Warning: Do Not do Paperless Archaeology 6

Another post about paperless cultural resource management archaeologyIn the book Small Archaeology Project Management, I described a day when I let my entire crew’s shovel probe forms get soaked in the rain. A whole week’s work was compromised. The result wasn’t pretty. I did my best to dry out the forms, but, ultimately, I had to do my best to recreate them on fresh paper, doing my best to translate the bleeding ink on the forms. I also had to ask my co-workers who dug those probes if I’d gotten the depths and soil descriptions correct (NOTE: All of the probes were sterile). I only had to re-excavate one probe. It was bad, but somehow I survived.

Even though I’m a pretty firm advocate of going paperless in cultural resource management archaeology, I cannot deny the fact that something like this might happen to our tablets. The sun might eat a hard drive, burn a LCD screen to smithereens, or severely degrade the battery capacity to uselessness. A tablet might have a faulty protective shell and get soaked with water. Or, the device simply might decide to not work. Updates, file formats, and a bunch of other software-related tsunamis might wipe out all of what we’ve recorded.

This happens to our computers in the office. It happens to our smartphones and sometimes afflicts our Trimbles in the field. Tablets just provide another vehicle for these types of mishaps.

Worst of all: The tablets might become a crippling crutch for up-and-coming field archaeologists. We might turn into the people from “Wall-E” and forget how to use traditional archaeology field skills. I’ve met PhDs that do not know how to draw a field map using a compass, paper, and a pencil. I’ve worked with crew chiefs who used the Trimble for everything they could. They had no idea how to navigate without it. Most of the “site maps” I’ve used in reports over the last couple years were created straight from the GIS data. There was no drawing involved, so they pale in comparison to what our archaeological predecessors were drawing in the early 1900s or, even as late as the 1990s.

The fear of data loss, loss of technical field skills, the cost of acquiring the devices, building the skills to use them, and a natural resistance to change is the foundation of almost every argument against going paperless that I’ve ever heard. PIs don’t want to spend the time and money on buying the tablets, setting them up for fieldwork, and training their crews on how to use them. Old-time field archaeologists have gotten along for decades without any fancy computers or cell phones. They’re fast, efficient, and accurate with their bare hands. Going paperless would force them to learn new skills, which is why they cringe at the thought of using devices in the field. Pretty much everybody is afraid of losing data or the unique skillset that we’ve used for over 100 years. Nobody wants that.

In sum, we do not want to see the field change because change can cause discomfort. It also generates uncertainty, which can add to the discomfort of doing something new.

Most of the arguments against going paperless are tantamount to warnings that “something will go wrong and we’ll be sorry we brought computers into the field.” All the paperless archaeos are going to wish they’d stuck with paper when the batteries run out on their tablets. Archaeos that use tablets are less capable than the folks still grinding it out with pencil and paper because they won’t have any field skills. The computer will steal their capabilities.

I’ve been enmeshed in a recent debate on the Archaeo Field Techs Facebook group about going paperless that has forced me to reexamine my position:

  1. Do I really think going paperless will help the cultural resource management industry?
  2. Will this really save or make money?
  3. What about data loss? How can we prevent it? Is it really a threat?
  4. Is it worth it to retool existing archaeologists for the paperless realm?
  5. Finally, what are my personal reasons behind urging companies, universities, and archaeologists to go paperless?

I’ve come to the realization that all these questions are rooted in the fact that we’ve never tried to go paperless in the field. This is new. It’s untested and has the potential to cause problems. However, the movement toward paperless archaeology is inevitable. We cannot stop it no matter what I think because it will save time and money in the long run, which is central to running a profitable cultural resource management business.

“We are the Borg. Resistance is Futile.”

About 13 years ago, I realized the cost of maintaining a land line was greater than simply cutting the cord. I was a nomadic twenty-something at the time who hadn’t lived out a 12-month apartment lease in over 5 years. I was moving at least once every 8 months, sometimes less than that. The cost of cancelling my phone number and reinstalling service at the next domicile was starting to add up. I also had the added hassle of calling my entire address “book”, which was a folded up piece of paper I kept in my wallet, every few months to tell them I had a new number. I started to lose contact with a lot of friends who were doing the same thing at the time.

One night in 2002, I met up with a friend who had version of the iconic Nokia Brick cell phone. It looked something like this. After completing a series of jokes about Zach Morris and Scarface, I finally asked him how much the gadget cost. I remember thinking it was more expensive than a land line, but I was seriously considering cutting the cord when he told me how he could keep his whole address book in one place.

Even though the thought of saving all my friends’ digits in one place was compelling, it still took some time before I took action. I mean, I was a complete newbie to cell phones. I knew they could call people but wasn’t sure how the phone plans were different than what I was already paying for through a land line. I did some research about cell plans over the next few months and realized cell phones were the way of the future mainly because of their convenience. I could see the death of land lines within my lifetime. One payday, I waltzed into an AT&T store and purchased a no-frills, no-texts, no-data plan for my own Nokia Brick.

Using a cell phone was a pretty big transition for me. I had to remember to charge it regularly and turn off the ringer when at work or in school. The old excuses about missing calls or forgetting to listen to the answering machine went out of the window. My mother could access me at any time of day. Being constantly connected to the world was the biggest change. Taking care of an expensive gadget that came to be as important to me as my house keys and wallet was another change. Broken cell phones meant money down the drain or being cut off from the world and, in the beginning, this was a huge concern because the field breaks stuff. Fortunately, the Nokia Bricks were the most durable cell phones ever made. They pale in comparison to the brittle iPhones I’ve been using for the last 6 years. I remember dropping my Nokia down six flights of stairs and watching the plastic shell explode apart, battery go sliding across the floor. I ran down the stairs, reassembled my Brick and it dutifully turned on immediately.

Two thousand two was waaaaay before camera phones, before apps, before data plans, before perusing your emails every 10 minutes, before social media updates every 5 minutes, and unenlightened political videos on YouTube every 2 minutes. This was before selfies, foodie pics, tweets, nudges, pins, and Netflix watching at the stoplight. Texting was in its infancy and texting while driving was nearly impossible using the old T9 (unless you were a teenager). This was also before the widespread interconnectivity of social media groups, instant news coverage of social justice, and before the collection of data using a device smaller than some people’s wallets (well, maybe not the newest Samsung Galaxy phablets).

Basically, the early 2000s cell phone allowed you to cut the cord on your land line and little else but it also introduced most of us into a new reality. Life continued just as it always had except with a slightly new hue. Instead of haggling with the phone company over land line deals (remember the sales calls from MCI, Sprint, and AT&T about ever cheaper long distance calling?), we had to worry about how many minutes we were talking on the phone each month. Long-distance mattered as much as roaming and in-range minutes. We were paying for the amount of time we used the device in addition to the distance of the calls we were making.

We were also more accessible than ever before. Cell phones allowed us to talk whenever and wherever, which had benefits and drawbacks. It wasn’t as easy to go incognito through an answering machine. Your boss or girlfriend could call you anywhere and many expected you to be available all the time. People started getting into car wrecks because they were talking on the phone instead of driving. Fortunately, if you weren’t dead, you could use your cell phone to call a tow truck to haul your car off the road. Bystanders with cell phones could call an ambulance to haul your body off the road. It was a give and take relationship. We had to figure out when and where it was appropriate to talk on the phone. The driver’s seat is an inappropriate place for making calls, but before cell phones it wasn’t a social problem.

You still had to know how to be a good husband, novio, fils, werknemer, and overall citizen no matter where you lived in the world. However, the nature of those obligations changed slightly because the nature of your communication was enhanced. Conversations between couples could happen more easily. You could stay in touch with family members even while you weren’t at your apartment. Archaeology fieldwork was also enriched. You could talk to your boss or co-workers and describe situations in the field in real-time or at the end of the workday. Depending upon the location, you could keep in contact with the home office throughout the day (although, this may not be that good of a thing for some projects). If you were a budding archaeologist, you didn’t have to miss calls about upcoming work opportunities just because your roommate erased your answering machine messages.

All the old life skills still applied even as we made room in our lives for cell phones. You still had to create great relationships but the cell phone helped the process by facilitating communication. You still had to know how to find a job and make money but you could stay in contact with potential employers more easily. No longer was your job search limited by not having a local area code. You still needed the skills to get the job done in order to survive in archaeology, but now you could actually call someone with more experience before you did something stupid.

Tablets in the field are coming soon just like the cell phone didThe Paperless Archaeology Debate is Similar to When We Cut the Land Line

There are about 6.8 billion cell phone subscriptions in the world, almost as many cell phones as there are human beings. Ninety-one percent of Americans has a cell phone. Sixty-four percent of Americans has a smartphone. Ten percent of Americans has a smartphone but no broadband internet at home, which means their phone is pretty much the only way they can communicate with the rest of the world when at home. Forty-one percent of U.S. homes do not have a land line. That number is increasing. And, its not just Millennials and Gen-Xers that are going wireless. Nearly a third of all Americans 45 to 64 have gotten rid of their land lines. Americans aged 65 and older are the most likely to have a land line, but even 14 percent of these folks have gone completely wireless. Just like I realized back in 2002, land lines in U.S. homes are going extinct.

My kids (ages 5 and 2.5-years-old) have never even used a land line. They use dial up phones as toys…and even they barely play with them because my wife and I have so many junked up old cell phones laying around the house. Even toddlers prefer going wireless.

While a huge portion of our society has gone completely wireless, there are still many people in the United States who do not have a cell phone. Stalwarts. Hold outs. They will probably die with a land line in their home. They might even use it to call 911 with their last breath.

The debate about going paperless in archaeology reminds me about the ongoing discussion about our cell phone-only society. The transition from land line to cell phone is happening silently, incrementally. Most of us weren’t aware it was even happening unless we worked for MCI WorldCom, Southwestern Bell, U.S. West, or any of the other bankrupt long-distance calling carriers. Nevertheless, cell phones have changed the everyday life of our modern world. Less than 10 percent of Americans live without them. They are here to stay for better or for worse.

The same thing is happening in cultural resource management archaeology. Tablets are being used in the field because they save lots of money on the office work. A company using a tablet-based field system can do better work for the same budget as a company still writing stuff down on paper. They can actually do the same job as a paper company for less money, which is the key reason why we will all (eventually) go paperless.

Tablet-based field recordation methods are not yet perfect because the activity is in its infancy. My Nokia Brick was durable and got the job done, but I wouldn’t trade in my iPhone for an ol’ Nokia because having a smartphone is now part of my everyday lifestyle. I use Google Hangouts to attend college classes. Lectures are enhanced because we can ask questions more easily and the lecturer can answer them on the Google Air broadcast. Introverts like myself can actually participate in classes now. Plus, I don’t even have to be in the classroom and can listen to the lecture any time I want. I frequently Skype in on podcasts using my phone and to talk to acquaintances and family friends in other countries for less than a penny an hour. Social media groups keep me in contact with friends, peers, and acquaintances from around the world. They also allow me to stay current on important events in archaeology. I look for job opportunities on Facebook, LinkedIn, and on the internet while waiting to fill up my gas tank. Emailing is a breeze as all of my accounts go to my phone. My family texts and calls me several times each day. In fact, I just talked to my mom on the phone while I was writing this post from a coffee shop. My cell phone helps me stay connected in a way that isn’t possible with the Nokia Brick. New day. New way.

But, with great power comes great responsibility. I have to manage my time more now because it’s easy to get bogged down in emails, social media updates, online discussions, and other time sinks that can keep me from being productive. I have to screen emails and phone calls. Smartphone time is scheduled just like any work task. I try to turn off the phone after 8PM and before 7AM except on weekends. This doesn’t always happen but it’s something I’ve had to adopt because the interconnectivity can actually degrade my experience in the present.

What happens when something goes wrong? What do I do when my phone’s battery dies or if it croaks from some Apple update? What do I do when I can’t log into my accounts or they aren’t working properly? What do I do if I *gasp* forget my phone?

What would happen to a paperless archaeologist if his computer failed? How would she/he survive?

Fortunately, I became an archaeologist before the rise of cell phones, tablets, and hand-held GPS. I know how to navigate the world without devices and how to do archaeology without the internet, computers, and smartphones. If the unthinkable happens in the field (my tablet goes down), I can still reach into my dig kit, pull out a compass, pencil, and piece of paper and keep right on working. I don’t NEED devices to do archaeology. They just make my job easier. This is something I enjoy teaching to all the young techs and field school students I work with. You’ve gotta know the old school skills, but be ready for new systems because times are changing.

The tablet can’t dig for me. It can’t interpret features or stratigraphy. Most importantly, the computer isn’t the one out there doing the thinking. Archaeology will always need human beings in the equation. Interpreting human pasts can only be done by human beings in the present.

Arguments against going paperless are basically warnings against letting the skills that makes a good field archaeologist lapse due to over-reliance on the machines. I’m sure these folks know change is inevitable, but they’re giving us a warning that we shouldn’t rely too much on our techno-gadgets.

Paper or paperless, archaeology has never been about letting the tools do the thinking for us. It’s always been about documenting and interpreting observations about human pasts and communicating this information to our peers and the general public. We can do this through pictures, movies, Linear B, papyrus scrolls, smoke signals or interpretive dance—any medium we like—as long as we’re conveying meaningful observations about the past in a format that others can understand.

Having solid field skills can never be understated in cultural resource management archaeology. Going fully paperless is in our near future but we will always need to know how to do our job without the devices as a point of pride as well as a failsafe. Even though I’m an advocate for going paperless, I understand, you’re still going to need to be able to use your brain when the computer screen goes blank. There will always be stalwarts who are adamantly against going paperless but they will increasingly be in the minority. Just like the 9% of Americans who refuse to cut the land line, one day the dial tone will go silent on paperless archaeology opponents.

I truly want this blog post to initiate a fruitful discussion of how we can go paperless in the cultural resource management archaeology while maintaining good field skills. How can this be done? Is it even something we should worry about? Please, write a comment below or send me an email.

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6 thoughts on “Warning: Do Not do Paperless Archaeology

  • Jonathan Haller

    I think that I would argue that no archaeologist has ever REALLY known how to draw a site map. I’ve seen some garbage maps from revered old school field people. I’ve seen some amazing all digital maps from brand new techs.

    It’s about learning how to do it with the materials you have. People make garbage trimble maps because they never learned how to make a good one (“I know all about this! I’ve been doing archaeology since 86. We did all the GIS back in my day! etc.) You know most archaeologists come out of school thinking that their way isn’t just the best way, but the ONLY way. I think that attitude is more the issue than anything. It’s limiting people because no one in archaeology wants to admit that they’re wrong or that they need additional training.

    It’s all solvable through education though. The best trimble users I have ever seen are also the best compass/pace mappers. It’s important to start with analog equipment and then learn up. When you know how a alidade works you have a natural understanding of how a robotic transit works (or why it isn’t working, or why the numbers are wrong) and can fix most issues on the fly.

    It’s similar to how people ID artifacts. If you truly learned the basics, you can document anything. Unfortunately, I think most archaeologists (academic and crm) think that lab work and mapping are so easy that they can work it out on the go.

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      Education is totally the key factor. And I totally agree that being ready to change methods and learn new skills is better than staying stuck in second gear. Going paperless is also going to require a learning curve. Some will do well. Others will not.

      Thanks for reading and writing a comment. I do really appreciate it.

  • Ramie Gougeon

    Two brief thoughts: First, your repeated use of the “I know PhDs who can’t X” is a tired, tired trope. I get that you’re flogging it in as many posts as possible to get eyes/traffic on your other posts, but consider giving it a rest. There are incompetent and competent people at every level of education and experience, and in every facet of cultural resource management and education. Constantly dragging out the strawman distracts from your other excellent points about training, knowing why the machine/tablet/device does what it does, etc.
    Second, there’s a bit of irony in preaching against paperless field methods when the ad at the bottom of your post is for an e-book about blogging. What happens when servers die or when companies hosting websites disappear? You may as well have run your field notes through the washing machine…

    • SuccinctBill Post author


      Thanks for leaving a comment. Not enough people take the time to write so I always want every commentator to understand that I appreciate the dialogue that comes from commenting.

      Flogging the “useless PhDs” is not just a ploy to get traffic. I’m a PhD who readily admits he’s useless at a lot of things (just ask my wife). Unprepared PhDs is a serious issue in archaeology that we all need to address. Times have changed but our education has not. One day, if I’m persistent, I just may have my PhD. If I’m really lucky, I’ll get the opportunity to try and rectify the issue from within academia. Most likely I’ll have to work on it from within CRM like I used to before I went back for my PhD. If I was trolling for traffic, I’d just write more gear posts. They get waaay more traffic than anything else I write and would give me the chance to become an affiliate for the products I endorse. But this blog is about CRM archaeology so I only talk about products I’ve actually used and have something to say about.

      There’s always a concern that the servers will die. My eBooks might get lost when Amazon collapses. A processor might blank out in the field and then the tablet based system won’t work. In fact, this has already happened to me. Guess what, I’m still blogging. I was able to reinstall my website based on backups (thanks for reminding me to do that again BTW). It is a total hassle to have to rebuild a blog with hundreds of thousands of words but it can be done. I’ve also lost field notes to rain, forgetfulness, and other failures. The digital losses were temporary while the paper losses were usually permanent and had no backups.

      Finally, this isn’t the first time somebody has said I’m using strawman arguments in my blog posts. There isn’t usually an opposing position to my arguments, so most of the time my blog posts are commentary based on an observation or recent event. The paperless archaeology posts actually do have an opposing viewpoint, but I never state that my opinion is the be-all/end-all. For better or worse, we will all be going paperless someday regardless of what I or anyone else says. It really is a change in the CRM industry that will benefit the early adopters and penalize the latecomers.

      Once again, I appreciate you reading my blog post and hope to hear your comments again.

  • Frank Lynam

    Thanks for the thoughts. I enjoyed the read. As regards the question up for debate, I think that the ‘something might go wrong’ argument doesn’t really stand up anymore. It’s a bit like saying, don’t use locomotives because they might break one day – use horses and donkeys instead because they never break. Of course, things are going to break. As archaeologists, our discipline is built upon the principle that everything breaks and is discarded or lost. It’s how you deal with the breaks that matters. How do you deal with the eventuality of a tablet crash in the field? Maybe you run backups to a site server every hour, which backs up to the cloud every day. And of course, every field archaeologist should be able to do paper archaeology as well. That goes without saying. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. I simply don’t buy the technology is more vulnerable than paper argument. It doesn’t stack up.

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      Good point. Most people are arguing about the possibility of a crash rather than the fact that, when we go digital, we need to anticipate crashes as well as still be able to use paper in the interim.

      Thanks for writing a comment and for reading the post.

Comments are closed.