Monday, February 7, 2005

Archaeological futures (Pt. 1)

When I was in London, several people asked me how I came to study what I do and I gave long, convoluted explanations instead of getting at the heart of the matter: I am here now because I couldn't become the kind of archaeologist I wanted to be.

When I got my Masters in archaeology, debate centred around post-processualism or interpretive archaeology, and the work of people like Ian Hodder, Michael Shanks, Chris Tilley, Julian Thomas and Christopher Chippindale.

Unlike the archaeologists that came before them, these guys refused to separate material evidence from its "political, moral, rhetorical, and aesthetic concerns", both past and present. It sounds pretty straight forward, but there was a lot of resistance from generations of archaeologists trained as empirical scientists to uncover neutral objects and (rather heroically) discover the truth of the past. Context (or more specifically relative positioning) was of utmost importance when accounting for an artefact's provenance, but any sense of broader social, cultural and political context was considered irrelevant. In other words, there was a disconnect between the objects of study and their role in creating and performing culture, including how they are used by archaeologists and others, in the present, to (re)create the past.

My specialisation (and great love) was Andean archaeology and ethnohistory - a field very strongly influenced by processual, or empirical and positivist methods and theories. I recall one conference where someone began his presentation by positioning himself as post-processualist, and people boo-ed loudly and left the auditorium. At the time, associating oneself with these radical ways of thinking was tantamount to career suicide, and since I was committed to the ideas and their potential, I moved away from archaeology.

So what does all this have to do with mobile computing? Well, quite simply, my interest in ancient technological practice led me to current and future technologies. I heard all sorts of talk about human-centred technology, assumed a committment to understanding the complex relations between people and objects, and thought that I would finally be able to put my archaeological knowledge to good use. Five years later, I still see this potential and have enjoyed many small successes, but I've also come to understand that the dominant paradigm(s) of computing design have a lot in common with processual archaeology, and similar barriers keep popping up.

I am still frustrated by the idea that technological objects are seen to be neutral, or that their meaning is only activated by (end) use. In my mind, the great failing of user-centred design is that designers are absolved of any responsibility for shaping artefacts and culture. Isabelle Stengers brings the same critique to Kuhn's account of paradigm shifts because he left scientists accountable only to each other. I also still hear much talk about providing (under-configured) stages for interaction, where we will encourage (allow) people to use technologies in ways not intended. That sounds a lot like anthropologists supporting (letting) their informants speak for themselves. What arrogance! And, dare I say, what short-sightedness when it comes to understanding context, or the relationships between people and places and times and things!

Over the next few weeks I'm going to try to work through my archaeological knowledge and connect it to contemporary social theory on mobilities and flows. I think I've seriously underestimated the potential of making direct comparisons, and am curious to see where it leads.

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