Politics of Mass Digitization

This weekend I read and really enjoyed Nanna Bonde Thylstrup’s The Politics of Mass Digitization (2018). The book considered the approaches, implications, and politics behind the early 21st century move to mass digitization. Thylstrup unpacks the responses, for example, to Google Books from the European Union and their Europeana portal or platform to the various shadow libraries that emerged to provide access to collections overlooked or paywalled by conventional digitization schemes. It is a sophisticated, but accessible primer to the main issues surrounding mass digitization from a range of perspectives and theoretical paradigms. It’s good.

As someone who has thought a good bit about digitization in archaeology – although certainly not at the scale of Google Books, for example – and is alternately drawn to the potential of large scale digital collections and worried about the ways in which these collections tie archaeologists to ways of thinking, working, and interpreting, the book offers some useful observations. 

There are four that I found especially compelling:

1. Assemblages. Thylstrup emphasizes that the work of digitization is far more than simply a technical challenge or even economic or legal one. Instead, a wide range of pressures, technologies, systems, social expectations, rules, governments, and objects interact to shape mass digitization projects. This cautions us from reading mass digitization as simply a technical challenge that must be overcome or a set of legal or political challenges that will invariably give way to progress. It was particularly interesting to understand how various project – particularly the European, Europeana project – situated itself as a response to Google Books – and, as a result, showed the imprint of this formation on how it sought to preserve and disseminate European culture. At the same time, different European copyright laws, priorities, and the organization of cultural institutions, also gave Europeana a distinct character.   

2. Standardization. Anyone who has read this blog knows that standardization is something that has fascinated me over the last few years. The need to prepare archaeological data in such a way to make it susceptible to linked open data standards, for example, links standardization of data with certain expectations of use. Thylstrup noted that the need to standardize data in mass digitization, however, resisted the rigidity of the Fordist assembly line and instead promoted interoperability. This interoperability promoted the “free range of actions” and “innovation” that are so central to neoliberal ways of thinking. In other words, standardization is a method of displacing and decontextualizing information that allows for it to exist within a world that values the flexibility of use and reuse over the restrictive notions of context. This has obvious relevance for archaeology as it seeks to leverage both the potential of largescale linked datasets and the tradition of provenience and context.  

3. Labyrinths, Flaneurs, and Serendipity. One of the more intriguing sections of the book considers the models of discovery present in mass digitization projects. In particular, Thylstrup considers the the social context for serendipitous discover or the leisurely and unstructured encounter of the flaneur who invariably is a white, able-bodied, male. The labyrinth, in contrast, speaks to intimidating character of the digitized and seemingly infinite library that always is expanding. The need for the ambivalent figure of the disinterested flaneur to tame the terror of the always expanding labyrinth presents a compelling counterpoint to the economic and cultural imperative for standardization and the need to create digital objects that can freely mingle in the service of innovation. This is a subtle but fascinating critique that suggests that the very structure of the digital world serves to simultaneously intimidate and liberate, to make information useful and to promote serendipity, and to ultimate to reinscribe the control within a new space of digital encounters.

For an archaeologist, this reality should give us pause. After all, the importance of context and structure to the archaeological encounter motivates most of the fundamental positions in disciplinary ethics from the need to maintain and preserve an archive to our understanding of repatriation and provenience. By presenting data as both susceptible to the unconstrained ambivalence of the flaneur as well as the structured world of fragmented data, we’re creating a tension that challenges some of the basic professional expectations of our work.       

4. The Politics of the Digital World. Finally, Thylstrup’s work emphasizes in both the micro and macro level the role of politics in shaping mass digitization projects. While there is always as risk (as she herself notes) of using the word politics so broadly to undermine its very meaning, by recognizing the political character of the assemblages responsible for our digital repositories, she offers a useful lens through which to consider the power relations that even the most utopian mass digitization projects create and reinforce. 

This reminder that our digital world is fundamentally political is not new, but its always a useful reminder in an age where it becomes so easy to use and celebrate the potential of digital tools and data without much critique.

Continuity, Practice, and Theory in Digital Archaeology

This weekend I read Sara Perry and James S. Taylor recently published article “Theorising the Digital: A Call to Action for the Archaeological Community” from Oceans of Data: Proceedings of the 44th Conference on Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology. (Archaeopress 2018). On the Twitters, she asked her followers what they thought of the paper; so I figured that I’d oblige her by writing up my thoughts here on the ole bloggeroo.

First, this paper raises an important question: what is the relationship between the ongoing conversations about digital  technology in archaeology and the rest of the discipline? More significantly, what does the recent outpouring of thoughtful theorizing in digital archaeology offer to the larger development of archaeological theory? At present, it would seem, digital theory – ranging from how archaeologists design and conceptualize data recording schemes to the tricky issue of digital ethics in an era of remote sensing – rarely appear in standard treatments of archaeological theory and even pressing conceptual and ethnical issues central to digital practice fall remain marginal to larger debates.

While I suspect this larger trend is changing (note, for example, Giorgio Buccellati’s A Critique of Archaeological Reason (2016)), I think the point that Perry and Taylor make is still good. The relationship between the discourse in digital archaeology and the larger discipline remains ambiguous. As they note, this, in part, represents a view of digital technology as a set of tools that can be applied to accomplish particular goals within archaeology as any tool in any contexts. This approach regards digital tools as no different from, say, a trowel or grid or, maybe, a Harris Matrix, whose place within archaeology is largely defined by its immediate utility. Of course, most archaeologists do recognize that the tools that they use define the kinds of knowledge that we produce, but the line between very basic tools – like a trowel or a pick – and more complex tools – like an iPad – is relatively ill-defined. As a result, there seems to be a tendency to under theorize tools and field practices, in general. This tendency maps relatively neatly onto the dichotomy between physical work and intellectual work; the former is done by diggers and grounded in embodied and craft knowledge whereas the latter is done by project directors, supervisors, and specialists and grounded in science. This is a false dichotomy, of course, but one that remains only rarely unpacked (although see Edgeworth, Everill, and Ixchel M. Faniel et al.) or critiqued.  This isn’t a very satisfying situation, of course, and certainly one that a growing awareness of the impact of digital practices on archaeology in general could revise.  

I also suspect that the role of digital tools in a theorized archaeology is a question of continuity in archaeological practice. For example, if digital tools represent another version of the modern, industrial tools and practices that arose alongside archaeology (e.g. photography, surveying tools, industrial organization, et c.), then they do not require any particular theorizing outside of the larger critique of archaeology as a modern discipline. On the other hand, if you see digital tools representing a “paradigm shift” or a “rupture” with earlier practices, tools, and methods, then this requires a new set of theoretical presuppositions. Disciplines rarely excel at making this kind of determining in part because they rely so heavily on fundamentally conservative institutional frameworks to produce knowledge that practitioners deem relevant. A greater attention to the contributions of digital practices and technologies to the nature of archaeological knowledge would not involve throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but in an era where “innovation,” “disruption,” and “acceleration” are closely associated with changes to long-standing economic and social relations, there is a well-founded reluctance to recognize transformational change in archaeological practice. In other words, if you see the much ballyhooed changes in technology as something that is leading to greater disparities of wealth, power, and security in the world, then there are real reasons to avoid imagining these same technologies in the same way in our field. I’m not saying that this is good, but I see it as a way to tame the potential of digital practices through the weight of tradition.

This does, of course, push us to consider the place of archaeological practice within an increasingly specialized archaeological discipline. The emergence of specialists in digital archaeology with specialist journals, conferences, and institutions, has served to incubate a dense, practical, and (to my mind) fascinating discourse around technology in the field, the lab, and in publishing. At the same time, this specialization has isolated these conversations from other specializations within the discipline in the same way that specialists in lithic, pollen analysis, or even intensive pedestrian survey methods tend to exist within relatively specialized boundaries that only rarely offer the kind of practical or intellectual permeability that allows these sub-specialities to shape the larger field. The difference, however, for digital archaeology is that digital practices are both ubiquitous within the discipline and also demand new and distinctive sets of skills.

The discipline is already navigating the tensions between familiarity and specialization through the appearance of more and more papers that use sophisticated digital tools in traditional archaeological environments. For example, a recent panel on Cyprus at the ASOR annual meeting included two papers that performed network analysis using a range of new and dynamic digital tools and practices. These papers were not sequestered to a digital panel, but occurred within the broader context of historical and archaeology research on Cyprus. One might hope that over time, digital practitioners and problems will appear more and more regularly at the usual range of meetings that attract topics on theoretical archaeology, ethics, and archaeological practices. It might even be useful to see a decline in the number of specialist journals and meeting dedicated to digital archaeology as archaeologists increasingly roll digital practices into ongoing discussions on methods. Of course, this implies a certain continuity and commensurability between long-standing practices and digital techniques and technologies and that loops me back to the start of this post.

Perry and Taylor’s article is a good read and thought provoking and parts of it strike to the core of what it means to do digital archaeology or to think about technological mediated practices in the field. It asks us to reflect critically on how we locate within the discipline certain specialties, which are, in and of themselves, a consequence of modern disciplinary practices that fragment the whole into smaller parts.   





Punk Archaeology, Slow Archaeology, and the Archaeology of Care: Prepublication Draft

Readers of my blog know that I’ve been struggling with an article that comes from a paper that I delivered at this fall’s European Association of Archaeologists annual meeting. The paper brings together a number of different strands of thinking and the broader concept of transhumanism to speak to the potential implications of a digital archaeology.

For those of you familiar with my work, much of this will seem familiar, but I also hope that I’ve added some nuance to my thinking incorporated the works of Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich, and Gilles Deleuze.  

The paper is also punk rock. It’s rough. The ideas are not fully formed and sometimes it will read like a concept album that was scrapped during production and then released anyway, because no one really gets concept albums anyway. Other times, it’ll read like a dystopia fueled by a teenager’s fascination with Philip K. Dick. The only thing I will stand by, however, is that this article is honest. It represents my thinking at this moment in time with its inconsistencies, feedback, and distortion. 

I’m not sure when, or if, I’ll get back to these topics in such a focused way (if ever), but if you want to know how punk archaeology and slow archaeology turn out … download the paper here.

Accessing the Annual of ASOR

This past month, I was named editor of the Annual of ASOR. It’s a book series organized into annual volumes on various archaeological topics. Historically, it would appear that the Annual began as an outlet for research from the various members of the schools of Oriental research. How it differed from the contemporary Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research is a bit unclear except that the Annual was in its early years more substantial and included longer, more lavishly illustrated articles. These two publications of ASOR represented the technical and professional output of the American Schools in distinction to Biblical Archaeologist (now Near Eastern Archaeology) founded in 1938 and dedicated to more accessible and popular writing about archaeology in the Middle East.

Today, the function and scope of AASOR is a bit less clear. Work on contemporary sites has increasingly appeared in the Archaeological Report Series which began in 1991 or in BASOR which is a modern and well-edited professional journal. As a result, AASOR has become the outlet for legacy projects and edited collections of articles that deal with topics broadly of interest to ASOR members. I find this eclecticism appealing especially in a world of increasingly specialized publications in our field, but I also recognize that this eclecticism might be confusing to scholars who are looking for an outlet for their work. It seems like the 100th anniversary of the AASOR in 2020 might be an opportunity to make the series more visible and to reflect on its history, contributions and potential for the future.

Along similar lines, the eclecticism of AASOR has made it a bit of a challenge to make the series more available in open digital forms. ASOR has been fortunately to benefit from the efforts of Chuck Jones who led the committee on publications for over a decade and worked to release back ASOR content in relatively open, digital forms. 

The first 20-some volumes of AASOR are available for free download various places (with some obviously in the public domain):

The annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research 1919/1920, vol. 1 (jstor, Hathi Trust, Google books).
The annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research 1921/1922, vol 2/3 (jstor)
The annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research 1922/1923, vol. 4 (jstor, Hathi Trust, Archive.org)
The annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research 1923/1924, vol. 5 (Hathi Trust, Archive.org)
The annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research 1924/1925, vol. 6 (Hathi Trust)
The annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research 1925/1926, vol. 7 (Hathi Trust)
The annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research 1926/1927, vol. 8 (Hathi Trust, Archive.org)
The annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research 1927/1928, vol. 9 (Hathi Trust, Archive.org)
The annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research 1927/1928, vol. 10 (Hathi Trust, Archive.org)
The annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research 1929/1930, vol. 11 (Hathi Trust, Archive.org)
The annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research 1930/1931, vol. 12 (Hathi Trust, Archive.org)
The annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research 1931/1932, vol. 13 (Archive.org)
The annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research 1933/1934, vol. 14 (Archive.org)
The annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research 1934/1935, vol. 15 (Hathi Trust, Archive.org)
The annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research 1935/1936, vol. 16 (Hathi Trust, Archive.org)
The annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research 1936/1937, vol. 17 (Hathi Trust, Archive.org)
Explorations in Eastern Palestine, III, vol. 18/19 (Hathi Trust, Archive.org)
Introduction to Hurrian, vol. 20 (Hathi Trust)
The Excavation of Tell Beit Mirsim. Vol. III: The Iron Age 1941 – 1943, vol. 21/22 (Not Available)
The annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research 1943/1944, vol. 23 (Hathi Trust)
The annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research 1944/1945, vol. 24 (Hathi Trust

After volume 24, things get a bit more irregular, with the exception of volume 32/33:

The excavation at Herodian Jericho, 1951, vol. 32/33 (Hathi Trust)

Things get better again, however, after volume 55:

Preliminary excavation reports and other archaeological investigations : Tell Qarqur, Iron I sites in the North-Central highlands of Palestine, vol. 56 (Hathi Trust)
Across the Anatolian plateau : readings in the archaeology of ancient Turkey, vol. 57 (Not Available)
The Near East in the southwest : essays in honor of William G. Dever, vol. 58 (Hathi Trust)
Results of the 2001 Kerak Plateau Early Bronze Age survey AND Two early alphabetic inscriptions from the Wadi el-Ḥôl: new evidence for the origin of the alphabet from the western desert of Egypt, vol. 59 (Hathi Trust)
The archaeology of difference : gender, ethnicity, class and the “other” in antiquity : studies in honor of Eric M. Meyers, vol. 60/61 (Hathi Trust)
The middle Bronze Age IIA cemetery at Gesher : final report, vol. 62 (Hathi Trust
Views from Phlamoudhi, Cyprus, vol. 63 (Hathi Trust)

The three most recent volumes (64, 65, and 68) are only available via Jstor with a subscription. All in all, 27 of the 66 published volumes are available for free download (and a few more can be viewed at Hathi Trust, but not downloaded). This is something that should be easy enough to sort out and it would be outstanding to try to get all 66 volumes of AASOR available for free download by 2020 (or at least those still not generating some income for ASOR).

The existing content available from AASOR offers an intriguing body of data that could, for example, be analyzed for the history of the publication or the discipline, mined for spatial data and plotted on a map, or queried for references and citations. While the earliest volumes have entered the public domain making them available for all sort of remixing and classroom use, the latter volumes are often under a CC By-NC-ND license making them a bit harder to play with. 

(If you notice a mistake in this list, please drop me a line in the comments. I’ll post a list of AASOR volumes and their accessibility to Google Sheets when I tidy up my own spreadsheet.)

I’m also scheming up some ideas for new AASOR volumes, but I’ll share that with the ole blog when they begin to get a bit more focus (and when I have a better sense for whether people will be interested!).

Digital Data, Publishing, and 3D

On my flights to Denver to attend the ASOR meetings, I had a chance to read the latest special issue from the Journal of Field Archaeology titled “Web-based Infrastructure As a Collaborative Framework Across Archaeological Fieldwork, Lab work, and Analysis.” The articles represented a broad sampling of recent trends in digital practice in archaeology from the trowels edge to the final publication. Of particular note was Rachel Opitz’s “Publishing Archaeological Excavations at the Digital Turn” which described the complex thought processes involved in publishing A Mid-Republican House from Gabii, which may well represent a watershed moment in the publication of digital monographs in archaeology. Various other articles consider the role of international web-based archives or publications of data in managing heritage and disseminating information at a regional or global scale and recent work developing the latest generation of 3D imaging tools in archaeological practice. The editorial introduction pulls together these contributions and offers a lightly sketched “state of the field.”

There were four things that leapt out at me from this little collection:

1. Fragmentation. One of the most intriguing things about these articles is that they all generally acknowledge the fragmentation of data, and archaeological knowledge. In some cases these data are fragmented across tables which contain fields that describe archaeological objects or archaeologist’s encounters with them, in other cases data is affixed to digital objects like the triangles that constitute the facets of 3D polygons. The goals of this fragmentation varies in detail, but generally seeks to preserve specificity through granularity. The granular bits of data can be reassembled in various ways to either represent spatial relationships or to allow a reader or researcher to link two pieces of related information either within a dataset or across various datasets. In short, the process of fragmentation is an initial step in simulating the fluidity of information in our minds as we lean on our physical memories to ground our analytical and interpretative processes that draw upon a wide range of observations to draw conclusions and make observations. At the same time, the structures inherent in how the data is encoded offer ways to bring together various points into new combinations that may have not be readily apparent to any single member of the project, moment in time, or perspective.

2. Collaboration. The fragmentation of data is the first step to sharing data. As archaeological information is rendered in more granular ways, it becomes easier to move between users and projects. Part of this process typically involves standardizing complex data sets at the level of individual digital objects. While archaeology has always worked to standardize information through the advocacy of consistent methods to the construction of typologies, the use of standardizing tools (like GPS coordinates or Munsell books), and the ubiquitous rhetoric of best practices. Creating data sets that can be shared across projects, of course, has always been a goal of archaeology because dissemination of archaeological knowledge has always represented one of the key outcomes of archaeological work. Whether through standard practices associated with field reports or the conventions of the catalogue and the map, archaeology has always looked toward certain degrees of standardization to facilitate the communication of their results.  Linked open data standards and various other ways of standardizing data has pushed to the foreground the goals of producing data that can be reused at the same scale (and perhaps in similar ways) as less granular information presented in traditional publication. In other words, we’re talking citations. How do we ensure that data is presented in a way that encourages citation.   

3. International. This is rather mundane observation, but it has fascinated me a good bit: the increasingly international character of archaeological knowledge sharing. Historically, archaeology has had a national (if not nationalistic) cast to it. Even today, archaeological and heritage management is a matter defined by national, regional, or even local boundaries. On the one hand, then, archaeologists have a strong commitment to ideas of provenience, repatriation, and indigenous knowledge. On the other hand, digital practices are increasingly transnational in character as the movement of data, archaeological knowledge, and methods across national boundaries has become a standard practice in archaeological work. Facilitating the movement of information across boundaries, however, has become fraught with the continued power of national interests which is only heightened in the case of digital imaging, for example, which has the potential to produce in digital form artifacts that are as – or even more – real than the originals. The tension, then, between national and global cut through the use of digital tools, the ability to collaborate, the portability of fragments, and the opportunities to undermine both national borders and nationalism in archaeological work while still respecting provenience and local knowledge.

4. Publication. All this work on the digital realm has a direct impact on what we consider archaeological publication. 30 years ago, we might be satisfied if a project produced a preliminary report and a final report (preferably bound and covered in some drab color and published by a respected press). Today, publication is a continuous process that begins with data produced in the survey unit or the trench and continues through to various iterations of the final product. Linking this increasingly diverse and dense web of published results together has become the foundation for a wide range of innovative approaches to disseminating archaeological work. I was particularly interested in the approaches taken to move between highly granular data and more integrative forms of narrative that tend to resist the pressures of fragmentation. As Rachel Opitz pointed out in her useful contribution, it is easier to move from narrative to data than from data to particular points in the narrative. I think this distinction tells us something about how we think as archaeologists and should be useful reminder that fragmentation, collaboration, and globalization in archaeological remains incommensurate with certain traditional practices that remain very close to the core, modern, nature of the discipline.  

An Abstract for 12th IEMA Conference: Critical Archaeology in the Digital Age

I’m behind with everything including finishing my abstract for the 12th annual IEMA Conference at the University of Buffalo. The conference is titled: Critical Archaeology in the Digital Age and from the looks of the preliminary program, it should be fantastic! 

My paper will be an effort to weave together my evolving thoughts on publishing and my interest in how digital approaches to both fieldwork and data dissemination are challenging the fundamental paradigms that shape how archaeology is practiced. Hopefully, some of my stuttering and stammering paper for the European Journal of Archaeology staggers its way into this paper.

Collaborative Digital Publishing in Archaeology: Data, Workflows, and Books in the Age of Logistics

Historically, the culmination of archaeological work was a final report or definitive monograph. In fact, publication has become an ethical imperative for our discipline and major excavations became known as much by their neatly arranged series of publications as monumental remains. For most of the 20th century, the expertise, care, and funds necessary to produce these publications represented a separate phase of knowledge making shaped by its own technical, economic, and practical limits.

In the 21st century, digital practices are transforming both archaeological practices in the field and the concept publication. The fragmentation of archaeological knowledge as digital data produces portable, sharable, remixable, and transformable publications that are less stable and less definitive than their predecessors in print. As a result, while final publications continue to appear, they are joined by published data of various kinds – from GPS and total station coordinates to digitally generated point clouds, photographs and videos, and XRF results. Project are also more invested than ever in creating unique ways to understand, interpret, and engage their site. These collaborations have eroded the conceptual and disciplinary barriers between field work, analysis and publication. It is possible, for example, to publish from the trenchside or survey unit and to create definitive digital publications that are modular and open to revision. The growing permeability between the processes of field work, analysis, and publishing, has both the potential to transform the concept of publication in archaeology (as well as across the humanities) and marks the rise of a new intellectual model for the production of knowledge. If 20th century archaeology followed the linear logic of the assembly line and culminated in the final publication, 21st century archaeology draws on the disperse efficiency sought in the contemporary focus on logistics. Logistics, with its emphasis on streamlining the movement of goods, data, and people, offers a useful, if problematic paradigm, for a discipline increasingly committed to finding new ways to make archaeological knowledge accessible and usable to a broader constituency. 


Two quick notes of congratulations this morning. 

First, to Sharon Carson, Gayatri Devi, and Cigdem Pala for their special issue of North Dakota Quarterly on Transnationalism (volume 84.1/2) being recognized as a notable issue by the 2018 Best American Essays editors. Special recognition goes to Sharon Carson, Shawn Boyd, and Kate Sweney, who shepherded Volume 84.1/2 through production.  You can read excerpts from the volume here and I’ll do what I can over the next few weeks to make the entire volume available.


Second, to Shawn Graham and his team for their ODATE project which received the 2019 award for Excellence in Digital Archaeology from the Archaeological Institute of America. I know that the ODATE digital archaeology textbook is still in beta, but here’s a link to it.

Shawn is among the most remarkable practitioners of digital archaeology and I have been privileged to collaborate with him on one of his other great projects, Epoiesen, which we publish an annual print version with The Digital Press

Thoughts on the #DATAM conference

I was blown away by the quality and diversity of conversations at last week’s DATAM conference at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at NYU.

The papers at the conference reminded me of the tremendous range of digital tools at use by my colleagues who study the Ancient world that allowed their students to organize, analyze, map, play, and animate the ancient world.

Five things:

1. Real World Experiences. One of the key aspect of this conference is that the participants and the audience members were willing to share their experiences in using digital tools. Folks at the conference drew from across the digital (and digital humanities) ecosystem and discussed frankly the results of applying these tools in their classes. Sebastian Heath showed how students placed elephants at Ostia, Eric Poehler discussed his use of vertiginous first person videos, Sandra Blakey worked with students to populate a video games with proxenoi and pirates, and Sarah Bond mapped readings of ancient Rome. The frankness of these discussions motivated me to continue to experiment with digital approaches and opened my eyes to new tools.

2. Student Directed Learning. So much of what the conference participants did was not scripted by the instructors but student directed. Instructors presented digital tools, experiences, and goals, but students framed questions, figured how to work with the tools, and presented their results. Marie-Claire Beaulieu and Anthony Bucci encouraged students to ask questions of datasets and create workflows to answer them. Lisl Walsh worked with a class to consider word frequency in Seneca in a statistical way. While there was nothing distinctly digital about student directed learning, it was hard to avoid the feeling that digital tools offered students at least the feeling of greater control over how they created knowledge, and this seems to have been empowering to students.

3. Empathy and Democracy. One of the more compelling observations made is that the use of digital tools in the classroom exposed students to their democratizing potential. Sarah Bond emphasized how digital humanities can affect empathy in participants in these projects and serve as a significant counterweight to narrow and illiberal perspectives on both the past and present. The projects that she developed in her classes used digital technology (as well as analog tools) to contemporary University of Iowa students to an earlier time on they campus were both accessible to anyone with basic digital skills and inspiring. 

4. Politics of the Digital. The final session of the day featured two papers that looked at the politics of digital tools and the digital classroom. These ranged from the kinds of narratives that digital tools (as they currently exist) allow in our classroom to the danger of seeing sources as “data.” I added my usual screed in which I called my class a “late capital and neoliberal disaster.” You can read my paper here.

5. The Goal of the Digital and the Goal of Classics. The most interesting conversation of the day occurred at the end of the conference when we began to unpack the relationship between digital tools, digital practices, and the goals of Classics. Several participants set the role of Classics in a digital world against its unique place in the academy. On the one hand, the lack of a neat connection to a singular method (or even methodology) makes it hard to place Classics within a modern university organized around discipline grounded in particular (if often ill-defined) methods. On the other hand, Classics would appear to be a model for a post-disciplinary (and perhaps post-departmental) university organized around particular problems, periods, or issues. This latter scenario might appear forward looking and appealing to the current climate of university politics, but is also risky for a field like Classics that has historically been risk averse. 

The role of digital tools – in the classroom as well as in the field of Classics – offers ways for Classics to redefine itself as both forward looking, dynamic, and engaged with technological and social changes. At the same time, this move involves certain risks both to how the field sees itself and to how it fits into the modern university. These risks involve change for the field and change will involve new opportunities for students and faculty who position themselves to take advantage of the changing landscape of higher education as well as new dangers for vulnerable individuals who don’t, won’t, or can’t adapt. 

The conversations started at the #Datam conference will linger in my mind for a long time, and I hope they’ll continue as we work to publish a little volume based on the papers at the conference through The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota

Disciplinary Societies and Societies of Control

I know that many readers are probably tired of my flailing at the larger implications of a shift from analog archaeology to digital practices. As you can probably tell, I’m deep into metaphors, models, and analogies at this point without necessarily doing much to understand how digital technology has transform the character of archaeological knowledge or digital practices. Part of me wants to give up and shrug and just let this all go. After all, archaeology, like any modern discipline, always is renewing, changing, and expanding its practical and intellectual toolbox. 

On the other hand, every now and then I got back to a classic text like Gilles Deleuze’s “Postscript on the Societies of Control” (October 59 (1992), 3-7). (Hat tip to my colleague Sheila Liming for pointing me in the direction of this article). 

Deleuze argues that Foucault’s disciplinary societies organized around the image of the panopticon and characteristic of the 19th and early 20th century have given way to societies of control. Foucault’s disciplinary societies enclosed spaces of human interaction (in literal and figurative ways). The assembly line and the factory, for example, represented efforts to enclose the labor of groups of individuals and harness their labor for productive ends. In societies of control, which are characterized by the emergence of the “dividual” which have meaning only in constantly forming and reforming assemblage of data, masses, markets, and, in particular for Deleuze, the flow of capital the accumulates and disperses through banks.

Deleuze’s arguments ring particularly true for archaeology as the authority of the nation-state manifest itself over the course of the 19th and 20th century in part over its control over its archaeological heritage. These rights continue to be asserted through demands for repatriation, control over who can excavate and where, and rules that govern the formal dissemination of archaeological knowledge. Digital practices, however, do not so much as challenge these rights, as make them irrelevant. Ownership of a particular object becomes less significant when a micro-meter accurate scan of an object can produce replicas around the world. Control over excavation and survey within a sovereign territory becomes less valuable as satellite imagery and other increasingly advanced remote sensing techniques allows archaeologists to map and document archaeological remains without even setting foot on the ground. Finally, rules governing the dissemination of archaeological data remain bound – quite literally – to the paper of notebooks, journals, and final publications as opposed to the constant flow of provisional archaeological data that leaks across the internet on a daily basis ready for re-use, adaptation, and redistribution. 

I don’t have all of these ideas integrated into my critique of the digital in archaeological practice, but I feel like, at last, I’m making some progress. Stay tuned.

Analog Monsters in a Digital Age

Over the weekend, I finally finished Elizabeth Freeman’s Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Duke 2010). The book has had a significant impact on my thinking about time in an archaeological context and the potential for an archaeology that is contemporary offering new opportunities for an affective archaeology.

Oddly enough, her work also pushed me to think a bit more about the relationship between digital and analog practice which is a concern at the center of a paper that I gave at the EAAs and have been toiling to prepare for the European Journal of Archaeology

Freeman evokes the work of Mike Goode in her analysis of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Freeman connects the character of Frankenstein’s monster to the differences between analog and affective and the digital and the cold. While this relies on a rather simple binary between the analog and the digital, the affective and the rational, and the fragmented and the smooth, Freeman’s analysis was thought provoking.

Here are my notes: 

Frankenstein’s monster as an analog creation where the constituent parts from which it was created remained visible the same way that the grooves on a record audibly and physically remind you of the end of one song and the beginning of the next or the pages in a book. The analog character of the monster as an assemblage is tied to its affective, emotional, passionate, and historical character and behavior. It’s useful to recognize the creature as an archaeological assemblage with pieces recycled from past individuals and brought together as a composite. The creature was seen as a failure by its creator, Victor Frankenstein, who aspired to a digital creature which although created by myriad small parts, effaces them with a seamless, “smoother” reality that is rational and ultimately devoid of the very passions that make us human.

Archaeologists, of course, continue to work in Victor Frankenstein’s tradition of modern practice which is  to create a smooth digital reality that caught in the tension between being indistinguishable from our experience of time and paradoxically, being inauthentic as a way of recording, understanding, and ultimately re-experiencing the past. In fact, we can argue, following Freeman, that modernity sought to create a past that eliminated the abrupt and affective character of its pastness produced through awkward and profoundly human juxtapositions present in its assemblage. In its place, we seek to create a smooth and seamlessness experience that either invoked the present or, at very least, a kind of utopian reality that they seek for the future. The assembly line is one approach to smoothing our disjointed encounter with the past, but as the assemblage of data that we produce from archaeological field work becomes more diverse, digital, and dynamic (in a post-industrial and post modern world) the pressure on modern ways of eliminating the jarring disjunctions and seams becomes more intense.

Logistics also offers a Taylorist model for integrating the fragmented world of the digital without returning to the affective and analogue experience of Frankenstein’s creation. The cost of this appeal to logistics, though, is a loss of the analogue texture and the striping of the the affective, emotional, bodily experience of archaeology that appears monstrous to the modern discipline.

Frankenstein’s monster offers another way to think about the same basic question that I’ve been obsessed with in recent years: can we become digital without striping away the analogue character of archaeology with its seams, noise, and textures that remind us of both the imperfect character of the past and the the present? Can an archaeology that embraces the transhuman cyborg remain liberated even as our approach to the past becomes increasingly mediated by digital tools that Ellul and Illich see as striving to repressing the reality of human experience and forcing us, as Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein himself realized, to kill the monster because we fail to recognize that the imperfections in the assemblage itself are not less perfect forms of reality, but the fabric of the real itself.

The goal of my EJA article, then, is not to militate against the digital, qua the digital, but to urge our discipline to reflect on the potential of the punk and the slow to create an assemblage that more represents the deeply sympathetic cyborg that was Frankenstein’s monster, than the seamless efficient work of the fragmented digital.