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6.4 Agents

The idea of agents and agency is commonly applied to information technologies, even in the archaeological field (for example, Reilly 1985). Inevitably deterministic, technology is seen to be the agency or driving force for (often dramatic) transformations. For example, in an article torn between fear of change and excitement about change, Daniel Hillis comments:

'This century, fifty years back and fifty forward, is one of those rare times in history when humanity transforms from one type of human society to another. To use a physical analogy, we are in the midst of a phase transition, when the configuration of the system is switching between two locally stable states. In this transition technology is the catalyst. It is a self-amplifying agent of change, in the sense that each improvement tends to increase its capacity to improve. Better machines enable us to build even better machines. Faster computers let us design faster computers, faster.'
(1997, 38).

According to Hillis, this transition is to a new society that is more connected and more interdependent, bound together by the web of technology that is simultaneously enabling and entangling. Enabling because of the access and interconnectivity provided by the technology. Entangling, because of the increasing dependency and need for conformity. As Klein has observed (alluding to Microsoft Windows):

'How many people … regularly move to a place marked "start" when what they want to do is finish? How many mind? How many used to mind but have stopped minding? That is the problem. Stopping minding may be a psychologically healthy response to a situation you cannot alter. It is common to totalitarian environments.'
(2001, 733).

However, technological agency consists of more than appearing to act as a motor for change — there are social and cultural practices involved too, and here archaeology may have a contribution to make.

Agency theory in archaeology has been applied in a number of different areas, although largely in a prehistoric context (for a brief historical summary, see Dobres and Robb 2000). In this context, however, the interest is in relation to agency and technology, in which 'the focus is on dynamic, intersubjective (intangible) relationships and practices, not just their material (measurable) outcomes.' (Dobres 2000, 132).

Agency is not just about individuals ('computing archaeologists'), but about communities of practice ('computer archaeology', and just 'archaeology') as well (as discussed above). But a new dimension that information technology can bring is that of the autonomous agent — a technological tool that enables human agents both to project themselves (through avatars) to the wider online world and to delegate tasks, and at the same time draw in and process information from that wider world (for example, Brown and Duguid 2000, 35-62; Huggett 2001). There is clearly a good deal of anthropomorphism tied up in this concept which in itself is not unusual in computing — as, for example, Marakas et al. point out en route to theorising a model of the computer as a social actor:

'In constructing the vocabulary necessary to describe the actions and capabilities of information technology, we have chosen the most familiar of foundations to build upon: ourselves.'
(2000, 722).

The software tools constituting autonomous agents are therefore seen in terms of personal assistants, who can be trained, whose behaviour can be modified, who can interact with other agents as well as people, and who appear in one way or other to be 'intelligent'. In some respects, therefore, we may be moving back towards the idea of a 'computerised archaeologist' (after Huggett and Baker 1985).

A key aspect of this discussion of agents and agency is the question of interface — how the relationships between human agent and software agents might operate, and the implications there might be for the practice of archaeology. This is particularly apposite, since many of the agents that currently exist do so anonymously and are used with little realisation that they are there or knowledge of what they do. As pointed out elsewhere (Huggett 2001), for example, web-based research already relies on agents to some extent, but their failures and shortcomings are less archaeologically critical compared to, say, mining a collection of archaeological databases. There may be financial implications if agents fail to provide us with the cheapest travel ticket or book, but agents which fail to use particular aspects or sources of archaeological data are potentially more problematic. Furthermore, to what extent do we want such agents processing, manipulating, summarising and abstracting archaeological data?

In the same vein, Rheingold (1998) comments:

'… we also need to think about what kind of world tools like this will be used to create. Perhaps new technologies ought to have societal impact reports, not as an attempt at political regulation, but as a way of thinking systemically instead of just instrumentally. Do we know where we are going? Do we want to go there? Is there anything we can do about it?'

Such an 'impact report' into new technologies in archaeology is precisely what is being argued for here.

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