Speed and Digital Archaeology

A few weeks ago, I was invited to contribute something to a panel called “Just Google It: Archaeology, Pop-Culture, and Digital Media.” I wrote this abstract. Now I have to work on the paper. I don’t think that this is much of an introduction, but some of the ideas that I want to build into my paper. 

Enjoy. Or not.

My idea was to approach the issue of archaeology and the new media or digital media in a way that shifts the discussion from how digital tools have transformed the ways we interact with, link to, and distribute archaeological knowledge which have privileged the ability of digital networks to facilitate new forms of distributed relationships. Instead, I want to argue that digital tools have started to transform our discipline because they have accelerated the pace of interaction both between scholars and between the scholarly and popular realm. In other words, I’d like to argue that speed has done more to transform our expectations of a “digital archaeology” than issues related to connectivity. This represents an extended riff on the idea of David Harvey (and others) of the “annihilation of space by time” and “time-space compression.” 

I imagine using a few case studies that represent how the instant distribution of conversations around the world have influenced the “sausage making” aspect of archaeological knowledge production. To be more clear, archaeological knowledge production is rarely a tidy process, and traditionally, the messy, but productive debates that involve making meaning from objects share the local character of the objects themselves. Like objects and sites, the local character of face-to-face conversations and personal correspondence create a dynamic experience for knowledge production. There is a pace that cultivates a sense of indeterminacy that parallels the casual encounter with a site or an object. Years of research, conversation, and even arguments allow archaeological artifacts to accrue meaning. In my experience as survey archaeologist, the production of archaeological knowledge comes as a result of hours, days, and weeks of walking through a landscape and talking, thinking, and seeing. As a result, a site or an object comes slowly into view and one’s perceptions of the thing changes. In traditional archaeological practice, characterized by peer-reviewed and often paper publications, final published artifact represents the total of this deliberate process that begins in the field and culminates, often many years later, with the final publication. 

Here Virilio’s dromology provides a way of thinking about speed and knowledge production. The pace of modern society has transformed both how things appear and the process of appearing. In particular, I’ve argued elsewhere that speed has blurred the line between field practice and publication by making it easier for projects to disseminate “data” collected at the edge of the trench. While the publication of such “raw data” (a dreadful term and almost totally irrelevant for archaeology) provides access to archaeological objects at an earlier (more raw) phase in their interpretative lives, we accelerate the production of archaeological knowledge. Objects emerge to the public in their archaeological context more quickly than before.   

The rapid appearance of archaeological objects through digital media has caused some consternation. As an example, in Greece, where I work the archaeological authorities are very concerned with the dissemination of sensitive material online and the absence of institutional and disciplinary controls over this process. The issue of speed in relation to the controls, and distribution of material is not unique to an archaeological context. As recent debates in the applied, hard, and social sciences have shown, there is a growing disconnect between the pace of challenges in the world and the leisurely pace of peer review, traditional scholarly publishing, and subsequent digesting of idea. Even the most efficient manifestations of our current system requires that scholarly correspondence percolate slowly through the process-intensive substrate of academic publishing. I recognize, of course, that some efforts to 

The potential of digital media to accelerate the publication of archaeological research has a particular appeal in archaeology where failure to publish promptly or in an accessible way has bedeviled the discipline. Archaeological publication is time and design intensive and expensive, and this is not to deny the value added to an archaeological publication with careful editing, layout, and review. This process, however, also introduces certain constraints to the character of archaeological publications. There are practical and conventional limits to the length of the volume, the nature of these publications (2 dimensions, limited use of color, et c.), and production and distribution. These things contribute to the already significant publishing costs of proper archaeological monographs and leading archaeological journals. More importantly, to my mind, they slow the process of archaeological knowledge production and limit its reach and impact. 

Archaeological publishing, it would seem, is at a crossroads. We have the resources and the reason to accelerate the speed of archaeological publishing, but there are also some significant challenges. I’ll refrain in this paper from reciting the usual litany of critiques concerning digital publishing whether they are formally institutional – e.g. those described by Eric Kansa in his various presentations – or technical or even technological in nature.

What I’m more interested in is the cultural aspects of the accelerated speed of scholarly discourse. How the speed of academic conversations on blogs and social media has changed our expectations of how knowledge is produced.

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