PA2015: February preview – What happens when you ask people for their consent to be studied?

What happens when you ask people for their consent to be studied?

I’ve always been interested in whether deposition implies consent to be studied, and now it seems more relevant than ever.  I’ve recruited a handful of people, some of whom I know, and others I’ve only connected with online, to look at how our changing notions of privacy are altering what we see as valid material for archaeological study. Well, if they’re altering things at all.

Information and consent

Toward the end of my archaeology career, I had something of a crisis of faith in our ability to piece together anything remotely accurate from a bunch of disparate data points. Having more data didn’t seem to help because data can only tell you what happened, not what someone’s intention was. I also felt sort of…intrusive. Maybe it’s because I worked with relatively late (post-medieval) material that was often attached to an individual who had a name; it wasn’t so anonymous, and I wondered what would happen if it were more recent. If consent were actually possible, would people grant it?

At what point does information become ‘fair game’? Is some stuff just not useful? Is there a difference between “in the interest of posterity” and “of interest to posterity”? That, I thought — and still think — is pretty exciting. Now that everything in the commercial sector is about data, and I’m in a job where I work with it, I want to return to this question.

I want to know what we reveal and conceal about ourselves online and off. I want to know how being watched affects how we describe our behaviour. I want to know what people do and don’t want others to know.

The point of the project isn’t to come up with any kind of conclusions, but to start to identify some of the issues that exist now, and those that will exist in the future, when it comes to storage, guardianship, curatorship, access to, and narratives made with our personal and collective digital data, as a historical archaeological resource. I’ve talked about some of my initial questions here,but now I want to see what else comes up.

In short: do you care if posterity knows that you pooped?

The rough outline

The main task for participants is to choose five things that they do at least three times per week, and record them in some way. It can be anything: brushing their teeth, sending an email, performing a google search, taking their kids to school. I’m asking them to record them, in any way they choose, in any level of depth or detail, or using any (reasonable) medium.

They’ve also filled out a survey that includes questions about how they feel about the privacy of their quotidian data, and they’ll answer the same questions, plus some new ones toward the end of the month, to see if anything has changed.

Finally, happens when you put the privacy controls in the hands of your subjects? Because I want to look at where people’s boundaries are without intruding on them, participants are perfectly welcome to omit anything they’re not comfortable sharing, although I’ve asked if they’ll at least make a note where something has been redacted.


A screen-grab of my browsing history

A screen-grab of my browsing history


And then what?

Up to now, archaeologists have pretty much assumed, with some (ok, many) exceptions, that deposition of material implies consent to be studied. We also know that people who self-historicise behave differently than those who don’t (for example, by creating conscious archives).There are projects like this Cold War one at the Greenham Common site, where including some of the people who lived there helped shed light on otherwise impossible things, but also brought up issues of what is and isn’t an acceptable intrusion.

I’ve always wondered what would happen if we assumed the same level of concern for privacy, even where we couldn’t actually obtain consent. And now, we know that our data is being collected and stored by companies, governments, and all kinds of other institutions. We’ve always seen data collection as a form of surveillance — even when we haven’t called it that — but I don’t think we’ve ever been so collectively concerned about who knows what about us, even if it’s not a secret.

How is the digital world changing how we view what is ‘private’, or even ‘secret’? What new opportunities will arise, and how can we best make the most of them without being unwelcome intruders into people’s lives? Do we need to change our ways?

I’ve landed firmly in the business world now, and part of my job is to be in charge of people’s data, but I consider it part of my duty as a human being to make sure that we are really aware of the kind of resource we have — and what is and isn’t okay to use. Because what is legal is not necessarily ethical.

For me, the implications are twofold: doing business in a way that is more ethical and (maybe) understanding the potential secondary social-historical-archaeological uses of data collected for a business purpose, and also a plain-old issue of archaeological ethics. Because for me, that was always the most interesting part of archaeology: who is really entitled to join the dots?


Join the discussion!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s