Archaeology in the Age of (No) Privacy
This is a screenshot of some of the search history on my iPad. As you can see, I’ve been on Twitter, Facebook, and a live webcam of some puppies (you should check it out), along with two shots of vanity: an article I wrote for an online collection, and a tumblr I put together of doge memes. Oh, and let’s just not talk about the Kid Rock Cruise (unless you want to, which I sort of do).
I don’t feel strange sharing this because I scrolled through my search history to find a shot that wouldn’t violate anyone else’s privacy, but one that also wasn’t just streams of browsing shoes online. But what stops me from sharing a screenshot that includes email subject lines or the names of Facebook friends? I’m concerned for their privacy, sure, but does it matter if I’m not that concerned about my own (I am, generally)? Or is privacy not a herd-immunity situation?
What will the reshaping of our privacy concerns mean for archaeology in the future? How will it change what people will expect to know about their past, and how will it determine what we’re able to access?
Archaeology and the tech industry
I work in the tech industry, mostly doing marketing and content strategy with startups, so I spend a lot of time analyzing user behavior, creating narratives and constructing possible explanations out of streams of data left by people whose intentions I can’t ever really know – that maybe they don’t even know.
I get paid to look at the traces people leave behind, and figure out what those traces mean, so that I can take action that might make them click a button that gives us money. It’s archaeology — and then some.
I’ve always been interested in what we have a right to know about the people whose data we have access to. It’s come up in archaeology, especially in relation to politically charged areas, and/or more recent eras. And it comes up in the digital realm on a daily basis. Right now, these questions remain separate. But increasingly, our digital lives will become the record of social history for the 21st century. What happens then?
Privacy, ethics, and extreme caution in the face of data, especially data that seems self-evident, were a core part of my interests as an archaeologist, and those remain at the centre of how I do my job today.
The right of archaeologists to study people’s personal lives remains largely unquestioned because it’s seen as in the public interest. And yet, even if it’s not for commercial gain, your personal digital life is not open for outside analysis because that is an invasion of your privacy. The consensus on the former is incompatible with the consensus on the latter.
Or is this even true?
It might not even be true.
What is privacy, really?
Will digital privacy start to make people uncomfortable about archaeological practices? What way do we need to change our practices so that we can carry out a role that is in the public interest without violating privacy, or leaving out essential chunks of the story?
Does it matter that I recently Googled “toxic bird poop,” or that I have been enjoying “Samuel Beckett motivational cat posters”? Do you want me to explain why I looked up “jason statham deodorant,” “john galt underoos” (neither exist, by the way), or “who is the least attractive Skarsgård”? Not really. A few of these results will be enough to let you know that I try to check my facts before being funny on the internet. It doesn’t tell you much about who I am as a person – no more than a few knickknacks would do — and I’m not sure how much I want you to know.
At first, I thought I could run a kind of experiment, where I invite people to study each other, where I set up a research project that involves repeatedly violating each other’s privacy in order to see where our boundaries are (yes, this probably would have involved safe words, and yes, I would have to Google how they work). But I’m not sure the positive impact of a casual experiment like this would outweigh the ethical and logistical dimensions, and besides, I think we’d be skipping a few steps.
A public conversation about privacy and social life
I want to open up a conversation about what we will and won’t accept when it comes to archaeology, today, and in the future. This is a conversation technology companies are already having: they are extremely interested in the long-term status of our personal data. Our governments are definitely doing it. And then there are organisations like the Internet Archive, who are trying to preserve the whole web on a budget of a couple million dollars.
We, as people, as archaeologists, as tech professionals, journalists, social researchers, and whatever else we might be, need to be having this conversation, too.
Each week for the month of February 2015, I’ll choose a case study that touches on a key theme, and invite people to have a discussion around the uneasy relationship between archaeology and privacy, and the implications of that today, and in the future.
At the end of the month I want us to have come up with a list of specific questions that we can ask before or during projects that involve other people’s information.
* Does archaeology invade people’s privacy?
* Who controls the narrative if a private company owns our data?
* If the deposition of an object implies consent, then what about when that object is made out of data?
* Who should index our knowledge, and what happens if you want to opt out?
* How can we develop methodologies for studying the digital past, with the knowledge that the people most concerned with their privacy might turn out to be the least known?
See you in February ’15.
Unless, of course, I take the Kid Rock Cruise after all (because there’s no way that will end well).