Tuesday, February 27, 2007

a nonrenewable resource

Dear Digital Archaeologist,

I spoke with one of your predecessors at dinner today. She's just finished her undergraduate degree and is planning to become a grad student. She's not a digital archaeologist, of course--she pieces together the past by physically digging up shells, potsherds, or other physical debris of past societies. Right now, she works for a company that does archeology for profit. As she explained it, we have laws which require anyone building something in an area of archaeological significance to, essentially, have an archaeologist available to tell them to stop their construction work if they find something important--say, shells or potsherds--long enough for the archaeologist to recover it. The laws have created the whole field of Cultural Resource Management and an opportunity for companies to hire archaeologists to be available at construction sites. In California, there are a lot of sites of archaeological significance--people have lived here for thousands of years--so they get a fair bit of work. I guess whether you think what they do is a net benefit to the economy or simply an extra cost on whoever's doing the building depends on how much you value the archeology they accomplish.

One of the things she said that stayed with me is that archaeological finds are a nonrenewable resource. She meant, of course, that once a bulldozer (a piece of earth moving equipment used in construction) destroys the site to put a building there, the things it destroys are gone forever, as is the chance to learn from them. That got me thinking about your job. Of course, you might need to rush in before whatever your modern equivalent of a bulldozer might be destroys files. In fact, you might need to rush in before knowledge of how to read a particular file format vanishes. But I wonder if archeology is a nonrenewable resource in a different sense.

You see, once you make a discovery--you find a piece of a puzzle--you need to assign meaning to it. You will need to interpret that new discovery in light of the context that surrounds you. Eventually, you will need to tell your colleagues about your interpretation. That moment, the moment where you decide what the new discovery means, is itself a nonrenewable resource. Once you have assigned meaning and told the world, that act changes the world, the surrounding context. People may accept your interpretation, or they may assign different meaning than the one you chose, but even if they they disagree with you they will also have altered that context in the process of disagreeing. The ripples from these decisions spread and interact.

Today, a man named James Cameron, a film maker, is trying to make one of those assignments of meaning. He claims to have found a container that held the skeletal remains of Jesus, a person of great religious significance who, according to religious texts, should not have had any skeletal remains in the first place. His claim is causing a great deal of controversy. No matter what people ultimately decide the container means, the repercussions will continue for a very long time, maybe forever.

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