Archaeology and Anonymous

While I was writing about authorship and reflexivity in digital archaeology in my dissertation the other day, I felt I should also write about the converse, anonymity and archaeology.

Though I have provided a strong argument in favor of transparent and reflexive authorship of digital objects, it would be remiss to ignore the anonymizing potential of the internet for political action in archaeology. With the increased visibility of individuals who participate in the role of the public intellectual on the internet, there are several instances where it could be desirable to remain anonymous. While it can certainly be argued that there is no such thing as true anonymity on the internet through the various methods of tracking individual ISPs and through the small and self-selecting pool of archaeologists who participate on the internet and their research interests, some archaeologists use tactical anonymity for information sharing in risky contexts. For example many prospective graduate students and recent Ph.D.s use anonymous wikis to update their fellow position-seekers regarding the process of selection and hiring. Using wikis in this way can combat the opacity of academic process for the traditionally disempowered and disenfranchised candidate pool. In another example, a high-profile academic archaeologist maintained a veneer of anonymity to translate and share information regarding a government coup that not only brought misery to the citizens in the country but also destroyed years of research and directly affected the cultural heritage in the country. Anonymous participation by informed citizenry can certainly contribute to the emancipatory power of the internet, albeit at a cost of devalued information that is not backed by known scholarship.

Ugh, dissertation speak–I’ve tried to avoid it, but it creeps in. Anyway, as important as I believe it is to promote transparency and public intellectual citizenship, sometimes a veneer of anonymity can be compelling and powerful. Case in point, I’ve heard some pretty horrible stories about peer review and unnecessary cruelty on the part of reviewers who hide behind the anonymous process.

The ultimate manifestation of anonymity on the internet (such as it is) would be Anonymous, an amorphous internet phenomenon that centers around message boards, pornography, and captioned photographs. In recent years, Anonymous has become self-aware to a certain extent and has started to marshal its forces to various causes. While this was at first manifest in taking revenge on individuals that the message board community targeted, such as school bullies, a girl who threw live puppies into a river, and white supremacist radio hosts. They’ve gone on to attack corporations, religious institutions, and pretty much anything that they can muster enough resentment against. While they are ultimately a chaotic force, Anonymous is an unexpected, fascinating undercurrent on the internet.

While there are no direct links between archaeology and this internet phenomenon, it provides an interesting thought experiment–of what meaning and value is Anonymous to academic practice, but to archaeology more specifically? What could we learn from the monumental churn of ideas, images, and memes that such a phenomenon produces? Could we use anonymous commentary to improve archaeological scholarship and methodology, or would it turn into the very worst of Anonymous–meaningless, banal, backbiting? How would archaeology change if we weren’t afraid to offer frank critiques of each others’ work?

Just a few thoughts on a rainy Bristol Sunday…I should get back to the diss.

Author: colleenmorgan

Dr. Colleen Morgan (ORCID 0000-0001-6907-5535) is the Lecturer in Digital Archaeology and Heritage in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. She conducts research on digital media and archaeology, with a special focus on embodiment, avatars, genetics and bioarchaeology. She is interested in building archaeological narratives with emerging technology, including photography, video, mobile and locative devices. Through archaeological making she explores past lifeways and our current understanding of heritage, especially regarding issues of authority, authenticity, and identity.

5 thoughts on “Archaeology and Anonymous”

  1. “Could we use anonymous commentary to improve archaeological scholarship and methodology, or would it turn into the very worst of Anonymous–meaningless, banal, backbiting?”

    Quite possible! Surely the discconnect between the fact that whilst the commentator would be anonymous, what they were reviewing wouldn’t be? Even when provided with anonymous pieces to review, it’s pretty easy to work out who wrote it from the topic.

  2. Hey Sister, Ms. Morgan,

    Heavy reading and writing. Please take time to drink plenty of Beer to Hydrate. You DO work hard, thank you for your reading, i and others enjoy and learn from you. Thank you.

  3. Anonymity can occur in multiple ways, I think. One way is to write and publish in anonymity, I’m sure there are a thousand more ways. But for me the main point at a very deep level is that the anonymity is part of an obfuscation of ego, of ownership, of property. It is actually part of a larger body of theory. I know, I know…Anonymous is supposed to be ‘chaotic’ 14 year-old boys, but there is actually some deep thought behind the lulz. And so this loss of ego, this masking of one’s identity, is part of a larger body of theory/action.

    For people who take on systems of power IRL, anonymity may mean the difference between getting a photo snapped with surveillance equipment and getting snatched OR remaining…anonymous and free. Anonymous is pretty much the internet version of the Black Blok. In this way, anonymity is political, it is subversive, it is empowering, it is liberating.

    Anonymity also matches with a larger sense of working in a leaderless way — where individual’s don’t take ownership of ideas or materials, but instead understand all is socially situated and constructed within a mass of identities, uniqueness and diversity.

    Can academia work in this way? Who knows, maybe doing anonymous critique may work in archaeology, but I’m not sure that’s where I would start. Regardless, I think it has to be a step to a larger understanding of the thought and action (usually direct action) behind anonymity, and Anonymous.

    Anyways, that is my two cents. Really well written article, and very thought provoking.

  4. Interesting discussion. Its really too bad when archaeologists feel they can’t, “offer frank critiques of each others’ work.” I understand the need for anonymity when there are power issues that can work against “innocent” bystanders (grad students criticizing disciplinary dinosaurs; archaeologists reporting on negative developments in foreign countries, etc.). But there is a culture of hesitation in the field that works against honest and frank discussion. Those of us who are outspoken tend to feel the consequences, and sometimes we wonder whether the consequences are worth the scholarly advances or not.

    I don’t have any grand solutions, other than to suggest that public discussions of this issue are a very positive thing. Keep it up.

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