Wednesday 11 July 2012

The digitization and fruition of fossil specimens: benefits and consequences

In anthropology, the possibility to reconstruct the features of individuals from their skeletal remains has facilitated and encouraged the forensic anthropology and the bioarchaeology. Besides, it made room to paleoanthropology (above all the paleoneurology), when this option is not applied to the reconstruction of a face, but of the specimen itself.

Why to use a three-dimensional reconstruction of a skeletal specimen? We must consider, in particular, that the paleoanthropological fossils are of great value (not only from the scientific point of view) because these objects are often unique and they can not be handled too frequently to avoid irreparable damages.

Being unique objects, they are rare, and thus the access to them is not easy. And being very old, they need special conditions, monitored constantly to preserved them as best as possible. To move them would be largely a risk. There is also another aspect linked to their uniqueness: the fact that the paleoanthropological fossils are often preserved in places far away and that only a lucky few people can go there.

A three-dimensional reconstruction not only avoids facing a long journey, but also allows you to avoid frequent handling, perhaps hasty, and changes in storage conditions. Moreover, the reconstructions based on detailed scans of the specimens allow measurements much more accurate than if done manually.

Interview to Christoph Zollikofer (Zurich University)

The advantages of such applications are therefore evident and their spread is certainly to be encouraged, especially if the resulting data are shared as much as possible.

When the access to the specimen is severely limited for a variety of reasons and maybe years must pass before you see photos and measurements, the advancement of the discipline is also limited. Data sharing carries in itself another advantage: the discussion between researchers annuls, in this way, the possibility of more or less dubious interpretations by a minority of them. Perhaps the same few people who had access to the specimen.

Also, if data sharing takes place through free software, analysis of the specimen is enhanced by new data and interpretations, in a cascade process that feeds itself. Incidentally, the word "free", in this context, means generically a software to which all those who wish can access, anytime they want. Of course, the freedom of access should be subordinated to the ability to use the software itself.

It's true that an access of this scale and with these tools would lead to consequences of a certain depth both economically and socially. As is the case of goods production, more copies of an object there are, the more its market value is lowered. A unique object becomes, in this way, a commodity.

Following these considerations, an object that is cheap is considered of little value, even on the intrinsic meaning. There is therefore a risk that the specimen, though important, is losing its value in the eyes of one of those visitors came from afar to view it. If not in the eyes of the researchers themselves.

We must not forget that these findings are part of the cultural and scientific heritage of the countries where they were discovered. Often these are developing countries (I think for example to African countries where the most part of fossils of hominids was found) and for these the specimen may mean different possibilities: visibility at the international level, negotiating power, source of income for local populations through the related activities that is generated by the discovery and subsequent museification.

The computerization and the data sharing therefore untie the specimen from its being also a political and economic tool. How much these aspects are taken into account in the process of digitization of specimens and, in general, of data stores? And what can we do to stem the problem, if not to remedy it?

At present, in the absence of specific legislative actions, everyone must rely on his own sense of ethics.

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