Thursday, 11 January 2018

A Hitchhiker's (brief) Guide to the Ontology of the Digitisation of Archaeology


The digital world is one of representation that relies on the abstract use of binary numbers over a computer-based network. We treat the digital as we treat the real world, i.e. in a largely visually dominated environment, so perhaps we can phrase the question as an off-shoot of what is really real and not just visually there. Yet archaeology is uniquely placed to utilise the digital; namely to reconstruct the past. So what is the ontological difference between an interaction with an archaeological object in real life and one based in the digital domain? Are we addressing these challenges in archaeology? By using a philosophical framework I will analyse this question through Jos De Mul's four characteristics of the digital world, and by relating it to archaeology through photogrammetric models and photography.

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Humans struggle to visualise the scale of the digital. To quote The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy; “Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space”. Traditional analogies do not work for the digital realm for a variety of reasons; Jos De Mul proposes that a better analogy for cyberspace is space travel as they both contain spatial and temporal characteristics that we don't experience on Earth. For example, if we are recording this session, you could watch this session from another planet and this session could be listened to in the future. However, this argument falls down because you can use analogue technologies to do some of these tasks, e.g. analogue radio. It is also difficult to comprehend digital space - space is an abstract notion of nothingness but also it is situated within our reality. It is possible to travel through space, but you are still subject to physical laws. Nonetheless, outer space is so large and the amount of information we can store in the digital realm is so large that we can perhaps compare the two in this respect. An object that can contain infinite representations can be any size you like, and yet it can contain more numbers than you could possibly count, like a dice with a digital display capable of outputting any number you program it to, while an analogue dice is limited to the number of sides it has. Much like when staring up into the night sky; you can visualise the stars easily enough, but could you count every known star out there? The digital makes it possible.

Thus we should approach digital archaeology similarly, particularly online. Archaeologists have already highlighted the importance of the digital image and its contribution compared to an analogue method, showing how important the professional illustrator is to capturing the complexities of a site. However, many studies focus on just the visual critique of the digital, not the underlying ontology. To balance this critique I propose De Mul's analysis of the digital, which provides four main characteristics; Multimediality, Interactivity, Virtuality and Connectivity.
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Multimediality is the combination of words, sounds and (moving) images. Digital information is in its simplest form a binary code. The digital media can then be transported and replicated easily, which puts objects out of their original context. Everything on this screen can be translated into 8 binary numbers, which could then be coded into 256 different linguistic signs, which can then be used in any program which can read a binary code. How well it will work in subsequent programs is a different matter. Aden Evens sees multimediality as an abstraction as well as a manipulation; by capturing information in binary form you are also divorcing the processes of the digital from the temporal and spatial particularities of our reality. In fact, Evens goes so far as to say that it is THE defining feature of the digital as all digital information is superseded by and becomes either 1 or 0; everything or nothing.

Multimediality’s most common function is manipulation, which isn’t a purely digital characteristic. To illustrate my point, one of these images is the raw image, and the other was used in the first Picture Post Magazine in October 1938. Which of these images has been edited for publication? The raw image (on the left) has been “airbrushed” to spare the dignity of the young woman; an early example of an Photoshopped image! However, analogue technology cannot combine visual senses with audio and other senses without resorting to different media sources. The binary code makes the digital different; it allows all of the senses to be used in the same representational platform. In this respect multimediality creates an easier interface between digital computers and humans. I will come back to this point later.

The Picture Post image also demonstrates the media also becomes unstable as they are in flux. The analogue and digital photographs may look the same but they are not structurally identical, as photogrammetry encompasses both traditional photographic methods and digital imaging; yet these media are technologically and fundamentally different. This leads to a common criticism of digital archaeology; de-contextualisation. This is a serious ethical issue that concerns the ontology of the dataset. Multimediality allows us, or a computer, to “Photoshop” an image without us noticing the difference.

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The second of De Mul's characteristics, Interactivity, focuses on the way in which the user navigates through the digital. If humans will interact with computers in new ways, then we should investigate how this might be an ontological issue. In this case, interactivity is best described by hypertext; a non-linear network of fragments through which the user can navigate. Unlike a book, where the author has put the words in a set order, you can intervene on a web page or digital medium, such as a computer game. A book in the digital requires no page number; you may navigate them as you please. Evens argues that this is a significant break from analogue media, as page numbers are considered secondary to the text in the book itself. The referents are the text themselves. In a computer game you can determine the actions and outcomes of the game much more so than a book; the player is free to determine the objective of the game. You are free to set the rules of what you are looking for in, say, a photogrammetric model, becoming your own author and creating an unique experience that may be shared with others. It is also possible to do this with board games too; as long as you are create your own rules. What this also shows is that the viewer in a sense becomes an “author” of the work. The original author becomes a creator of narrative spaces that allow multilinear paths to be taken.

Other definitions of interactivity only occur when the audience actively participates in the control of an artwork or representation. Such an example is crowd-sourcing; a photogrammetric model can have multiple contributions of photographs from a variety of users who are contributing to the final product. We see such active examples in Google Earth where models of existing structures have been crowd-sourced, but there is no rigourous way of checking whether a photograph is acceptable or assessing this data against the objectives of a grander strategy. Conceptual models are also used to fill in gaps in the model, which are entirely created in the digital medium, which are true proxies of our reality as there is no true basis in reality for them.
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Now we must move on to virtuality. Here it is concerned with, to quote Heim, “an event or entity that is real in effect but not in fact”. In computer sciences reality and Virtuality are considered part of the same continuum. A virtual world is a simulation of a world which is not real in a physical sense but its effects come across as real; think of nausea from flight simulators, or the stories of PTSD effects from drone pilots in an army. Virtual reality takes multimediality one step further by becoming the interface that humans can use to access the digital. However, the consequences for archaeology are far-ranging. Western philosophy has traditionally made an hierarchical opposition between being and illusion, but the digital subverts this opposition. The digital image is created from its representation, which is then used to judge reality, creating a positive feedback cycle where the representation can gain more credence than the original it was based on. We may fall into this trap if we overly rely on the virtual.

What about virtual entities? Jeff Buechner argues that if we see reality as a purely phenomenological experience then augmented reality is any change in the totality of our sensory and cognitive experience that is produced by some form of technology, via addition, manipulation or deletion, thus augmenting reality, like wearing rose-tinted spectacles. This definition excludes hallucinations or illusions, of what is created by the mind but is not real. If virtual entities are modelled on people or objects, what happens is that you question whether the virtual entity is a different entity from the thing it is modelled on, or whether there is only one entity. If we believe the latter statement (there is one entity) then you accept that a recording of said entity is the actual entity, and the actions of the virtual entity are also the actions of the real entity, contradicting the idea that Augmented Reality is not reality but a change to the totality. If you believe the former statement (there are two distinct entities) then you encounter issues of what is natural; our reality or the virtual entity, especially if the latter does actions that may be considered “unnatural” to the former. For archaeology, it is particularly problematic as it is impossible to psychoanalyse the dead; how can you say the real person would have or not have done that action in the past when you have never observed them doing those actions yourself? There are no principles in defining what is considered more ontologically “natural”. This argument creates a form of scepticism which ultimately questions the basis of reality itself; something that Buechner ultimately denies as the image is simply a pictorial representation of an entity. Note however the creation of multiple identities in the digital realm (just look at how many overlapping or contradictory social media profiles you may have), so individuals may not necessarily see your actions in reality in the same way they do with your online presence, even if your actions in reality and the virtual are identical.
What about printing your digital model? A 3D printed model is based on the numerical representation of the object in a virtual environment, which is then converted into a model through a separate process. At what point can you accept the model as a true representation of an object or site? By creating a model you are creating an unique creation. In a certain sense every “copy” is an “original”. Therefore copies are not truly representative of the original work. But what does this mean for the biography of the original as well? Moreover, digital models are often made separate from their spatial and temporal environments, which are often full of human detritus, which may aid our interpretations of the site. This is not to devalue copies, as they can still enhance our understanding of archaeology. Nonetheless in the digital the manipulation of the image has taken precedence over the exhibition value or cultural value of an object, which are both central to how we display and interpret archaeology.

What about the consequences of all this digital data? If our aim is to record the world as it is, then we may reflect on Cripps's statement that “information that goes into databases is far too perfect and too often a perfect view of the world”. This is interpreted as our methodologies of data collection are flawed by being too representative; we are seeing what we want to see. This is difficult to quantify as we extrapolate from an incomplete datasets and this is difficult to scientifically test without having the whole dataset to work with; in archaeology this data is often destroyed before it can be recorded- a catch 22. However, by using the digital realm to record our world we are creating a new world, not just a copy. This is reflected somewhat in the modern/postmodern dialectic of the mimesis/poiesis; i.e. the idea of recreating an object against the idea of creating new ones. The computer is traditionally seen as a modernist ideal; Nelson Goodman argued that an analogue object is impossible to differentiate in a finite manner; it can only be absolute in a continuum, like a thermometer. A digital computer's strengths lie in giving definitive readings and repeatability. Can scientific methods, such as photogrammetry, be used to create new worlds, rather than just recording them? Archaeology's raison d'etre is being a steward of the past, which seems a modernist ideal. However, interpretations from archaeological features are often multilinear, even though we are only trying to record our supposedly unilinear world! This multilinearity is arguably a form of poesis. So not only is the digital realm giving us the space to record our world, but that this “recorded world” is a new world altogether.
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The final characteristic, Connectivity, links everything we do within in the digital realm through the medium of the internet. This brief synopsis will highlight some further considerations. As mentioned before digital models are de-contextualised; with connectivity a scenario may arise when a group of schoolchildren are given a tour of a virtual excavation with inhumations in their classroom. Without proper supervision, education or advice from an informed person, the children could start reciting Hamlet with the skulls. Does it matter whether you use an unique model or a copy of the original? Should the digital models be given as much respect as analogue ones? What about virtually teleporting oneself into an archaeological site? Even if you were fully immersed in a simulator, your body is still not on the site, but you may feel the effects as if you were there. Furthermore, this positionality may allow the mind to occupy multiple bodies at once; excavating multiple sites, attending multiple conferences at the same time. A flight simulator isn't real, but the effects of it are. Could our minds cope with multiple spaces? Even today some of these scenarios are possible!
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To conclude, is there an ontological difference between analogue and digital models? With apologies to Douglas Adams, The digital space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way to the computer but that's peanuts to digital space. The abstract is made possible and apparent. The digital doesn't work to our laws, and should be treated as such. All information is either everything or not-(everyt)hing. Although the digital is pure representation, the characteristics of multimediality decontextualise everything you record; interactivity makes the participant more of an author of the work. Using nothing more than human interaction the representation of reality becomes the yardstick we use to judge reality itself, creating a positive feedback cycle. It becomes difficult to believe historical characters in a virtual reality simulator. You can break out of your human limitations and experience the world in a trans-geographical and trans-historical arena that surpasses anything possible in the real world, although its effects are apparent. Perhaps the most devastating outcome of this question is whether we are actually using the digital to record the past, or, in using multiple interpretations of archaeology as an analogy, we are creating new worlds altogether that seek to enhance the human experience through the digital medium. This dichotomy of recreation versus creation is perhaps the question that will define digital archaeology in years to come. It all feels real, but that should not distract from the abstract nature of the digital.

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