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Technophobia and Technophilia
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Technophobia and Technophilia
Harrison Eiteljorg, II
(See email contacts page for the author's email address.)
The relatively sudden and dramatic rise in the use of computing in archaeology has led, not surprisingly, to two strains of reactions. Some people act as technophobes; they reject the technology or, more likely, simply reject using it themselves, requiring others to do their computing for them. Some technophobes see computer technology as threatening because it seems to remove the individual from the pre-eminent position in controlling data. Others fear the computer as a tool foreign to their experience and therefore of unknown and uncertain value. Still others simply assume that the use of computers is something for other people to worry about, treating the computer (and many other technologies) as a black box, a machine in which something magical happens; not wishing to be bothered with trying to understand what is going on in the black box; and prefering to act as if the use of the technology were somehow unrelated to human cognition.
Technophiles take the opposite view, assuming that any new technology must be good. They may often, in fact, be quite uncritical in their eagerness to adopt new tools. The technophobes may do themselves and the field a great disservice by abandoning technology that can be useful or by refusing to participate in the design of tools for use on a specific project. But few technophobes read the CSA Newsletter. More technophiles probably do, and it is to them that this article is aimed.
As with those afraid of computing technology, those who see it as mana from heaven come in many styles. Some see computing technology as providing new and better tools to do the jobs they have been doing all along. Others see the potential for totally new approaches to their work because of new technologies that provide access to information not previously available at affordable costs. Still others leap at virtually all new technologies on the assumption that, past technologies having been useful, the newest ones will be as well. Still others simply give the matter no thought and grasp eagerly onto any new technology.
The last two groups are the ones about which I am concerned. Grabbing the newest digital technology with relatively little thought is, in my view, very dangerous, and I think there are three specific concerns: accuracy of results, permanence of data, and data that are truly useful.
First is the question of accuracy/precision with some new technologies. It is very easy to accept information from a manufacturer/software company regarding the accuracy and precision of the information gathered by/with a new product, but doing so may not be warranted. Regular readers of this Newsletter may recall an article about one new technology introduced by AutoDesk a while ago. It was called Photofly, and I made an attempt to see how useful it could be with a fairly simple experiment reported in "Photofly from Autodesk - 3D from Photos" (XXIV, 2; September, 2011). The results of that test were not encouraging, and readers were warned. But how often do we take the time to test such new technologies if the manufacturer has provided some form of accuracy statement? I ask that question seriously and with full knowledge that many will argue that we are ill-equipped to test such claims. While it is doubtless true that few of us are properly prepared to test new software or hardware as a laboratory might, we are all expert enough in our own work, in my view, that we can indeed test new programs or equipment in our own world and in our own specific uses — at least well enough to satisfy ourselves that our needs, however we may define them, can or cannot be met. We certainly do not need to do that with every new version of tools we have been using, but some careful thought should be given to any new piece of software or hardware before we put it to use, if only ascertaining that others have subjected it to proper testing so as to make our own tests unnecessary.
Second is the issue of the long-term survival of the data from new technologies. When the CSA Propylaea Project attempted to use data from a 3D scanner, the data were first analyzed to see if the results were adequate. Since they were not adequate in terms of accuracy/precision, no consideration was given to the data format used by the scanner manufacturer. Had we decided to use the equipment and the data produced by it, however, we should then have considered carefully whether or not the data could be used in the future. In fact, so far as I am aware, the data can be used by other software (CAD software for instance), but may not be useful for more than a fairly short time. This was not an issue that personnel from the CSA Propylaea Project needed to examine, but I confess that, had the data been adequate in terms of accuracy/precision, we might well have used it without concern for the survival of the data in useful forms beyond the very short term. But problems might arise with any attempts to access the data at some future date when better use of the survey information might become possible. Such concern for future access to data must be foremost in the minds of scholars, because archaeological data really do need to be kept, to be archived. There is no point, though, in archiving files that cannot be used.
Third is the possibility of being seduced into using a technology that provides information for which there is no real use. This may seem unlikely, but consider the eagerness with which some have embraced the 3D scanners mentioned above. The data produced in many circumstances are more than adequate in terms of accuracy/precision. However, there may or may not be any utility gained. Let us imagine, for instance, a 3D scan of a rough-cut-stone wall. An enormous number of well-surveyed data points would be available from such a project at a level of precision more than adequate for rough-cut stone. But how useful are such numeric data points? Does one really care about the precise shape of the surface of a roughly cut limestone block? Is the concern sufficient to justify the cost? Those are questions that need to be asked. The fact that one CAN do something is not sufficient to oblige one to DO it.
The foregoing may seem only to present negatives. Let me be careful, however, to note that well-considered use of new software or hardware — testing for accuracy/precision, ascertaining the long-term utility of the data, and fitting the new procedures to the needs of the individual project — will continue to bring to all who use new processes more and more useful and desirable information, and that information will be of value to future generations of archaeologists and, through them, to all who are interested in our human past.
-- Harrison Eiteljorg, II
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