I spent two, busy days at the American Schools of Oriental Research annual meeting last week. It was great to catch up with old friends and spend some time surveying both recent trends in our field and the state of academic conference.
1. Ban Archaeological Site Reports as Conference Papers. I enjoyed most of the papers that I heard last week and invariably learned something from even the most tedious. This is a good thing. At the same time, I got antsy and irritated during archaeological site reports that detailed the results of every trench at a site over the previous one or two field seasons. The level of detail offered in many of these papers made the work difficult to visualize. The absence of clear general research questions (e.g. what are the influences on the development of Cypriot cult in the late Iron Age?) and the preponderance of hyper-specific research questions (e.g. does the north wall continue west?). These questions are interesting, perhaps, from an archaeological perspective, but this rarely translates to an interesting paper.
I recognize, of course, that there is a tradition of these kinds of site reports in archaeology, so I’m not blaming the authors. I also realize that these reports can provide useful updates to the scholarly community, former volunteers and collaborators, and specialists interested in these sites. Moreover, I get that with funding to attend conferences become more competitive, many scholars feel pushed to give papers of dubious academic value just to get funding to attend.
At the same time, I am pretty sure ASOR could publish academic site reports online, perhaps behind a firewall if project’s are concerned about the safety of their sites, and eliminate what is far and away the least intellectually rewarding part of the conference while still providing a venue for the dissemination of detailed information. This would allow conference organizers to present a more focused conference with more substantial papers over a shorter period of time. It does not, of course, resolve the issue of scholars who present less than remarkable papers simply to get funding to attend.
2. The Digital Divides. I am becoming more and more alarmed by the divide in archaeology between the digital haves and have nots. As research funding contracts and expenses of fieldwork continue to increase, the presentations documenting significant digital innovation came almost entirely from large, well-funded projects with the backing of large research universities. I recognize that innovation requires funding and that many aspects of this work will “trickle down” into digital tools and technologies available to smaller, more financially ordinary projects, but there was little discussion of how this process will take place or what smaller, less generously funded projects can do to participate in the process of digital innovation (or little discussion that I saw at the panels that I attended).
The digital divide bothered me because so many of the coolest digital projects seemed far from being sufficiently scalable to have a widespread impact on the field. Moreover, some of the data driven digital initiative seem to require the widespread adoption of their complex platforms to assemble the kind of data required to allow for archaeological “big data” initiatives. The truth behind big data in archaeology, however, is that it derives not from technological innovation alone, but through the combination of technology and social networks (of the human kind) to generate the kind of collaboration necessary to produce significant change in the discipline.
The digital divide, then, marks not just the digital “haves” and digital “have nots,” but an approach to digital archaeology that continues to privilege innovation over application. As an archaeologist open to digital tools and techniques, I am far more interested in understanding how innovators can provide access to digital tools and support the meaningful adoption of technology to produce significant bodies of data. In other words, I was impressed by the highest of high tech (e.g. virtual archaeology in immersive 3D environments, dynamic bespoke platforms supporting large-scale collaboration between interrelated projects, and sharks with laser beams who could destroy even the most aggressive archaeocyberpirates), I was much hungrier for digital initiative that had significant adoption rates or that produced meaningful results across multiple projects of different scales and resources. It seems to me that the future of digital archaeology is in collaboration and adoption more than innovation.
3. Conferences as Non-Places. Upon returning home, I was shocked to discover that the conference had been in San Diego. The Westin Hotel was fine. The weather was nice from what I could gather from outside the hotel and taxi cab windows (I did notice the absence of blowing snow and sub-zero temperatures).
I recognize that part of this was my fault. I could have planned more time for excursions or at least took a cab to a good local restaurant rather than settling for rather ordinary fare available near the conference hotel. At the same time, I felt significant pressure to use my time wisely, attend as many sessions as possible, and be punctual and engaged at various meetings. By my early morning departure, I realized that the location of the conference was almost completely irrelevant.
The commercial carpeting, Starbucks’ coffee, institutional pastries, familiar hotel rooms, and polite staff all made the experience of attending this conference nearly indistinguishable from any other, and made me all the happier to get home.