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.