1.6 The Ethics of Big Data in Archaeology

In its 2017 global survey of digital usage, We Are Social, a British marketing firm reported that mobile subscriptions in the Americas, Europe and the Middle East now outnumber their respective resident populations. Overall, the firm concluded that across 239 countries that were surveyed, Web usage and the number of social media users continues to grow, with many residents accessing Web content on smart phones and tablets rather than on personal computers. These are compelling statistics, and make clear that no region in the world is fully digital, and that across the ‘digital world’, there exists considerable unevenness. Yet, we are unable to discern real barriers to these tools and technologies, and the survey does not shed light on the place of digital tools and technologies in social life.

For example, awareness that rural communities in the Global North, as in the Global South, often do not have equitable access to educational and health resources, facilities and infrastructure has spurred initiatives to create low-cost, internet ready devices that can potentially address these shortcomings. For example, One Laptop per Child, launched in 2006, sought to ‘transform education’ by providing the world’s poorest children with a low-energy, rugged laptop for under $100 (USD). Its current deployment ranges from schools in the United States (Miami, Florida and Charlotte, North Carolina), Indigenous youth in Canada, and students in the war-torn regions such as Nagorno Karabakh and Armenia, Rwanda, Gaza and Ramallah, and Afghanistan, as well as in Nicaragua, Peru, Paraguay, Uruguay, Kenya, Madagascar, India and Nepal.

In the same vein, in 2011, Aakash, a low-cost, Android-based tablet developed in India, by Indian engineers, and sponsored by the Indian government, was released into public space to bring the digital classroom into the hands of the most marginalized and remote communities in India (Phalkey and Chattapadhyay (2016); Chattapadhyay and Phalkey (2016)).

These well-intentioned, ambitious ICT projects have in common the belief that digital technologies solve social problems where ever they exist. The projects also share another element: digital tools are thought to be intuitive and empowering thus, they do not require ‘teachers’ or ‘teaching’. As [Audrey Watters] (Watters (2012)) suggests, ‘parachute’ technologies i.e. devices that are dropped into school environments assume that children will ‘use [them], hack [them], and prosper’. Yet, these deployment efforts typically do not evaluate student academic achievement through time, nor do they seek to build upon, and expand existing educational infrastructure and resources (Warschauer and Ames (2010), 33-34).

We live, work and play in a globalized world that has serious inequalities in terms of wealth, basic necessities for human life such as clean water, food, housing, and safety, as well as access to education and health services and the opportunity to make a living and found a family (Nations (1949)). These are not new concerns; yet, they inform the international and national (often post-colonial) contexts within which archaeology is practiced. That these societal issues transcend the range and scope of any one discipline means that we cannot underestimate the influence of social and political factors on the practice of archaeology.

We believe that digital archaeology can offer insights into the social context of archaeology, and a deeper understanding of its the impact on the practice of archaeology. This in turn can guide us to how we can begin to address social inequalities in the discipline. We offer the following provocations (building on Graham, forthcoming):

  1. the ethics of digital public archaeology are the ethics of archaeology
  2. the ethics of making digital ‘things’ are the ethics of labour, power and access/control
  3. a digital ‘thing’ is built and reflects the culture of its maker(s) and thereby invites critical study by anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, etc
  4. digital things are entangled in the practices and ethics of contemporary society

(For more concerning digital things & what they do, see Morgan (2012).)

What’s more, programming is forgetting (Parrish 2016):

The process of computer programming is taking the world, which is infinitely variable, mysterious, and unknowable (if you’ll excuse a little turn towards the woo in this talk) and turning it into procedures and data. And we have a number of different names for this process: scanning, sampling, digitizing, transcribing, schematizing, programming. But the result is the same. The world, which consists of analog phenomena infinite and unknowable, is reduced to the repeatable and the discrete.

[…] In the process of programming, or scanning or sampling or digitizing or transcribing, much of the world is left out or forgotten.

What do we leave out when we reduce the messiness of the world to our schema, our rasters, our compressed images? The decision of what to leave out is always a decision, even if it flows as a consequence of whatever method we’re using. In this way, the act of forgetting - even in an era of big data when seemingly everything that can be recorded is recorded is still a fundamentally ethical and moral one. It is not however a recognition that should make us despair. What should we do? In her discussion of the ethics of trying to represent and interfere with digital representations of the world, Parrish arrives at an ethics that is not so much proscriptive as inquisitive:

  • … we should ask “Who gets to use what I make? Who am I leaving out? How does what I make facilitate or hinder access?”

  • … we could ask “What data am I using? Whose labor produced it and what biases and assumptions are built into it? Why choose this particular phenomenon for digitization or transcription? And what do the data leave out?”

  • … we should ask “What systems of authority am I enacting through what I make? What systems of support do I rely on? How does what I make support other people?”

  • … we should ask “What kind of community am I assuming? What community do I invite through what I make? How are my own personal values reflected in what I make?”

  • … You can create art and beauty on a computer.

(Parrish, 2016)

1.6.1 exercises

  • Find the websites for six archaeological projects. Using Parrish’s questioning framework, develop a matrix (table) to compare your answers. What commonalities unite the ‘most’ ethical, by these lights? What might be some unintended consequences for the ‘least’ ethical projects?
  • Use the same framework to evaluate your own online digital presence. You might find the tools and issues discussed in Kelly (n.d.) to be useful in this regard.


Phalkey, Jahnavi, and Sumandro Chattapadhyay. 2016. “The Aakash Tablet and Technological Imaginaries of Mass Education in Contemporary India.” History and Technology Vol 31 (No 4). http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07341512.2015.1136142?journalCode=ghat20.

Chattapadhyay, Sumandro, and Jahnavi Phalkey. 2016. “Buying into the Aakash Dream a Tablet’s Tale of Mass Education.” Economic and Political Weekly Vol. 51 (17).

Watters, Audery. 2012. “The Failure of One Laptop Per Child.” Electronic. http://hackeducation.com/2012/04/09/the-failure-of-olpc.

Warschauer, Mark, and Morgan Ames. 2010. “Can One Laptop Per Child Save the World’s Poor?” Journal of International Affairs 64 (1): 33–51.

Nations, United. 1949. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. United Nations Dept. of Public Information.

Morgan, Colleen Leah. 2012. Emancipatory Digital Archaeology. University of California, Berkeley.

Parrish, Allison. 2016. “Programming Is Forgetting: Toward a New Hacker Ethic - Transcript of Keynote at the Open Hardware Summit 2016.” opentranscripts.org. http://opentranscripts.org/transcript/programming-forgetting-new-hacker-ethic/.