Industrial Practice and Archaeology

Lately I’ve been struggling to revise a paper that I delivered at the European Association of Archaeologists meeting last month for submission to the European Journal of Archaeology. In my blog post today, I’m trying to work through these ideas as explicitly as possible to work out some thinking problems in my current article draft. Most of what I’ve written here, I’ve tried to articulate before on the blog. The ideas aren’t new, but I’m hoping that I can get more refined in how I state them.

I argue that historically, industrial practices and the assembly line in particular, have exerted a strong influence over the organization of archaeological work. This is not a terribly unique argument and draws on a well-established body of scholarly work from as early as the 1980s and intersecting with larger critiques of archaeology as a distinctly modern practice. The influence of the logic of the assembly line, for example, encourages specialization in expertise and skills, looks to scientific management practices to organize labor, and prizes efficiency.

While the logic of the assembly lines is most explicit in contract archaeology where time is literally money, it is hardly surprising that it exerts an influence of academic archaeological practice as well particularly in the 1980s and 1990s when the emergence of New Archaeology reinforced the need for consistent field practices to produce rigorous, and frequently, quantitative data for hypothesis testing. At the same time, an intensification of pressures within academic archaeology to comply with permit requirements, to maximize the use of grant funding, and to produce consistent results from an increasingly volunteer (and often student) workforce, further encouraged the model of the assembly line and its influence on efficiency and consistency. Finally, and perhaps most obviously, there are parallels between the organization of archaeological practice and the logic of higher education. The assembly line exerted a clear influence over how students and faculty work within the American university system (and systems influenced by it). Specialization is prized and learning (and research) is divided into specialized compartments that pair specialists with students in the service of explicit teaching or research goals. As a result, the organization of academia and the shifting character of archaeology – especially as it became increasingly driven by methods and practices – found new opportunities for convergence. 

Digital tools and practices largely aligned with the practical needs of the archaeological assembly line and a major current in archaeological thinking has emphasized the way that digital tools can improve efficiency and consistency in archaeological recording. The most commonly used digital tools – like total stations and GPS units, laptop computers, databases, and GIS software, and digital cameras – came into use because they were easier, quicker, and better than earlier analogue practices. In many ways, the logic of these digital tools followed the logic of the assembly line. The tools encourage us to break down the world into manageable bits and bytes that can be reassembled when necessary to produce knowledge. The utility of databases, for example, is that they follow so closely the tendency to divide the complex into fragments, just as the assembly line divides complex tasks into simpler ones or the American university divides knowledge into subjects, courses, and classes. The parallel between digital tools and archaeological work facilitated the integration of these tools with field practice. 

At the same time, the modularity inherent in digital practice and digital logic opened the door to new ways to organize archaeological work. The assembly line was, by definition, linear, and this offered a model of archaeological work that proceeded from the field to the publication, the fragmentation of processes that digital tools allowed and, in some ways, required also undermined the linearity of the assembly line process. Digital tools, particularly with the spread of the internet, reduced the friction that maintained the linear movement of archaeological knowledge toward the goal of publication. It is now possible for the fragments and specialized work to be disaggregated from the larger goal of archaeological work and distributed to be used for different purposes. 

In fact, recent work in digital archaeology has sought to increase the value of this disaggregated archaeological information outside of the linear progress from trench to public. The push to publish archaeological “data” with robust metadata describing its organization, character, and utility makes it possible for others to understand and query this data as well as redeploy it to answer different research questions and for different goals. The growth of Linked Open Data standards explicitly encourages the (re?)use of data by different projects. The interoperability of this data complicates the linearity of archaeological work and introduces new ways to consider the production of archaeological knowledge.

It is at this point that the logic of logistics becomes increasingly significant for archaeological work. Whereas there was an expectation, if not a requirement, that assembly lines be arranged to limit the friction along their course, logistics emphasize the modularity of objects across different networks. The most obvious and well known examples of objects designed to facilitate logistics are shipping pallets and shipping containers which have standardized sizes that allow for different goods to be moved through expansive networks with a minimum of friction. In terms of packaging, standardization becomes a shared practice that offers certain advantages to anyone who chooses to prepare their goods in a certain way. More complex logistics, however, involve bespoke practices that allow not only for the distribution of goods through networks, but also their use in a wide range of contexts and environments. The ability for certain goods to move through networks but also to have value across networks represents the organizational logic of logistics. It’s not enough for an object to be produced with maximum efficiency. Real value comes when that efficiency is distributed through a network in ways that mitigate variability in markets, for example, or in labor or shipping costs as well as friction caused by borders and distance. In short, efficiency in logistics involves reducing the friction caused by distance, culture, and contexts while at the same time preserving the utility of the objects being dispersed. 

For an archaeologist, the growing influence of logistics as a model for understanding archaeological knowledge making offers certain contradictions. There is obvious value in the ability to reuse “raw” archaeological data to address issues or questions independent from the original goal of a project. At the same time, logistics emphasizes, in some ways, the decontextualizing of archaeological work. In a very tangible way, the ability of archaeological data across national boundaries and to move far beyond its physical context or provenience challenge traditional views of cultural ownership that are often located in a distinctive sense of place or culture. While most projects have sought to keep this in mind as they produce and disseminate archaeological data and have installed protocols that, for example, prevent the location of sensitive sites from being known, these efforts push against infrastructure – such as the web and linked data standards – designed to facilitate the seamless flow of knowledge. The development of elaborate metadata schemes offers another example of how the narrow context of archaeological runs counter to pressures of interoperability and the dissemination of data. Site specific schemes and typologies, while potentially more valuable in describing the situatedness of archaeological information in a particular place, also make this data less valuable for reuse. While this might appear to be largely a practical issue that technology can solve, they also have larger implications for the way we structure and value archaeological knowledge in general. As we work to adopt practices that make it easier for our data (and knowledge) to move more seamlessly from a particular context, place, or situation, we also transform the nature of archaeological knowledge and work. 

Archaeology has always involved creating knowledge from a specific site and in a specific context that has value that goes beyond the trench or place. The logic of logistics and digital tools, however, provides a model for digital practices that is both a development of such modern approaches to knowledge making as the industrial assembly line and a significant challenge to the significance of context and provenience in archaeological practice.  

 

 

Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean: Dissecting Digital Divides

Next month, I’m giving a paper at a conference called “Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean” and hosted by NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. It’s title is “Dissecting Digital Divides: Teaching, Writing, and Making Knowledge of the Mediterranean Past.”

Right now, I only have a title and the dread feeling that I really have nothing significant to say about digital approaches to teaching the Ancient Mediterranean. 

I do, of course, have a little swarm of unrelated ideas and a strong yearning to be the kind of senior professor who can give a paper on three of four random things to a rapt audience. (Rather than feeling like an undergraduate who is trying to recycle the same three ideas that I’ve had since 2004 into another paper and hoping that nobody notices!).

So here are my ideas.

1. Digital Divide. There’s been a good bit of scholarship on the digital divide in secondary and higher education. The digital divide, in its most basic form, argues that a significant divide exists between those who use and have access to digital technologies and those who do not. This divide usually mapped along social, economic, and regional lines. Rural states, like North Dakota, tend to fall on one side of the digital divide especially when access to broadband internet is concerned, but I’d also argue —at least anecdotally— that students at UND are generally less technologically savvy and comfortable in digital environments than their more affluent and more suburban counterparts elsewhere in the U.S. 

I need to get data for this, but just observing my classes over the last few semesters, I continue to be struck by the significant number of students for whom technology is not a constant companion. Many of my students do not bring their laptops to class regularly, for example. In a recent field project that involved using mobile phones to take video, a number of students had such outdated phones that they could not accommodate more than short video clips; one student had a flip phone. While it was easy enough to negotiate the different access to technology, it remains clear that the digital divide—in terms of hardware—remains firmly in place. (A recently updated “smart classroom” with a series of small group work stations relies on students to use their own laptops too access the large, shared monitor. This seems like an optimistic implementation of technology.)   

Access to the right hardware, however, is only part of the digital divide. Over the last decade of teaching at UND, it has become clear to me that something as simple as a broken hyperlink or a pdf document oriented the wrong way, represents a significant barrier to accessing information. A significant group of students lack the standard tool kit of web “work arounds” that range from savvy web searches to negotiating the standard elements of user interfaces across multiple software. Even something as simple as using a mobile device as a quick and dirty scanner or looking for an article on Academia.edu or institutional repositories that they can’t access at UND remains on the fringes of their practice (even when such approaches are modeled in class).     

In my larger Scale-Up style class where groups of 9 work together to produce text, it was pretty apparent that even relatively simply digital interfaces – like editable Wikis or shared documents in Google or Microsoft 365 – caused myriad small scale obstacles that frustrated students and complicated group work. 

2. Prosumer and Consumers. My experience teaching at UND has suggested that access to hardware and familiarity with software (and these often go hand-in-hand) sketches one level of the digital divide and contributes to the existence of the “second level digital divide.” The second level divide maps the difference between individuals who are consumers of digital material on the web and those who are so-called “prosumers” of digital and web-based content. I contend that this second level divide is far more problematic that the first level divide for implementing digital approaches to teaching and, as a result, I have dedicated more time to cultivating prosumer culture among my students and demonstrating how digital tools facilitate certain kinds of collective knowledge making.

I will admit that my general approach is a naive one. I continue to have a certain amount of faith that the last unfettered wilds of the internet hold out a glimmer of hope for a society that is far more likely to be shackled, monitored, and manipulated by technology than liberated by it. I want my students to understand the power of Wikipedia, the ecosystem that produced the growing number of open educational resources and good quality open access software, and the potential, if not unproblematic character, of maker culture, and be prepared to contribute to it. 

On the other hand, I also understand that most aspects of prosumer culture have been coopted by the usual suspects of capitalism, exploitation, sexism, racism, and technological solutionism. By producing new knowledge, creative works, and tools, we are also likely to be producing profits for transnational corporations who are as comfortable limiting access to our own work as they are preventing us from foment even very small revolutions that cannot be monetized. As the kids say: “the revolution will now be monetized.”   

I still have hope, though, and at very least I want to work to undermine still-persistent attitudes that certain incredibly exploitative industries (like textbook publishing) represent a meaningful source of authority in the time of Wikipedia. 

3. The Other Digital Divide. History students obsess over and are baffled by the distinction between primary and secondary sources. For students of the ancient Mediterranean, their consternation is understandable and useful in unpacking the relative uselessness of this distinction among practicing historians. A source is a source and only primary or secondary in relation to its use. 

Practicing archaeologists sometimes find ourselves in the same bind, of course. The divide between “data” and “interpretation,” for example, coincides with the primary and secondary source divide among historians. The persistence of terms like “raw data” (which I think is enjoying a well-deserved retirement from use) reveals an understanding of archaeological knowledge making the divides data from interpretation. It seems to me that digital data makes this divide all the more convenient in part because the data itself appears so distinct from interpretative texts, and partly because digging down into the data represents a useful play on the modernist assumption that excavation (literally or metaphorically) provides access to a view of the past less encumbered by present interpretation. While intellectually, we may understand this divide as naive—as generations of archaeologists who celebrate reflexivity and methodology has taught us, we nevertheless tend to lean on the distinction between data and interpretation to frame our conversations. Endless references to archaeological data populate academic conferences, publications, and, I suspect, our teaching. For students who continue to want to see “facts” as the antidote to “fake news,” the transparent use of data appears to be a compelling ontological tonic for their epistemological anxiety. 

To my mind, this digital divide is every bit a pernicious as the other digital divides described in this post. In fact, it might be more dangerous in the era of “Big Data” than the other digital divides because it tends to see data as holding a particular kind of fundamental and inescapable authority in how it describes the world.  

4. Prosumption Critique. For the last 5 years, I’ve taught a large, Introduction to Western Civilization class at the University of North Dakota in a Scale-Up style classroom. The class generally enrolled 150-180 students and the room was set up for them to sit around round, 9-person tables. Each table had three laptops connected to a monitor and also came with a whiteboard and a microphone for the students to play with when bored. A central teaching station allowed me to observe most of the groups and to project content from the tables onto four large projection screens in the corners of the room.

The design of the room encouraged students work together and at least in theory sought to mitigate the hardware aspects of the digital divide by ensuring that at least three students had access to a laptop. In the most common implementations of this design, a student or students worked as the scribe for the table on a provided laptop or students worked in smaller groups, three to a laptop, sometimes installed with appropriate software for the task at hand. While I did not formally leverage the practical aspects of three-laptop design, it did work to mitigate the uneven access to technology among my students.

The class sought to mitigate the “second level digital divide” by encouraging students too critically work as prosumers of educational content. In practice, this involved having the students write a Western Civilization textbook with each table working on a series of chapters that would come together at the end fo the class as a completed book. This task encouraged students to recognize the value of their own voice, critical abilities, and their ability (and maybe even responsibility) to produce their own historical narratives and analysis. It also subverts some of the economic and political power of textbook publishers, although, I do ask them to buy a used copy of an older version of a textbook as a model.

Finally, the students start with more or less a blank document. I do not provide an approved list of primary or secondary sources or even offer much in the way of a critical guide to navigating the internet. Most students get that journal articles are “better” than random webpages (of uncertain authorship and content), that Wikipedia is a good place to glean chronology, geography, and additional sources, and that historical arguments are only as good as the sources they identify to build their arguments. If they can’t find good evidence for an argument, then no amount of rhetorical savvy is likely to make it compelling.

 

At the same time, this approach de-emphasizes the idea that there is a body of data “out there” ready for consumption, analysis, and interpretation. Instead, it encourages the students to see the body of useful evidence and data as the product of their research questions and priorities. The “raw material” of history is not something that is “mined” for knowledge, but something that’s built up as evidence FOR arguments about the past. 

In an era where relational data is literally being treated and traded as a commodity, it is hardly surprising that we envision knowledge making as a kind of extractive industry (and, here, I’m thinking of a paper that I recall my colleague Sheila Liming giving a few years back on the metaphor of “data mining” and “text mining”) rather than, say, performative or generative. It seems to me that encouraging students to be critical and conscientious prosumers of historical knowledge offers a little space to push back on both the economic and intellectual (or at very least metaphorical or rhetorical) underpinnings of our digital world.     

 

Human, Posthuman, Transhuman Digital Archaeologies

I’m jet lagged and a bit crowd addled here in Barcelona, but I wanted to share Colleen Morgan’s blog post on the panel to which I’ll be contributing this week at the European Association of Archaeologists meeting. 

Eaa2018 logo01 color

My paper is rough and like everything, always in the process of being revised, but my hope is that between listening to what the other panelists say and reading their papers, I’ll have something worthwhile to contribute (and even if I don’t, I feel pretty confident that I’ll get something out of the meeting.

Session schedule human posthuman transhuman digital archaeologies 1

Go here to check out the panel.

Punk Archaeology, Slow Archaeology, and the Archaeology of Care: A Completed Draft

I’ve spent the last three months toiling over a paper that I’m scheduled to give at the European Archaeological Association meetings in September. I’ve posted parts of it here on the blog and gotten feedback from various folks. My panel is supposed to pre-circulate their papers today, and I do have a draft, but it’s pretty rough around the edges.

But since I’m pre-circulating it anyway, I thought I might as well post it here on my blog too. You can download it here, or go and mark it up using Hypothes.is here

The paper is for a panel on transhumanism, which I probably should have focused on more fully. Instead, I conflated transhumanism with a watered down version of Donna Harraway’s idea of the cyborg and reflected very broadly on the role of technology in shaping how we produce archaeological knowledge. 

The paper ended up being a bit more conservative than I would have liked, but that is probably true both to the “slow” paradigm that I’ve embraced for archaeology and, more obviously, the work of Jacques Ellul and Ivan Illich, which tend toward the explicitly un-progressive. That being said, I think there is a space for reflecting on how epistemologies, ontologies, methodologies, and the organization of disciplinary practice interact, and my paper parallels, perhaps in a not too distant way, some of the recent work being done to reconsider the value of antiquarian practices. Some of these scholars have seen antiquarianism as an avenue for understanding un-modern (and anti-modern) ways of producing archaeological knowledge that are, at least partly, free from the political and social burdens of modernity and colonialism

That being said, I don’t think that I get everything right. For example, I do see the recent interest in shifting the dominant metaphor in archaeology from excavation and revealing to surface survey and assemblage building as a way to integrate a wider and more diverse range of voices into process of archaeological knowledge making. In fact, Shannon Lee Dawdy’s and Olivier Laurent’s works do just that by showing how distinctive views of time, narrative building, values, and relationships contribute to place-making practices at the local level that operate outside disciplinary methods and arguments. At the same time, I see in the kind of assemblage building the potential for greater fragmentation in disciplinary practices which echoes the way in which digital tools create networks of independent devices linked by data broken into discrete fragments. 

In any event, I’m pretty sure that I didn’t get this paper all right, but as always I’ll appreciate any comments that you’re willing to offer. 

 

 

Archaeogaming: The Book

Over the weekend I read Andrew Reinhard’s new, concise introduction to archaeogaming, titled Archaeogaming: An Introduction to Archaeology in and of Video Games (2018). I have had the good fortune of chatting with him a fair bit about archaeogaming in the field at the Alamogordo Atari Excavation, on my Caraheard podcast, and over email correspondence and conversations over the past five years or so. The concept has always intrigued me as an valuable approach to the archaeology of “Late Capitalism” or “Post Modernity” and a series of methods and practices worth developing if archaeologists continue to take seriously both their expansive view of materiality and their particular claim to being students of culture.

Reinhardarchaeogaming

He defines archaeogaming in the title of his book as the archaeology in and of video games and carves out a space for it between the burgeoning and related fields of game studies and media archaeology. The book embraces its place between media archaeology and game studies by bouncing merrily between academic diction and more accessible prose which allows it to leverage the precise language of, say, Heidegger’s definition of “dwelling” with the campy, acronym-heavy, and breeze world of gaming lingo. Reinhard’s willingness to move between the densely philosophical, the methodological, and the colloquial would make this book a nice option for an introductory archaeology class where students learn about theory, methods, procedures, and techniques, but less frequently have opportunities to put these ideas into practice. An archaeogaming module, that encourages them to excavate, survey, or otherwise document a video game as a cultural artifact would be a nice complement or final project in an archaeology class. Reinhard’s book provides both the student and the scholar a way to think about what this kind of work will look like.

As is my usual practice, I haven’t the discipline or inclination to do a proper review. Instead, I offer three observations.

1. Gamification of Archaeology. I’m not a gamer and don’t own any video games, but one of the first things that struck me about this book is how much video gaming has shaped my engagement with “dirt and sherd” archaeology. From the graphic-user interfaces of software to the longterm interest in simulations, 3D modeling, and immersive environments, digital practices in archaeology drink from the same pool of practices and trends as does gaming culture. On a superficial level, the evident complexity of the kinds of video games at the center of Reinhard’s analysis make it clear that these games share with software used by archaeologists – particularly GIS and 3D imaging software – the need to allow for a wide range of mapping, marking, and measuring functions. In fact, a current publication project that I’m working on with The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota and Open Context has spent a good bit of time discussing how to measure a 3D-scan of an object across scales through an online interface. This past summer, I spent a good bit of time in the Western Argolid producing drone images of the landscape that will allow for higher resolution mapping of significant places in our survey area. The ability to zoom in from a satellite image to our drone photography or “fly” across the landscape to understand the spatial or visual relationship between two places at different scales (i.e. a 3 m cliff might be smoothed by a 5 m resolution digital elevation model into a steep, but passable slope, but in a higher resolution landscape model become a barrier to movement). While these these kinds of spatial analysis on the micro or macro scale are concerns of archaeologists, they have parallels with game play where issues of legibility across scales in immersive digital environments have particular consequence. So there is a resonance on a broad level between gamers and archaeologists who both share an interest in building worlds with an attention to detail across scale, a kind of cultural legibility, and a compelling vividness.

This isn’t limited, of course, to analytical work in the lab or office. Flying a drone involves a game like interface which occupies the pilots attention far more than the actual drone itself. Documenting walls or marking up photographs on a tablet involves looking at the tablet, manipulating graphics, and making aesthetic and procedural decisions in an interface that simulates work on paper, but also goes beyond it. These interfaces mediate between “meatspace” (to use Reinhard’s term) and “gamespace” (or whatever we might call it) that extends from our GIS and spatial analysis software to the interfaces on our tablets and drone consoles. 

2. Stratigraphy and Surface Survey in Virtual Worlds. One of the things that Reinhard explores is the relationship between games, game spaces, and archaeological knowledge. He describes the work he did on the No Man’s Sky Archaeological Survey (NMSAS) which is a survey project focused on the procedural worlds created in the game No Man’s SkyYou can read more about that survey project here

What interested me the most is that survey archaeology – that is the study of assemblages of objects on the surface – was the chosen method for exploring the landscapes of video games. Not only is it useful for documenting the surfaces presented by game developers within games, but it also allows the archaeologist to create assemblages that extend from the world in the game to “meatspace” where digital recording methods, academic literature, conversations with colleagues, and knowledge about the game’s development trajectory and versioning as well as critical responses to the game itself come into play. As Reinhard states, archaeogaming doesn’t stop at the boundaries of the game itself, but extends to the world of the gamer, the interface, and the materiality of the game experience. The gaming experience is a surface that extends out widely in a network of entangled relationships.

At the same time, Reinhard pokes a bit at the idea of stratigraphy of video games. In some cases, stratigraphic relationships become visible in the history of the games themselves with keen observations possible by carefully reading the deposition of objects and features in the game landscapes. Stratigraphy is evident in aspects of games that evoke earlier version of the same game or earlier iterations of certain game types like quests or problem games. Stratigraphy is evident also in the way in which the player interfaces with the game or expects certain functions to work that build upon long standing conventions or gaming practices. It might even be possible to detect certain common game “engines” at play in games the provide, say, realistic gravity or other physical aspect of game place and allow players to anticipate how their avatar or character will respond to input. These basic (like in a foundational sense) features of game play can represent earlier deposits or moments of development in the game or in the gaming concept against which variation and change can be measured. Since strata are always defined by methods and practices, the challenge facing archaeogaming is defining these levels and their relationship to later depositional events. Reinhard appears well on his way to setting out some common methods for recognizing these stratigraphic levels. 

In other cases, stratigraphy involves digging down below the level of the graphic interface and into the murky world of code. Reinhard does not deal much with code in his book, but it clearly lurks right below the surface (heh, heh). Excavating code for the earliest deposition processes requires both a deep familiarity with programing practice and access to the codebase, which is usually zealously guarded by gaming companies. My guess is that parts of these games rely on code that is decades old and recycled – like ancient spolia – for different purposes in a wide range of games. Excavating the code of games would appear to be the next frontier for archaeogaming and to parallel nicely the recent interest in excavating archaeological practices. 

3. The Edges of Archaeogaming. There were a few places in the book where I thought that the edges of archaeogaming revealed its potential moving forward. For example, it is clear that archaeologists in video games, like in other forms of popular media, rarely follow our professional code of ethics. Laura Croft, literally raids tombs. Indiana Jones, punches (admittedly bad) people and steals their excavated finds and destroys their research projects. In other instances, some of the games themselves tend to present material culture as an analogy for “race” promoting a kind of narrow and problematic view of culture. These practices while problematic ethically for the practicing archaeologist can be suspended for the purposes of game play, just as players of the famous Grand Theft Auto game can run over families or shoot at cops. While we know that the grossest kinds of unethical (or illegal) behaviors in most video games are at best a kind of escapism and at worst a manifestation of the repressed desires to challenge authority, to destroy society, or to die, our understanding of the ethical limits within these virtual worlds are unclear. For example, there are some kinds of unethical behavior that are simply not acceptable in video games, but where these lines are drawn remains a topic for debate.   

I was also curious about whether archaeogaming ideas could be applied to so-called virtual worlds like Second Life or simulations like Sim City. For the former, users shaped landscapes and built structures which persisted when they were abandoned to leave strange ghost cities and worlds whose purposes were unclear. Games like Sim City have coded formation processes built into game play with neighborhoods falling into slums when resources or access are restricted. The archaeological thinking behind this simulation is that changes in resources not only lead to more elaborate buildings, but also their deterioration over time. Games like the well-regarded Civilization series similarly rely on archaeological assumptions to plot the development of groups and the competition for resources over time. It seems like these games embrace the relationship between disciplinary archaeology and “game space” in a way that could benefit both gaming and archaeology. 

None of what I’ve said in this critique is meant to be a criticism of the book or archaeogaming. In fact, I think this book does a lovely job opening up archaeogaming in a practical and intellectual way to scholars. I’m looking forward to Reinhard’s PhD Dissertation at the University of York to see where these ideas go in the future. Check out his ongoing work in this area at his Archaeogaming website.

 

 

 

Punk Archaeology, Slow Archaeology, and the Archaeology of Care

Over the last three months I’ve been fretting and toiling about a paper that I’m writing for European Archaeological Association meeting in September that is due to pre-circulate on August 1. I promised myself to have a completed draft done by July 15, not so much to fulfill some vague Germanic need to have things done on time, but because I was struggling to wrangle my ideas into something that made sense.

So here’s my a draft of my overly long introduction to the paper. Feedback is, as always, welcome:

My paper today is yet another effort to come to terms with my anxiety about the emergence of a transhuman, digital archaeology. To be clear from the start, I consider myself a bit of a digital archaeology and a digital native. I can’t remember, for example, living in a house without a computer and my role on archaeological projects has always involved data management and GIS. Over the last few years, I’ve also started an open access press, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, that privileges digital downloads over print and has featured a number of open access books that critically examine digital practices in archaeology.

My interest today is a speculative and theoretical and instead of focusing on the immediate context of field practices, I’d like to think about technology in archaeology in a more historical and expansive way. This will, of course, make many of my generalizations easy enough to dismiss with examples for actual field practices or implementation. These to me are reasons for optimism and perhaps reflect the advanced state of critical engagement with the way that digital tools are shaping the discipline. At the same time, I do think that long trajectory of digital practices in archaeology (and in our transhuman culture) remains unclear as folks like Jeremey Huggett have recognized (Huggett, Reilly, Lock 2018).

My small part in this conversation, which I shamelessly plug in the title of this paper, involved publishing a collection of reflections on ”punk archaeology” (Caraher et al. 2014) and, more recently, a couple of short articles that use the popular ”slow movement“ as an imperfect, but nevertheless accessible and useful lens for critically engaging digital archaeology (Caraher 2015, 2016) . Punk archaeology offered a view of archaeology grounded in radical and performative inclusivity, and slow archaeology considered the implications of a particular strand of scholarship that celebrated the increases in efficiency, accuracy, and precision associated with digital field practices. While both efforts have received substantive and thoughtful critiques that have demonstrated the limits to these analogies (archaeology is LIKE punk or LIKE the slow movement; see Richardson 2016; Graham 2017), I still hope that they offer some useful perspectives on the relationship between how archaeology produces the past in the present and how this shapes the organization of our discipline. It is the intersection of epistemological (and ontological) concerns and professional and disciplinary concerns that has heightened my sense of anxiety concerning archaeology’s digital future.

Some of this anxiety almost certainly comes from my growing interest in the works Ivan Illich and Jacques Ellul, mid-century Christian anarchists, who wrote critically on the rise of modern institutions and technology. Without over simplifying and eliding their different perspectives, both men saw the shift toward modern practices as profoundly disruptive to traditional values and a sense of community.

Ellul’s is perhaps the more problematic for considering archaeological practice. He suggests that the rise of rationality and technology, which he summarizes in the term “technique” after 1750 severed the careful attention of the individual from work itself (Ellul 1964). In its place emerged ”technique” which had its own abstract logic that was closely tied to the need for efficiency. Thus, in Ellul’s writing, emergence of technique in the place of individual care marked the decline in human autonomy as individual choices in how to work gave way to the inescapably logic of efficiency as the organizing principle structuring all human relations and relationships between humans and their tools. As Jennifer Alexander noted in her historical study of efficiency, “efficiency remains an iconic mantra in the high-tech industries,” and I’d argue efficiency remains a key consideration for how archaeology is organized and uses tools (Alexander 2008). In fact, a recent conference and publication dedicated to digital tools in field work, Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future, was laced with the discussions of efficiency and terms like workflow. Among the most widely cited and read articles from Journal of Field Archaeology is Christopher Roosevelt’s (and team) thorough presentation of the digital workflow from their project in southwest Turkey.

Ivan Illich shared many of Ellul’s concerns and proposed that modernity, technology, and the state disrupted the conviviality that existed in the premodern world and among premodern societies (Illich 1975). For Illich, conviviality represented the opposite of modern productivity (with its interest in speed and efficiency) and emphasized the free, unstructured, and creative interaction between individuals and between individuals and their environment. For Illich, like Ellul, the use of technology does not result in a society more free, but one that is increasingly bereft of the conditions that allow for creativity as the need for efficiency and speed create a kind of dominant logic in practice. (One can see in this tension, for example, the curiosity driven and open-ended nature of basic science in contrast to the narrower more practically focused work of applied science (Pickering 1995).)

Archaeology, of course, has always been a hybrid discipline with certain aspects of practice grounded in the world of craft and others in the world of industrial (and increasingly post-industrial) practice. Michael Shanks and others have shown that archaeology, “has never been modern” or at least entirely modern as it integrates industrial and pre-industrial practices (Shanks and Maguire 1995; Shanks 2012). Recent efforts to champion the use of digital tools within archaeology have tended, however, at least on the practical level, to celebrate their ability to improve the aspects of archaeological work that tend not to align with industrial paradigms such interpretative description, scientific illustration, and the careful study of excavated artifacts. This suggests to me that the quest to improve efficiency in archaeological practice extends equally to modern and pre-modern practices in the discipline.

Illich’s and Ellul’s critiques of technology fit only awkwardly with much recent scholarship, of course. Efficiency itself has become increasingly regarded as a problematic term deeply embedded in practice and the coincidence of human and material agency (e.g. Shove 2017). Bruno Latour and others have demonstrated that any effort to unpack the complexity of energy in any system — social, mechanical, environmental, et c. — requires abstract acts of purification that define and separate energy and effects from their complex network of entangled relationships and practices (Latour 1993; Shove 2017, 7-8). This work, on the one hand, echos recent studies of both ancient and modern technology that have challenged tradition views of agency and argued that objects and individuals co-create the world. This greater attention to the interaction between individuals and objects has provided a compelling theoretical framework for understanding the interplay of technology, tools, objects, and agency in the construction of archaeological knowledge.

On the other hand, this work has only just begun, I suspect, to inform the thriving conversation on the impact of digital tools on the organization of archaeological practice (although see Pickering 1995; Taylor et al. 2018), the nature of archaeological skills and expertise, and issues of archaeological preservation and publication (Huggett 2017). In fact, changing views of agency in the world have created new views of ethics in archaeological practice as well as in the social organization of discipline (e.g. Dawdy 2016). Perhaps this entangled view of the world gives the work of Illich and Ellul new relevance for archaeologist concerned with the social issue of disciplinary practice across the field.

More Fragments on Punk, Slow, and the Archaeology of Care

I’ve been playing around with some chunks of texts for the paper that I’m to deliver at the EAA conference in September. Because it’s how I role, I’m pre-nervous and fussing already with too many ideas and not enough thought.

What I’d like to write about is whether digital practices and tools in archaeology – from field procedures to analysis and publications – tend toward certain kinds of social relations among practitioners (broadly defined in their archaeologicality), at the level of the discipline, and in the ontological situation of objects. My fears and anxieties stem from, on the on hand, the prevalence of a certain language of description found particularly in Mediterranean practice (and here my concern is the growing influence of efficiency which follows – to some extent – the fears of Jacques Ellul) and, at least in my corner of the archaeological universe, the persistence of a kind of historicism which celebrates the modernist metaphor of excavation. By removing the overburden of history and the past, we reveal how things “really” work and that privileges a certain efficiency in process and practice that technology can accelerate. If the first efforts to accelerate how archaeologists produce (or “reveal”) the past grew from industrial practices and organization of labor, then the most recent digital turn appears – to some extent – to draw upon post-industrial modes of organization with the interchangeability of data, expertise, places, and people producing a kind of “Uber”-fied discipline. I know this requires a good bit of nuancing and some folks will find it unconvincing, but it’s a start.

So far, it’s led me to fragments and places like this:

What is an un-ironic archaeology? Would it all just be surfaces, following Rodney Harrison and even Shannon Lee Dawdy’s Patina or Olivier’s Dark Abyss of Time as opposed to, say, Buccalleti’s A Critique of Archaeological Reason

The challenge of thinking about an un-ironic archaeology is simultaneously recognizing that what we really want to understand is below the surface – the floor packing of archaeology, if you will – while recognizing that the main metaphor for archaeological work has been “excavation as destruction” (or even excavation as creation or digitization) which celebrates the knowledge associated with the surfaces and strata themselves. In other words, we want to know what is below the surface while at the same time preserving the surface itself as the strata through which sub-surface knowledge becomes apparent.

In this way, archaeology reveals a deep conservatism in both meanings of the word: it seeks to conserve the surface – albeit in a mediated form – and to validate the surface as playing a legitimate role in the making of archaeological knowledge only inasmuch as it implies a relationship to the levels that it covers. Historically, superficiality in archaeological thought and a concern with surfaces is important largely because it reveals deeper meanings. Even so-called “flat ontologies” with their rhizomic relations function as expressions of something else, of a hidden meaning, something profound and perhaps more real.

These kinds of musings, of course, don’t get us anywhere really. Critical appreciation of the excavation as the dominant metaphor for archaeological practice and a growing appreciation of the contemporary as both the space and the time of archaeological knowledge hardly offers a blue print for present or future uses of digital tools, for example, much less meaningful disciplinary or social change.

In fact, we could argue that celebrating surfaces of archaeological practice, unironically expressed in the performativity of punk or the slow crunch of dry soil beneath a boot in the Greek countryside, run the risk of absolving archaeologists from thinking about how and why their work matters. As a critical reading of punk archaeology has shown by emphasizing performance on its own without creating rooms to consider what is being performed, archaeologists are giving up the hard fought terrain of expertise. In effect, we’ve invited “fake news,” climate change deniers, the alt-right, and crystal worshipers, into the archaeological mosh pit, if not on stage. The improvisation of the double quartet of the Commune of Digital Anarchism must have limits and however much they challenge, reject, ignore the hard bop favored by the Academy of Digital Advancement or song book at the heart of the Ministry of Digital Orthodoxy, they still play recognizable instruments.

(As someone who lacks any formal archaeological training (other than sitting in on a graduate course in archaeology one semester), I can roll my eyes at the institutional structures of expert-making, while still admiring the technical proficiency of an experienced excavator. I can pretend that the embodied knowledge of craft is somehow more democratic, less hierarchical, and more open than the credentialing provided by universities corrupted through their complicity in capitalism and colonialism, but I also know that the contingent contemporaneity of archaeological practices does not parse that easily.). In short, a looter is a looter, there are good and bad archaeologists in our profession, good and bad (if not BEST) practices, and tools that will never escape their social, technical, and political limitations to be used in our field (and here I’m thinking about the potential of, say, the atomic bomb as an excavation tool, but also “sharks with friggin’ laser beams“).

So where does that leave those of us who see the world as a single (Borgesian) surface rather than a series of superimposed contexts waiting to be documented and removed in order to reveal new knowledge?

Archaeology of Care is an effort to recognize the social affordances of this map.

*&*&*&*&*

What I’m increasingly interested in is the relationship between archaeological practices – particularly those mediated by digital tools – and the structure of archaeological thinking. This extends from the social organization of the discipline – both in terms of field practice and larger economic and political concerns that involve considerations of gender, race, and class – to the relationships between archaeologists and their communities as well as the basic structure of archaeological knowledge as simultaneously contemporary and in the past.

In other words, how does our critical understanding of our digital tools both reflect and produce archaeological knowledge that is socially meaningful. And how do we do this without falling back ironic conceptions of archaeological knowledge that see “real meaning” existing below a surface that must be excavated away.

Jeremy Huggett has offered some compelling insights into the nature of digital practices and digital thinking in his use of the concept of cognitive artifacts.

*&*&*&*&*&*&*

One of the methodological implications of so-called “flat ontologies” in archaeology is the deskilling of archaeological practice. Digital technology whatever its integrative potential, relies at least in part on the industrialist (and Taylorist) conceit of dividing complex tasks into rather more simple ones. These simple tasks, often mediated by the simplified fields of the data collection form as opposed to the synthetic archaeological notebook, the ease of point-and-click data manipulation as opposed to the experience of walking through the landscape (Brouwer Burg 2017), the clicking of a GPS point as opposed to plotting a location on a map, or the use of structure-from-motion photography as opposed to drawing by hand (Morgan and Knight 2017). While nearly every field archaeologist would admit to the importance of these methods in transforming the production of archaeological knowledge, most would also recognize the role technology has played in changing archaeological practice. As I have argued elsewhere, the adoption of digital tools and the understanding of digital technologies at both a conceptual and applied level is not merely exchanging one set of skills for another (pace Roosevelt et al.), but also the deskilling of certain elements of archaeological work.

The ease with which archaeological projects generate “Big Data” (Kansa 2016; Bevan 2015) – my project in the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota has generated over 10,000 photographs, over 100 hours of audio interviews, video, illustration, text documents, and other forms of data (and paradata, and metadata, and quasidata and almost invariably flavors of pseudodata) – is directly related to the ease of data collection and the power and ease of the tools developed to analyze these large datasets. This isn’t to say being a good digital archaeologist is easy – certainly there are practitioners and theorists in the field of digital archaeology who are thinking and working hard to transform how we understand digital practices in the field – but, as Colleen Morgan and Stuart Eve have observed in some respects “we are all digital archaeologists now.”

Of course, the analogue roots of archaeological practice can be overstated. While there has always been a craft element to archaeology (e.g. McGuire and Shanks 1996), industrial practices have recently started to give way to post-industrial practices with their concern for data. There are elements of this transition which could encourage the uberfication of archaeological knowledge making (Hall 2017) in which increasingly granular data and practices await synthesis by a handful of scholars who have control over the data.

Is this a science fiction distopia where the alienation from objects reflecting our alienation from one another?

Uberfication involves creating a workforce consisting of individuals with very basic skills, mediated by digital technologies, who can be exchanged in a highly modular way. The internet of things and the distribution of agency throughout decentralized networks of objects has normalized increasingly digital forms of social, archaeological, and intellectual relationships and at least implied (albeit in an uncritical way) through this dispersed model of agency that objects, data, individuals, and landscapes (even across scale) are more or less commensurate. The impact of this can be summarized in the inanimate carbon rod winning the “Worker of the Week Award” on the Simpsons, disappointing Homer.

Views of Digital Archaeology

I’ve been thinking a good bit about digital archaeology lately. This is partly because I’ve been working on a paper for this fall’s European Archaeological Association meeting and in part because I’ve been doing digital stuff over the last week or so.

My colleague Dimitri Nakassis wrote a little post about archaeology being hard over on the Western Argolid Regional Project page last week. This is a bit of a response in a series of photographs. I’m not so much arguing that digital archaeology is or isn’t hard, but that it is not very scenic or beautiful. I’ve spent some quality screen time over the past few days.

IMG 2391

IMG 2393

IMG 2440

Four Things on a Wednesday Morning

I had four more or less random thoughts on my drive onto campus this morning. 

1. Famae Volent. There has been a good bit of buzz around the Classics job-hunter site Famae Volent this month. Most of it stems from the increasingly toxic, relatively un-moderated, and thoroughly angst-fill comments section. The tone lately has been hostile with attacks, incendiary language, and lots of blaming.

I can’t help but thinking that this is, in part, the result of the general state of the humanities and particularly proximate sense of dread created by the growing momentum for various austerity projects at both private and public colleges. You’ve undoubtedly read enough about austerity on this blog, so I won’t rehash my arguments. What got me wondering this morning is whether (1) Famae Volent has been archived (it was only captured 17 times by the Internet Archive’s WayBack Machine) and whether the language of the comments section has been analyzed systematically. I’d be curious whether the language in the comments has, in fact, become increasingly polarized (as some have suggested and I agree with instinctively), by what measure we could understand this, and whether the language in the comments has parallels with, say, our political discourse or various larger intellectual (or anti-intellectual) trends. 

This seems like it would be a cool project for a digitally inclined historian or Classicist. 

2. Re-Reading. I almost never re-read things. I mean, I will go back to a text to look for something or to check my notes or confirm a citation or even to make sure that I understood a complex passage correctly, but I rarely sit down and re-read an academic book. Last week, I agreed to review Shannon Lee Dawdy’s Patina: A Profane Archaeology (2016), for the American Journal of ArchaeologyI even blogged on it briefly a couple of years ago, but to be honest I was a bit overwhelmed by the book and struggled to formulate a coherent critique. 

But now I have to! And what makes this review even more of an adventure is that the book has been pretty thoroughly reviewed across a wide range of literature. More than that, the AJA is aimed at Mediterranean and largely “Classical” archaeologists for whom this book should be relevant, but isn’t instinctively so. Stay tuned.

3. Racing the Bulldozer. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working to document the two Wesley College buildings at UND: Corwin/Larimore and Roberston/Sayre Halls. I learned just this week two bits of news. First, Corwin/Larimore is slated to begin asbestos mitigation later this month and second that the North Dakota State Historic Preservation Office is going to require Standard II recording for both buildings. The former will speed our work up and require us to set some new priorities. The latter will involve us having to collaborate with UND to find the ideal partners to complete the necessary documentation.

The good thing about the decision of the ND SHPO is that it will require a basic history for the two buildings and a technical architectural description and we hopefully fold this into our more comprehensive analysis of these buildings, their change over time, and their abandonment. 

4. Rejections. I’m sitting in the morning light that rakes through the garden level windows of the NDQ offices and facing the unpleasant task of writing my first little gaggle of rejection emails. While I know this is part of the business, I still find it depressing. The sunlight is helping a bit though. Maybe it’s even symbolic. Something about the darkest and the dawn or whatever. 

Back to work… 

Two Abstracts for the European Association of Archaeologists Annual Meeting

My morning today was filled with finish abstracts from the EAA annual meeting. Since I can submit two and was kindly asked to contribute to two panels, I put together two abstracts that look to similar topics. These abstracts are pretty raw and the ideas should be both familiar to readers of this blog, but also slightly rougher and more incomplete. I’m thinking of them as prompts for me to develop as much as abstracts that summarize completed thoughts.

The first abstract is for Colleen Morgan, Catherine Frieman, and Marta Diaz-Guardamino Uribe’s panel titled “Human, Posthuman, Transhuman Digital Archaeologies”. I blogged about it here.

Here’s the abstract:

Punk Archaeology, Slow Archaeology, and the Archaeology of Care

Recent research has emphasized the significant impact that digital technology is having on archaeological practice. Over the last decade, my work has tried to come to terms with post and transhuman archaeology. First, I proposed a “punk archaeology,” which looked to rawness and immediacy of punk rock music as a model for a disruptive interest in the performance of archaeological work. Later, I became intrigued by the popular “slow foods” movement as well as in the work of diverse scholars on the rapidly accelerating pace of modernity as a model for a “slow archaeology” that sought to trace both the rhetoric surrounding and practice of digital technology in field practice. Recent work by Eric Kansa and Ömür Harmanşah have pushed me to recognize that slow archaeology may well offer a solid foundation for critiquing the growing influence of neoliberal expectations in the use of digital tools in archaeological work.

This paper draws on field experiences doing intensive pedestrian survey in the Mediterranean and the archaeology of the contemporary world in North Dakota to consider how digital tools mediate and transform not only archaeological information in the field, but also the experience of fieldwork. Critical reflections on these processes have shaped an archaeology of care that considers more than the efficiency, accuracy, and convenience of digital tools and analysis, and, instead, shifts the focus how the archaeologist and these tools creates a meaningful space of archaeological practice. Archaeology of care foregrounds the constitution of the archaeological field team, interaction between archaeologists and communities during field work, the location of archaeological analysis, and the experience of archaeological knowledge making to expand our sensitivity to the ways that digital technology is transforming our discipline.

~

The second abstract is for Rebecca Seifried and Tuna Kalayci’s panel and titled “”The “Geospatial Turn”: Critical Approaches to Geospatial Technologies in Archaeological Research.” I’ve blogged about it here.

And, here’s my abstract:

Slow Spaces: Big Data, Small Data, and the Human Scale

Fernando Braudel famously demonstrated in The Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, that historical data analyzed at various scales are not necessarily comparable or commensurate. In other words, history written at the chronological and spatial scale of the longue durée need not inform history written at the scale of the individual or event. On the one hand, this appears to be a common sense conclusion and corresponds well to our experience of purchasing suggestions produced by algorithm, the music choices of Pandora, or any number of predictive models that falter when ground-truthed.

On the other hand, archaeologists regularly seek to work between scales as they both collect information in the field in a tremendously granular and detailed way and seek to use so-called “big data” to understand lived experiences. To make data collected at the small scale commensurate with both data and research questions articulated at a larger scale invariably involves standardization practices that obscure the agency of the individual archaeologist. In this way, our sense of scale in argument influences, in some ways, the limits of agency in practice.

My paper today will briefly explore the intersection of slow archaeology and space in archaeology. Slow archaeology offers a critical approach to digital practices in field archaeology and emphasizes the irregular and unstructured nature of archaeological knowledge generated through experience. These slow spaces represent a distinct form of archaeological knowledge making because of their incommensurability with the spaces of big data. These are not space that can or should be reconciled with the conventional approaches of spatial analysis.