'The magic of computers still has not worn out among archaeologists. Like fifteen years ago, when one had to kneel down before the priests of the big computer system, now the colleagues of a "micro-boss" [an archaeologist experienced in the use of microcomputers] have to kneel down before him to get the data processed they entrusted to him in a moment of temporary insanity.'
(1984, 48).

Any such community needs to pass on its mysteries and there has certainly been concern over the years in relation to training 'computer archaeologists' (for example, Richards 1985a; Perkins 1992; Tschan and Daly 2000). While there is no doubt that such specialists exist, most would probably choose to give at least equal emphasis to their broader archaeological interests, rather than become ghettoised along the lines of Voorips' micro-boss. This is an interesting inversion of Hardy's engineer — the archaeology, rather than the technology, is perceived to be of greater importance. But in the process of quite justifiably toning down the technological emphasis, we may risk stifling consideration of the values embedded in it. In this respect, Richards (2000) may well be correct in suggesting that the important thing is to ensure all archaeologists are informed about the potentials and limitations of computer applications rather than necessarily the nuts and bolts of specific tools and techniques. Certainly, there are more computer-based archaeology courses at undergraduate and postgraduate level than ever before, although, as Wilhelm (2001) observes, developing technological literacy can seem like trying to jump over our own shadows, given the rates of change. At some level at least, the computer has become part of the ubiquitous archaeologist’s toolkit, making the level of specialisation argued for by Tschan and Daly (2000) all the more surprising.

The way archaeologists are trained in the use of computers tends to consolidate a particular technological perspective: those already initiated in their mysteries communicate them to novices in a practical, 'hands-on' manner. However, the emphasis on practical experience often appears to be at the expense of practice itself — the balance between technical know-how and social theory is lacking. Mechanistic, systemic modes of thought are encouraged in the way that structured approaches to questions and data lay the foundation for computer-based applications. Committed advocates — members of archaeology's 'computerisation movement' (after Kling and Iacono 1990)

'communicate key ideological beliefs about the links between computerisation and a preferred social order which help legitimise computerisation for many potential adopters. These ideologies also set adopters' expectations about what they should use computing for and how they should organise access to it'
(Kling and Iacono 1990, 215).

In the process, the cultural 'technopoly' (after Postman 1993) in archaeology is reinforced and propogated.

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