This week I was invited to contribute an essay to a volume on digital art published by our venerable literary journal, North Dakota Quarterly. This is a bit of an odd thing for me to consider as I’m not much about art and I don’t regard myself as much of an essayist. It is also odd for North Dakota Quarterly; taking a moment to check out their website is probably enough to understand the long and deep engagement with digital matters.
Nevertheless, I agreed (eagerly) to contribute in part because the invitation appears to be part of a rearguard action to save some of the pillars of the humanities here on campus. As times have become tough here at the University of North Dakota, with cuts to the library and other longstanding institutions, various entities have tried to find innovative (and entrepreneurial) ways to save their hides. I am not sure how a volume on digital art composed mainly by UND faculty will help the situation, but I’m still willing to chip into a common cause anyway.
I can’t really speak to digital art, but the call for contributions assured me that this can be understood quite broadly as in “liberal arts”.
The only real issue is that we were given a November 15th deadline. That’s only 6 weeks! I am a plodder so very little gets done on such a time frame. Fortunately they are looking for 10 pages single spaced (I’m guessing 4000 words). So I started brainstorming right away to come up with some options.
1. Recycling Digital Archaeology. Over the past few years, I’ve written a handful of moderately well-received conference papers on issue surrounding digital archaeology. I also gave the Elwyn Robinson lecture on campus on this topic. I should be able to cull something from these papers to create an essay. Most of them deal with the differences between traditional paper recording and digital methods with an edge of caution tempering the sometimes overly enthusiastic rush to adopt new technologies. The advantage of this is that I have a wealth of unpublished text to draw upon. The disadvantage is that … yawn … it seems boring, and it might be pretty specialized for an audience wanting a more universal comment on digital art.
2. A Survey of Digital Archaeology. I also thought about writing a survey of digital archaeology. In 4000 words, this will have to be from the upper atmosphere, but it would give me a chance to summarize my thoughts on developments from blogging to digital notebooks, 3D modeling, and innovations in digital and online publishing of both data and analysis. I don’t really have expertise in any of these areas (except, I guess, blogging), but I feel like I keep an eye on the field. The advantage of this is that I will have to think carefully about the idea of digital archaeology and determine what I want to include and what’s vital to understanding how the field is going to develop over the next decade. This sounds fun. The disadvantage is that the traditional reader of NDQ probably won’t care about these things other than in that polite sense I feel when I read the science page in the economist. “It says here that they’re synthesizing new proteins in France…”
3. Blogging Archaeology. It’s been five years since I’ve written about blogging archaeology or the archaeology of blogging. I linked the my article on Archaeology Magazine’s website above. I am vaguely curious how many of the links remain active and how many real archaeological bloggers continue to plug away at the their modest craft. It was nice to see some of my blogging colleagues celebrate the ten year anniversary of their blogs. It has also been interesting to see how the authors have changed and the very notion of the blog (and what it’s for) has received some sustained critique. As a practitioner, I feel like I know how to use the blogging tool better and can even grow or shrink my audience in a predictable way (and to a point). The advantage of writing about blogging is that this is something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time and I think that I have some experience with the genre. On the other hand, I am not sure that I could keep my essay from devolving into a self-indulgent critique of a self-indulgent activity. (On the third hand, if you can’t be self-indulgent in a literary journal, where can you be…).
4. Digital Archaeology and Craft. Over the past few years, I’ve toyed with this idea of telling the story of how I learned to do digital things. It would begin with my childhood and our old TRS-80 computer and involve frustrating days at the end of the first era of Apple Macintosh computer and finally get me to Greece where some very patient colleagues taught me how to use GIS, databases, and the like to map and analyze data. All this was done through an informal apprenticeship and involved me hanging around and watching people work. I took on some small tasks under heavy supervision and skepticism and finally spent a long few weeks in a small, hot library under the Marinos’s house in Ancient Corinth working on an article that drew heavily from my ability to analyze data spatially and, in a primitive way, statically. My approach involved lots of trial and error and plenty of gentle nudges in the right direction by supportive and busy colleagues. This paper would draw upon a kind of auto-enthnography (from someone who worried that writing about blogging was self-indulgent!) to frame digital archaeology as craft. This notion would draw a seminal article by Michael Shanks and Randall McGuire and some recent reflections my Michael Herzfeld as well as my own experiences teaching the Historians’ Craft to undergraduates. The advantage of this is that it would be fun to write and could be more like an essay than an article if I allow myself some autobiographical license. The disadvantage is that I’ve never written anything like this and it could be bizarre, nonsensical, and a lot of work.
5. Edge Effects. One of the things that I’ve thought about on and off for the last few years are the unintended artifacts of digital practices in archaeology. Nothing represents this more vividly than edge effects in spatial analysis. I’m using this term to refer to the strange results that appear along the abrupt edges of analytical space in GIS. For example, the sharp break at the edges of an area subject to nearest neighbor analysis produces fantastic results that have nothing to do with the archaeological situation that this method intended to model or analyze. They are artifacts of the analysis itself and provide an opportunity to discuss other, less obvious artifacts of digital analysis in our both the archaeological and “real” world (e.g. how we listen to music, how we travel, how we work, et c.). The advantage of this is that it’ll push me to think in new directions and maybe even think more broadly and experimentally about how we think. The disadvantage is that I have 6 weeks to put this all together and it might turn into a pile of doodee which would feel like a missed opportunity.
As per usual, feedback, criticism, insights, and mockery are all appreciated.