Speed and Practice for a Digital Archaeology

I spent rainy and grey Sunday afternoon Skyping away to glorious Boulder, Colorado and a panel at the Theoretical Archaeology Group annual meeting. The papers were engaging and the conversation was fruitful. My paper is “below the fold.”

As per usual, everything is always about me, and the biggest take away that I have from this panel is that I want to explore the relationship between field practice, analysis, publication, and … branding. My ideas are still really unformed right now, but I think I want to explore the link between how we do our work and how we build our “brand” in a world that is shaped by not only the real flow of capital, but also a set of expectations that are dictated by a totalizing neoliberal (modern?) view of the world.

Anyway, the final paragraph of this paper would be a point of departure for another book that I probably won’t have time or intellectual horsepower to write, but one could imagine the chapters:

1. Introduction
2. Slow Archaeology in Field Practice
3. Digital Archaeology and the End of Place
4. Cooperative and Collaborative Modes of Publishing 
5. Slow Archaeology as Brand: Archaeology and Culture 
6. Conclusion

Anyway, I’ll add it to the queue, but see below for the paper. 

Speed and Practice for a Digital Archaeology

William Caraher, University of North Dakota Paper
Delivered in the panel “Just Google It: Archaeology, Pop Culture, and Digital Media” at the
Theoretical Archaeology Group Annual Meeting Boulder, Colorado
April 24, 2016


I had this ambitious idea to start this paper with a discussion of David Harvey’s idea of time and space, to flow gracefully into a discussion of Virilio’s dromoscopy, and then consider Harmut Rosa’s recent views on social acceleration while sprinkling my clever introduction with references to the more popular (and problematic) slow food movement. Then I realized I’m joining this panel over Skype, and this probably does more to demonstrate the peculiar situation facing traditional scholarly discourse in the 21st century than me generalizing a complex and subtle body of theory. The space and speed of scholarly conversation and archaeological knowledge production has changed significantly over the past two decades and this is having real impacts on how archaeologists do there work.

To put this in some larger context, this paper is an extension of my recent interest in technology and speed in archaeological fieldwork. I have recently tried to argue – with varying degrees of success and acceptance – that the more recent crop of digital tools have transformed fieldwork by accelerating the longstanding interest in efficiency to the detriment of an engaged, reflexive, practice. I’ve called my critique “slow archaeology” and while it hasn’t exactly caught on, it gave me an excuse to think about speed in archaeology more broadly. In fact, it caused me to wonder how much of the current interest in our ability to use the digital realm – particularly the internet – to build communities, link data, and collect and distribute knowledge freely is tied to the speed of the digital age and its impact on the complex network of social practices and technology that constitutes our world. Part of this is my sensitivities as a landscape archaeologist to place and David Harvey’s compelling observation that the time of “late capitalism” annihilated spatial barriers and fundamentally transformed the notion of space and place.

The barriers that I’ve become particularly curious about are those between the private and public work of archaeology. I am thinking about private archaeological space nestled within what Bruno Latour called “black boxes” which can range from complex and proprietary digital devices to old style analogue notebooks, casual conversations between colleagues, and correspondence that have – more or less – resisted rapid dissemination and reproduction. The public work of the discipline appears in lectures, traditional publications, site presentation, and museums. This division between a public and private archaeology coincides with a deeply modern line in the discipline that divides the collection of archaeological information in the field and the work necessary to understand it from its interpretation and publication. As our interest in gaining efficiency in the field, for example, has blurred the distinction between data collection and publication as archaeological information collected with digital tools is nearly ready for public consumption as “raw data.” The acceleration of academic correspondence has likewise introduced blurred generic divisions when conference papers circulate beyond the audience at the conference, informal academic conversation transpires in the public space of social media, and public working drafts anticipate peer review.

Speed and the Ambiguities of Publishing

Last month, the New York Times published an article in their science section documenting how a group of biologists, including Nobel laureate Carol Greider, “went rogue” and published pre-prints of important research on the bioRxiv site for open research. This kind of thing is hardly new, although perhaps a researcher of Greider’s stature adds some additional clout to this particular case study. The Times article observed that this kind of publishing is useful because it brings scholarly attention to pressing, immediate problems like the outbreak of the zika virus. These articles appear prior to peer review and this follows a practice common in various fields in the social and traditional sciences. Peer review, then, takes place at a later stage of the publication process and serves mostly to validate ideas after they have been subject to intense scrutiny from a wider academic audience. The audience for this kind publication is product of speed. In fact, the hashtag associated with these publications is #ASAPbio. (For more on this go here).

Archaeological research rarely enjoys the urgency of zika outbreak (and that’s probably a good thing), but we can still argue that timely publication forms an important responsibility for archaeologists. This responsibility is not as simple as just sending a report to one of the rapidly proliferating number of journals or preparing a manuscript for a publication series. Speed, of course, is a factor in understanding the dissemination of archaeological knowledge. In a traditional archaeological publication, archaeological knowledge percolates slowly through the publication processes. This pace 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. One might even extend this further to argue that getting access to the results of traditional publications involves a process of patient waiting for books and article to arrive via interlibrary loan or enter into a libraries catalogue. A review of a book might take another two years.

Like fieldwork, academic publishing proceeds at a deliberate pace limited as much by social convention as technological limitations. Many of the technological barriers associated with traditional academic publishing, however, have come down. Today, scholars have embraced scholarly publishing tools that allow for the almost instant dissemination of archaeological information through blogging platforms, the social media, or applications designed to publish digital images of objects like Omeka, Kore, or Mukurtu. The speed with which artifacts, sites, and analysis become public has, of course, caused alarm and confusion.

For example, some countries have sought to limit how archaeological data enters the digital realm, demonstrating some real discomfiture with the character of instantaneous publication. Even archaeologists experienced with the nuances of the digital realm find it challenging to discern the relative value and generic character of new digital forms. A recent blog post by long-time blogger Michael Smith inspired a tempest of debate when it offered a less than polished critique of a paper presented by Rosemary Joyce at the University of Colorado the night before. Whatever one thinks of the particulars of this conversation, it is clear that some of the debate focused on both sides understanding how something like a blog post contributed to academic conversation. Smith’s blog appeared quickly, embraced an informal language, and demonstrated a kind of eagerness to engage and critique that most academic writing lacks. The response from the anthropology department – disseminated via Facebook – demonstrated some offense to Smith’s blog post citing in particular that “Small children often see things and instantly want them… Smith never learned the kind of discipline/impulse control that they had acquired by the time they were perhaps 8 years old…” The intemperate character of Smith’s response was related to its speedy appearance and that paragraph of the response concludes with a blanket statement about blogging: “But blogging on the internet does evidently does not require understanding, a sense of professional courtesy and ethics, or much thought of any kind.” 

It is clear that some of the anthropology department’s critique stems from a particular understanding of blogging as a medium. For example, they suggest that “most people who by their own admission did not understand a lecture would refrain from commenting on it.” Perhaps the authors of this statement meant “would refrain from commenting publicly on it,” and that would make clear that public nature of a blog distinguished it from the kind of private scholarly conversation that often occurs after a lecture where scholars try to make sense of complicated ideas and invariable misunderstand or admit to incomprehension. The problem with Smith’s blog then was its immediacy and how this immediacy is more frequently restricted to private space of conversation than the public space of the published word. (For more on this go here and here).

Speed and Slow Data

Even if we accept that the rapid publication of opinions about public lectures falls to the margins of significant scholarly expression, most archaeologists can agree that the timely dissemination of archaeological data is a disciplinary responsibility. It is almost possible to publish data directly from the field (and in effect, some projects do this when they push data from tablets to servers from the field), and this practice would reduce almost all latency between field work and publishing.

Recently, however, some scholars have suggested that instant data production may not represent the ideal. Eric Kansa, for example, has argued for “slow data” as an alternative to hyper-efficient models designed to collect “big data” sets. Kansa suggested that slow data stands at the intersection of thoughtful collection, curation, and dissemination practices. While Kansa’s soon-to-be-published work will develop these ideas more fully (he has posted a draft on Github), he articulates “slow data” as the digitized aspect of slow archaeology. In my toying with ideas related to a slow archaeology – that is an archaeology that is explicitly aware of how our desire to accelerate and become more efficient influenced practice – I considered how speed has influenced the kind of data that we collect in the field and suggested that some forms of data are still not suitable or useful for rapid digital dissemination. The more complex the data sets, the more curation is required and the slower the pace from trench or survey unit to published data set. Curation is the private work of archaeology carried out within a kind of Latourian black box, “behind the scenes” that serves as a buffer between the private experience of field work and the public world of publication.

If pushing out an overly-informal blog post less than 24 hours after a public lecture demonstrates the potential risks associated with almost instant publication, Kansa’s work and the ideas behind slow archaeology seek to understand how the generally positive attitudes toward more efficient and timely archaeological publication entail certain compromises as well.


Speed is changing the nature of archaeological publications, and the changing landscape of archaeological publishing is accelerating and transforming the discipline. There now seems to be legitimate – and at times heated – debate concerning the speed with which ideas and objects should move from the mind of the scholar or some archaeological context to the public. Perhaps we should not be surprised by this. As recent thinkers about speed have recognized, certain expectations of speed and the disciplinary underpinnings of archaeology share a profoundly modern view of the world. The speed of the digital world, in particular, is breaching divisions between public and private space within a disciplinary discourse. Harvey described the “annihilation of space by time” in the flow of global capital. We might apply this idea to the space of the academic discourse where the speed with which ideas can circulate has undercut the various modern boundaries that have compartmentalized the disciplinary practices.

I might even the nudge these ideas a bit further. Objects, landscapes, data, and knowledge can now circulate the world at the speed of light; a 3D print of a scanned lithic artifact retains enough of its physicality to be identifiable. The use of low-cost and efficient 3D structure-from-motion imaging is close to allowing entire contexts to be analyzed, reconstructed, distributed, and critiqued. Speed is undermining concepts of ownership grounded in a physical possession, context, or an archaeological sense of place.

In my work on slow archaeology, I argued that archaeology should remain critical of practices designed to increase efficiency in the field. As I think about disciplinary speed more broadly, however, I wonder whether current efforts to renegotiate the expectations of time and speed facing archaeology today demonstrate more profound challenges that extend beyond the discursive limits of archaeology as a discipline or a method and ask us to consider the larger place of archaeology within culture as a whole.

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