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The CSA Newsletter Over the Years
The Future of Digital Technology in Archaeology
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The Future of Digital Technology in Archaeology
Harrison Eiteljorg, II
(See email contacts page for the author's email address.)
It may well be a fool's errand to try to make predictions about the future of digital technologies in archaeology. Such predictions tend either to be too general to be useful or too specific to be accurate. Nevertheless, the past of the newsletter may well be prologue. Thus, I offer the following thoughts.
The newsletter has often carried news of new technologies of interest to archaeologists, and it is clear that the future holds promise for more and more complex and sophisticated technological aids for the discipline. I expect that two areas of change will be especially strong. One, I expect more and better systems that will make it possible to turn photographs into useful information — both for surveying relatively large areas and for careful mapping and modeling of individual objects within a larger context. I also expect computing devices to continue to become smaller and more powerful so that they can — and will — be used in the field for data entry as the excavation process goes on. This is not news, of course, since it is already happening. So I will add that I expect more and more data to be entered by voice, not keyboard.
The foregoing must, of course, be modified somewhat to permit reality to intrude. Both kinds of advances just predicted demand some care to be sure that the tools work as advertised. Users or potential users must check surveying systems to be sure that the results are accurate and rise to the necessary level of precision. Inaccurate or imprecise survey data that happen to have been generated quickly and easily, after all, remain inaccurate or imprecise. This is an issue of real significance, and the history of the discipline is not particularly encouraging in this realm. Technologies can too easily be taken up without any testing at all. (Regular readers of the newsletter may remember the results of testing a 3D scanning system and the program called Photofly, both of which provided results that were inadequate for many potential users.) Similarly, the ability to use voice-recognition software will require considerable care and thoughtful procedures to make certain the results are useful. (If readers doubt this, they might simply think about the spellings suggested as they "type" on cell phones. There have even been legal issues raised by text messages that have included words incorrectly placed in those messages by the software in the phone systems or computers.) Thus, the future remains full of both promise and potential pitfalls. How not surprising!
There are other concerns about the use of digital technologies in the future that arise out of more specific experience in the recent past. I offer here three specific warnings. One, new users of specific digital aids must stop re-inventing the wheel and use the experience of those who have already put to use in archaeology any given technology (or its near relatives). Experience has shown that it is easy to begin using a specific aid but not so easy to learn about how others have already used the same (or a similar) aid. Indeed, this problem has been referenced here often with regard to CAD, especially the naming of CAD layers, a subject that has been dealt with in the CSA Newsletter almost to exhaustion but that has nevertheless been misunderstood by many new users. The consequences of being slow to learn the lessons of any given technology can be dire, since data may be lost or inaccurately stored if a given technological aid is misused.
Two, process matters with digital technologies as with any other careful work. We have all seen examples of work that went awry because someone or some people were given too much leeway to follow their own paths. Anyone, no matter how well-intentioned, who operates without specific short- and longer-term goals and requirements and without some form of accountability is likely to lose his/her way. A carefully-defined process, complete with intermediate requirements and checks and also complete with the real attention of the scholars ultimately responsible for the project, is especially important when working with technology that is constantly changing, improving, developing. Without those interim requirements and the attention of the people in charge, there is a terrible tendency to keep searching for gold at the end of the rainbow instead of the database at the end of the project. The gold may be wonderful, but not if it jeopardizes the database.
Three, it is critical that archaeologists working in the field control more of the digital realm. The archaeologist working on a field project is the one who must, regardless of the impediments, make any digital aids do the job required. The archaeologists who are working only in the computer labs far from the field, on the other hand, may be focused on the future use of their fruits too strongly. The result can easily be assumptions about terminology especially; but also standard practices, data accuracy/consistency, and data-entry certainty; that imperil the fruits of enormous amounts of labor. The excavator must do a job. He/she must, therefore, make the digital aids function as required. Not all, of course, will succeed. However, the results of the work must be used with some haste, making the utility of the data subject to relatively quick testing. The data placed into more expansive and far-sighted repositories for aggregation with data from many, many projects, on the other hand, are likely to lie in wait for use until many years have passed. As a result, the problems may not appear for decades. This can be more worrisome when those gathering such large quantities of data are divorced from the real world of archaeological field work. In such circumstances, it is all too easy to be seduced by theory and, as a result, to miss the necessary practice.
One last concern. As we rely more and more on digital sources, we must be ever more vigilant that the data we rely upon will retain their utility into the future. Our need for digital archival organizations will only grow in the future, as will our dependence on people who understand the potential problems and the underlying systems used.
-- Harrison Eiteljorg, II
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