Working Group in Digital and New Media Annual Report

People who read this blog know that I have a super abundance of ideas. In fact, I have a category for ideas (it’s my idea box).

My idea for offering massive open online courses here at the University of North Dakota did not come to pass.

My scheme for a “teaching sabbatical” where faculty are released from other responsibilities to just focus on teaching vanished into the ether.

My plan for block-by-block local history may be stillborn. There is no new media portal for archaeologists (yet).

Archaeology of North Dakota man-camps is simmering (and the grant writing is underway), so it still has some life to it.

Sometimes, everyone once-in-a-while, an idea that I helped to cultivate does come to fruition.  This past week saw the publication of our Working Group in Digital and New Media 2011 Annual Report. The report documents the project undertaken by a group of faculty here at UND in conjunction with the Working Group in Digital and New Media. This is the second fully functioning year of the Working Group’s existence. The Working Group received an initial infusion of cash based on a White Paper submitted to the University President in response to a call for new collaborative ideas on campus. Since that time, the Working Group has receive no additional funding from the University, but has continued to provide space for and to foster innovation and collaboration in the digital realm.  So check out the report below. I prepared the text (based on small reports from the various contributing faculty) and Joel Jonientz prepared the design:

For the 2010 annual report go here.

Some Comments on Writing History in the Digital Age

I’ve really enjoyed cruising through the Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki open peer-review volume called Writing History in the Digital Age which is slated to be published by University of Michigan Press’s new Digital Humanities Series in their digitalculturebooks imprint.  I commented on many of the contributions and mined them all for references and ideas.  I’d encourage anyone interested or invested in the future of history in the digital age to check out the volume and to contribute to its open peer review.  Since I have read all the articles in the volume and have been thinking a bit about history in the digital era myself lately, I thought I might offer some overarching comments on the volume (as is my wont).

1. Coherence. One of the first things I noticed about the book is the wide range of contributions. These range from two recent Ph.D.s discussing how they used email to keep themselves motivated and sane while writing their dissertations to discussions on databases, GIS, visualization, and even non-linear digital editing.  Articles on the use of Wikipedia and Social media in the classroom stand alongside more theoretical or research oriented papers.  While such scope is commendable (and must reflect the “big tent” approach to digital humanities, in general), it caused me to wonder about the limits of a specific sub-field called “digital history”  and how we plan to organize and reflect on the intersection of digital tools and history as the discipline becomes invested in digital technologies. For example, there were no articles celebrating the contribution of the so-called “personal computer” or “word processor” in the volume. These basic technologies clearly fell outside of what the authors and editors regarded as the discourse of digital history (although one can argue that these technologies had as big an impact on our field as Wikipedia or Facebook).

Edited volumes always have ragged edges where the definitions and ideas of the contributors fail to line up precisely across the entire book or clash with those of the editors. This is part of the charm of the edited volume; it captures a snapshot of a particular topic in the minds of a group of scholars (as opposed to the carefully composed portrait that is a monograph). At the same time, recent discussions on the definition of the digital humanities might feature more prominently in a volume like this. Is there really enough theoretical, methodological, and topical coherence between all the papers here to justify their appearance in the same book?

2. Institutions. One of the more interesting aspect of the volume was the subtle but (almost) ubiquitous mention of institutional support for the various initiative detailed. In some cases, the support came from powerful national organizations like National Endowment for the Humanities. In other cases, on campus labs or centers like Arts eResearch at the University of Sydney or MATRIX at Michigan State, provided the infrastructure necessary for a project’s development. Some initiatives were far more modest in scope and extended only slightly beyond the classroom’s walls or an immediate community. Few of the articles in this volume, however, problematized their work in terms of a formal research question framed in response to a pre-existing body of scholarship. (Few began with the ubiquitous phrases: “Scholars have argued…”)

It appears, then, that the impetus for working in digital history derives as much from institutional pressures (and opportunities) as traditional appeals to the scholarly conversation.  While this is hardly surprising for a recent development in the discipline, it may foreshadow an interesting shift in the structure of humanities scholarship. The pressure to collaborate and innovate is pushing scholars in the humanities away from well-trod arguments and to the brink of a kind of rupture in the discourse (in a Foucauldian sense). The external pressure and resources deployed by on campus and national institutions have insisted that historians (and other scholars in the humanities) shift their arguments from the small-picture debates that have long shaped these disciplines, to big picture, transdisciplinary, collaborative thinking. This is manifest in (some, but not all of) the scholarship that these projects produced: Writing History in the Digital Age recognizes a different audience and a different set of discursive rules than writing traditional history.

3. Methods and Techniques. Traditional historical practice has been short on method. The so-called historical method is, in fact, a set of practices cobbled together from various other fields and epistemological systems. With the rise in digital history, however, a new interest in methods and practices has come to the fore and a number of the articles in Writing History in the Digital Age reflect this development. Digital historians are more willing to experiment with methods grounded in geography, the social sciences, media studies, and, even, computer programing and game studies.

At the same time, this methodological growth requires critical attention to new techniques. Archaeology for example, has developed a robust methodological discourse over the past 40 years as the disciple embraced a “methodological turn” that sought to critically examine the tools, practices, and assumptions that shaped archaeological knowledge. The essays in this volume, in contrast, showed very little in the way of genuine methodology.  Of course, some of the essays with a pedagogical bent, showed an awareness of and willingness to contribute to recent pedagogical developments, but few of the more research oriented pieces considered explicitly and critically the methodological assumptions of their use of digital tools.

The absence of methodology extends to some extent to the techniques (for lack of a better word) used to generate the kind of digital analysis that their contributions celebrate. While software, programing and markup languages, and hardware appeared regularly in the pages, we were rarely invited to look behind the curtain to see how these aspects of digital history influenced the ways in which history could be written. (The notable exceptions to this were the several essays that discussed Wikipedia, but even these essays focused on the social, rather than technological aspects of this forum. For example, several of the essays mention the automated “bots” that crawl Wikipedia and can change entries systematically, but few essays explain how these bots work and why historian-trained bots couldn’t do the same things.) My feeling is that the next step in the study of digital history will involve a much more critical approach to the methods and tools used by digital historians to produce new knowledge.

4. The Future. One of the most significant gaps in this small book were essays with an eye toward the future. Writing the future is always a risky game, especially for historians who are so accustomed to “looking backward“.   At the same time, part of the writing digital history game is positioning history in a place not only to take advantage of digital tools created by other people, but also to shape how new technologies develop. I would have loved to hear how folks invested in digital history, as the contributors to this book clearly are, see the future of technology impacting our work as historians.

Developments like the massive growth of computing power available to mobile devices, enhanced and augmented reality, MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses), an endless stream of cloud services, the chaining notion of curation and the personal web, and the rapid mutation of social media communities, all offer new venues for presenting history, but also new spaces and tools for the analysis and interpretation of past events.

Writing History in the Digital Age represents a moment in time in the discipline’s embrace of digital tools.  At once it is possible to see ragged edge of the profession’s handling of digital media to communicate and interpret the past, as well as its growing confidence in embracing (if not fully engaging) new technologies.

A Cool, Busy Week

This is the time of the semester when my calendar fills up with events, meetings, and activities. In some years, this has been a relentless drag from meeting to meeting. This year, however, there are some really cool things going on. So, here’s a inducement to check out the activities this week.

First, the Department of Art and Design (and others!) are hosting their Arts and Culture Conference on campus. The theme is: Politics and the Graphic Image.

The headliners of this conference are the members of the WW3 collective. The group, founded by Peter Kuper and Sethe Tobocman, has produced a politically charged comic World War 3 Illustrated since 1978.  The conference includes discussions with these two artists as well as fellow contributor Sabrina Jones. They have gallery shows at both the Hughes Fine Arts center and at the Third Street Gallery (downtown). The WW3 folks will talk about their work in a round table format Tuesday at 3 in the Ballroom of the Union!

WW3Arts Culture2011

Tuesday, October 25
Seth Tobocman – Artist’s Lecture
9:30am, Hughes Fine Arts Center Room 227

Sabrina Jones – Artist’s Lecture
12:30pm, Gillette Hall Room 303

WW3 Panel featuring Peter Kuper, Seth Tobocman and Sabrina Jones
3:00pm, UND Memorial Union, River Valley Room

Wednesday, October 26
Peter Kuper – Artist Lecture
11:30am – Hughes Fine Arts Center Room 227

2002 Pulitzer Prize Winning Cartoonist Clay Bennet In Conversation,
3:00pm, Hughes Fine Arts Center
Josephine Campbell Recital Hall

This Wednesday at noon, the Working Group in Digital and New will host working group member, Mike Wittgraf, who will talk about Music and Computer/Human Interaction: Interface and Improvisation in the Working Group lab. Mike is an international master of computer mediated music of all kinds. He’s going to present some of his work on our fabulous sound system and talk about the technology and theory behind the next wave of music and computer/human interaction.

Be sure to check out the Music Department’s trumpet recital on Thursday night where Mike will premier his work Gold Digger (for four trumpets and a computer).

Wittgraf Lecture Oct2011


Teaching Tuesday: Digital History and The Fritz at 50

The Fritz at 50 digital history project has gone live.  The Fritz, of course, is the Chester Fritz Library on the beautiful University of North Dakota’s campus and the 50 is the library’s 50th anniversary. For more (and you know that you want more), you should rush over and check out our website.

A link to our website is also featured on the fantastic Fritz at 50 posters produced by my colleague in the Working Group in Digital and New Media’s Joel Jonietz.  Just follow the handy QR code.

Fritz50 4 final

As I have noted in previous posts, the effort to digitize various objects related to the history of the library has been an interesting challenge. The student team that is doing this is pretty eager and dedicated, but it’s clear that they are struggling to wrap their head around the creation of a digital collection. Some of the struggle comes from having to adapt their workflow around unfamiliar tools and processes – camera stands, scanners, digital recorders, and the like.  Yesterday, for example, they interviewed the Director of Libraries and dutifully placed the small Olympus digital recorder on his desk, but neglected to hit the record button.  Fortunately, they also captured the interview on a small video camera.

The occasional difficulties associated with collecting digital objects, however, has made it difficult, right now, for the students to analyze the digital objects and place them within a larger narrative. The hope is that they begin to interweave the narrative of creating the collection with the narrative history of the library on campus. So far, we’ve started this discussion on our blog, but it hasn’t gone very far yet.

The core of the digital collection lives in an Omeka archive. Again, I think we’re on the downward slope of the learning curve here and the content of the archive continues to expand and improve. As the students begin to analyze and think historically about the objects they have produced, the Omeka archive should allow a reader to “drill down” into the underlying evidence and metadata. (Check out this recent blog post on using Omeka to teach history from Teaching History.)

Five Easy Tools to Digitize Your Workflow

On Friday, I’m joining a colleague, Tim Pasch, to give a short talk to help graduate students and advanced undergraduates in the humanities to digitize their research work flow. The talk is at 12 at the Digital and New Media Lab (O’Kelly 207).

Our goals will be to (1) encourage students to understand that incorporating digital tools into their research is not some kind of new hassle, but actually part of being a careful and systematic researcher. We also (2) hope to show the students that they don’t necessarily have to do learn new and complicated skills to digitize their workflow, but that there might be simple and better ways to do what they already do. Finally, (3) we want to introduce students to the idea that digital tools can help them make their work more transparent to the public and this can often facilitate the move from disorganized fragments of ideas to completed thoughts.

I’m going to introduce 5 simple tools that I feel can complement almost any workflow and can help us do what we do better.

1. NValt (or Notational Velocity) for note taking (in plain text!). I write almost exclusively in plain text these days and only work in a full blown word processors when I have to add citations, format for publication, or use track changes in a collaborative environment.  There are a ton of slick little, light weight text editor applications that are just too good not to use and use often (Omwriter is another favorite). As long as they save in plain text format, the documents can be read in any word processor and take up almost no disk space making them super portable. More importantly, many of these programs have features like full screen views designed to make writing more pleasurable and to cut out a bunch of the distractions that make using a full blown word processor such a chore.

2. Zotero for citation management. Most of us collect citations almost continuously, so it is important to have software that allows you organize and retrieve these citations. For the past 5 years, I’ve been absolutely dependent on Zotero to manage my academic citations. Developed by the Center for History and the New Media at George Mason University Zotero is free and was developed with the needs of researchers in the humanities in mind. Originally Zotero was a Firefox add on, but recent versions of it – including Zotero 3.0 Standalone – has made it compatible with the Chrome browser and Word for both PC and Windows. It is easily sync-ed across multiple computers, multiple platforms, and on the web, so you’re never far from your bibliography.

3. Evernote for various notes, images, documents, webpages, and other varia. As more and more of us get smartphones, applications are being developed to make them part of our research workflow. Evernote is perhaps the best of a group of applications for organizing notes, images, documents, and webpages both across computers and between your computer and your smart phone. With Evernote, I now use my smart phone for research all the time. I click an image of a page of a book, article, or document and upload it to Evernote where Evernote use OCR (optical character recognition) to make it searchable. I’ve recently started using Evernote to take voice memos and even to associate them with a particular document when I’m walking home (directly from my phone). I also use Evernote to clip whole webpages, organize them into folders, and look at them when I get a chance. With the various Evernote plug-ins available, it is possible to clip an entire webpage right from your browser with one click. Once the page is clipped, Evernote has a great search engine that makes it easy to find the page without having to venture out once again into the wilds of the web. It’s a nice piece of software.

4. Blogging and Mars Edit / Windows Live Writer. I want to encourage graduate students to include a public, digital component in their workflow. I love the recent emphasis in the UK on graduate students blogging as they work on their thesis. It makes their research public, helps them to develop their online presence (which is really important when they go on the job market), and helps them learn to write every day (or at least regularly). Two pieces of software MarsEdit for Mac and Windows Live Writer (for PC) make it easy to blog offline and to upload content to a blog. The interfaces are like a standard word processor and it makes it even easier to blog.

5. Embrace the Cloud. Most of us already rely on the cloud for email and maybe for our music files, but it has also becoming a simple way to sync documents between computers and to share files. Everyone (perhaps in the world) with a computer should have a Dropbox account. This application creates a folder on your computer that automatically syncs with the cloud making it available wherever you have an internet connection. While I wouldn’t put your credit card numbers in it, it is secure enough for everyday research documents.  Google Docs is a cloud based word processor that is getting better with every passing month. It’s a great platform for writing  and for collaborating.  And like any cloud based application, the documents that you produce or upload to Google docs are available anywhere you have a computer and an internet connection.


Workshops, Conferences, and Lectures

The next few weeks will be busy ones here at the University of the Northern Plains.

On Friday and Saturday, the University of North Dakota will host the International Anchoritic Society Conference at the Memorial Union on campus.  I’ll be giving a paper at 10:45 in the Badlands room titled “Liminal Time and Liminal Space in the Middle Byzantine Hagiography of Greece and the Aegean“. The title is rather more ambitious than the paper!


Next Friday, September 23rd, at noon in the Working Group in Digital and New Media Lab inimitable Tim Pasch and I are teaming up to produce a short workshop on Digitizing Your Workflow. (I really wanted to call it Digitizing Yo Workflo, but people might not get it.)  The workshop will be particularly geared toward graduate students in the humanities and social sciences and introduce some useful digital tools that will help them streamline their workflow.

Digitize Your Workflow Sept 2011

Finally, on September 28th, I’m giving a lecture in the OLLI lecture series here on campus that will provide an overview of the island of Cyprus and my work there. Unfortunately, as far as I understand it, this lecture will not be open to the public, which is a bit of a bummer, but maybe there will be a way to stream it live or record it.


Teaching Tuesday: Digital Natives, Digital History, and the Public

This semester I am once again running a digital history practicum. The goal of these practica is to introduce graduate students to the digital tools available to produce a digital history “exhibition”. The students who take this course mostly have a strong interest in public history and the exhibits we create tend to represent the public side of the historians’ craft. In 2009, we curated a photography exhibit called Topos/Chora which brought together Ryan Stander’s photographs of our work at the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project with a series of essays. In 2010, we created a online collection of early M.A. theses at the University of North Dakota, many of which contributed to the earliest professional history of the state.  This year, we’re preparing an online collection to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Chester Fritz Library at the University of North Dakota.

The group of students working on this project include from three Ph.D. students (of various ages and digital literacies from a retired chief petty officer in the US Navy to a student who came directly through our program from undergraduate), a M.A. student, and a senior History major.  In terms of attitude and creativity, this group is a dream team. Moreover, many of them have had course work and real world experience in public history. In terms of experience with even the most basic digital tools, however, these students are far from digital natives. So, we’ve walked relatively slowly through the process of creating a Twitter feed, creating and uploading images to a Flickr account, and the technical aspects of the blogging and creating a collection in Omeka.

The most striking thing about this group, however, is that they have no sense of the pace of the digital world. In short, the students are not digital natives. While technical aspects have required some basic remediation, the students have struggled (at least so far) to recognize how quickly the digital world can move. The pace of content production in the digital world is not quite the same as the pace of production of in the world of paper, interlibrary loans, archives, and polished editing. Blog posts, Twitter feeds, and transmedia spaces like Omeka allow the creation of history in “perpetual beta“.


The Chester Fritz Library (photo: Tim Pasch)

The idea of public history in a digital context goes from history created for a pubic audience or with a public patron or a public goal, to history as a process made public. The editing, compiling, writing, thinking of historians laid bare before the public eye and, in the best situations, opened to public participation (the idea of public remixing or even public creation of historical narratives as well as content).

So with our project in very early beta, here are the component parts:

The Fritz at 50 Blog.

The Fritz at 50 Twitter Feed.

The Fritz at 50 on Flickr.

The Fritz at 50 on Omeka.

We’ll have them together in one place soon, but in the meantime, follow us on Twitter and check out our blog and watch our digital immigrants construct a public history (in public) of one of the most important institutions on any campus the Library.

Hacking the Academy

This past week University of Michigan’s Digital Culture Book imprint published the edited version of the Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt project Hacking the Academy.  For anyone interested in the fertile intersection of digital culture and university life, the book is a must-read. Moreover, its unique format and production process represents one of the best examples of an emerging model of academic writing. The content for the book prepared from contributions via blogs, twitter, email and other digital media in a single week. (Longshot magazine has followed a similar model to produce a complete magazine in 48 hours.)

So as per my usual practice, I won’t indulge in a full review but offer three largely unrelated comments:

1. As cool as the concept of aggregating a book over one week is, I struggle in some ways to understand why it is important for academic publishing and writing to engage in such an experiment. Cohen and Scheinfeldt suggest that having a single week to compose on a particular topic served “to better focus [contributors] attention and energy.” I suppose this is a valid point. And I do know colleagues who continue to hold to undergraduate mantra of “working better under pressure”.

On the other hand, it seems like academia remains a bastion of the “slow food” type of writing. Unlike journalism or the even more rapid world of the blogosphere, the research, writing, and publication of academic writing tends to be a reflective and deliberate process. It’s not that I don’t think academia can benefit from the kind of instant gratification produced by such scholarly “fast food” (after all, I do blog!), but I do wonder whether this model of production should culminate in a print publication.

In fact, most of the posts in this short book are thought-provoking, but light on references, hard evidence, and “next level” thinking. In other words, the book captures the kind of early stage thinking found in the academic blogosphere. Making research projects visible at an early stage is useful for innumerable reasons (it brands an idea, it makes it possible to get critique early in a project’s life, the act of articulating an idea many times helps to refine it, et c.), but the difference between the initial articulation of ideas and the “final” product remains a distinct character of scholarly writing.

If I were envisioning a project like Hacking the Academy, I might have asked the authors whose contributions were accepted to envelope their initial contribution in a more formal reflective essay that both takes into account the original context of the contribution, and also places it in a more refined context.

2. The essays offer well-worn, but still exciting ideas about using technology to change the way that the academic culture does things. The contributors attacks on traditional forms of scholarly publication (particularly the profit driven practices associated with some academic journals) were effective and well-reasoned.  As they expanded their critique to academic culture more broadly, however, a certain kind of naiveté seemed to creep into their writing.

The contributors seemed reluctant to engage the elephant on campus: TRUTH.  Many of my colleagues are reluctant to engage with the process driven and transparent practices of digital scholarship because they see anything short of peer-reviewed, formal, academic publications as being short on access to TRUTH.  The contributors to Hacking the Academy attempt to make clear that the origins of academic publication in a world where print was an expensive and exclusive commodity created certain procedures like peer review designed to ensure the quality of material committed to print. Today, however, the peer review process for many of my colleagues represents the line between the proliferation of half-baked, ill-informed, unTRUE ideas and the glistening utopia of TRUE knowledge. Despite the powerful influence of the postmodern critique, attitudes that see the traditional scholarly process as the imprimatur of true knowledge continue to carry sway in the academy. So attacks on traditional scholarly publishing as profit-driven, slow, exclusive, and bastions of secret agendas and vested interests, overlook the most common rhetorical position occupied by its supporters. The contributors to Hacking the Academy might not buy this argument, but they still need to find a response to it.

3. While I remain largely sympathetic to the contributors to this volume, I was also disappointed not to see more considerations of the limits of digital tools to reform the academy. After all, scholars who insisted on double-blind peer review and the stodgy ways associated with traditional academic publishing, did so as part of a democratizing process that was remarkably similar to that advocated by today’s digital scholars. There are, of course, issues confronting the “digital-turn”. Preservation, archiving, and curation of digital objects remains problematic.  It remains unclear whether the coming digital information utopia will be fully realized on a global scale. The skills necessary to navigate the flood of data, applications, and tools remain daunting even to scholars who keep their fingers on the digital pulse. Finally, the tools necessary to generate and distribute digital collections remain exclusive and – as anyone who has taught a digital history course knows – expensive. While electrons are free, the tools needed to organize them into useful patterns remain dear.


These critiques, however, should not take away from the through-provoking character of this book. The contributions are short, pithy, and a fun to read. The contributors found interesting and effective ways to include comments generated via Twitter or email. And the book will likely stand as a testimony to a moment in time in the academy’s confrontation with our digital future.

Archaeology as Remix

This past week, I romped through Mark Amerika’s newest book Remixthebook (Minneapolis 2011). As with his previous non-fiction-ish offerings, this book defied categorizing and description. I was mostly a meditation on his creative process taking as a point of departure his creative work as a performance VJ, as an author, and as a critic. He focused primarily on the links between creativity and the work of remixing our lived worlds. His argument, laced through a complex, poetic text, is that to be alive, creative, and conscious is to exist in a constant flow of spontaneous, post-production remixing. As his definition of creativity expands and his understanding of remixing grows more ragged, the lived, creative, and performative become a blur and increasingly stand in for reality.

As archaeologists, we are in a constant state of remixing. Even the most basic archaeological arguments require us to move between times (the present and the past, relative and absolute dates, stratigraphy and periodization), move between media (ceramics, architecture, lithics, texts, digital data, images, maps, plans), move between voices (the art historian, the historian, the scientist, the critic, and the skeptic), and move between genres (narrative, analysis, catalogue, data). Our work flow is punctuated by the constant shifting between software, media (of different shapes, sizes, genre, forms), and our own creative output.  Archaeological work is a process of constantly performing and remixing bits (both in the traditional sense and increasingly the digital sense) into new objects that present themselves for remixing.

1. This next week, Amy Papalexandrou has asked me to help her produce a 20 page synthetic, interpretative text for an exhibit catalog for an upcoming exhibit at the Princeton Art Museum -City of Gold: The Archaeology of Polis Chrysochous, Cyprus. Our short paper will look at the Late Antique to Medieval city and remix over 30 years of archaeological work, the physical objects present at Princeton, and our most recent research at the site (which is itself the remixing of finds, notebooks, architecture, past-texts, and archaeological method to perform new arguments and new syntheses). In our somewhat-harried correspondence, we took as points of departure an inscription, a short-video I narrated on site, and our most recent research. It goes without saying that the previous scholarship on the site forms a persistent backing track for our remix.

More importantly, we are writing a text that is designed for an informed and interest public, rather than a professional group of scholars, students, or researchers. So while our source material will – more or less – be the same as any other production of our site, our audience will be a bit different. The remix has context and responds to its environment.

2. I’ve been working with a small group of students to produce a public, digital history exhibit on the 50th Anniversary of the Chester Fritz Library (which is the main library on campus here). The students are busy pulling together photographs, texts, documents, and other objects from the university archives. They are also working on how to integrate these objects across a range of digital media – a blog, a Twitter feed, an page, and a Flickr account – and to narrate using these objects across these various spaces.  While the source base for our remix is not so different from that confronting any scholar looking to produce historical analysis, the output of our work is quite different. We are intentionally distributing our remix across multiple media and thinking actively how our remixes (as a team and as individuals) will be unique to our audience.

In the context of our work with the library, we’re following Amerika’s lead by using the context of remix to join the work of the “authors” with the work of the audience.  By preserving (re-producing?) some of the fragmented state of the original media (individual texts, documents, objects), we attempt to entice people to remix our material in new ways. We’ve performed the initial act of selection and become partners in the conversation.

3. In an effort to think more radically about the notion of remixing, I’ve begun a conversation with Tim Pasch – a computer guru type in Communications at the University of North Dakota. We both have an interest in sound and he records his own, highly-textured digital music. In the course of these conversations, he mentioned software that could translate digital images to sounds. This makes sense, of course, a digital image is a just a gaggle of digital data that could be read by any interface to produce output.  The data behind a digital image could be rendered as text, images, sound or almost any medium imaginable via suitable software.

As we chatted about this, I offered to send him raster images from my project in Cyprus and invited him to use images which show the distribution of pottery, the survey grid, or topography and to render them as sounds. We’ve even discusses the potential for capturing sonic landscapes using both microphones, but more radically – capturing images with an explicit eye toward transforming them into sounds. Remixing the landscape would, then, extend beyond simply filtering digital data collected from the landscape and incorporate using the software filters as a lens for primary data collection.

Methods, Questions, and Digital Archaeology

Amidst the beginning of the semester din, I did capture enough time to settled in and read a new book: E. Kansa, S. Witcher Kansa, and Ethan Watrall eds., Archaeology 2.0: New Approaches to Communication and Collaboration. (Cotsen Institute of Archaeology (UCLA) 2011).  The book is a product of a session at the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) in 2008 and is the first volume in the new Cotsen Digital Archaeology Series. It is published with a Creative Common BY-SA license (By Attribution, Share Alike).  The volume is available for free here.


This book may well become a landmark volume in the history of archaeology and the bundle of technologies that we associated with Web 2.0.  The volume spans a range of topics from core infrastructure, to technical and theoretical concerns, collaborative research environments, and realistic perspectives on sustainability.  Each of the topics considers the significance of Web 2.0 technologies in advancing the way in which archaeologists organize, produce, and share data on the web.  The credentials of the participants in this volume speak for themselves and their body of technical work is cutting edge.  More than taking a leap into the future, the book captures a precise moment in the history of the discipline’s long-term engagement with technology.

The greatest strength of this book is that it is steeped in the practical realities of archaeological data sharing.  For the contributors, data sharing is not merely the exchange of raw data (databases, spreadsheets, GIS and CAD arrays, or whatever), but the full range of conversations that Web 2.0 (variously defined) technologies has made possible. User-generated archaeological information has changed the way that archaeologists conduct research.

At the same time, the contributors to this volume remained profoundly realistic. No one imagined a situation where all data is stored in some great archive but rather in a distributed way across numerous different archives on the web.  The different organization of data, the limited ability to centralize resources, and the institutional structure of the discipline present significant obstacles to any single method imagined to accommodate the mass of pre-existing and born-digital archaeological data.  In the place of the fantasy of a single repository, comes more sophisticated ways to syndicate, integrate, and query (and search) for archaeological data across the web like those provided by the Alexandria Archive’s Open Context and Michigan State’s iAKS.

The web has radically changed concepts of visibility, collaboration, and scholarly performance so it is now possible to consider projects like the online UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology to be equal (if not superior) to traditional print publications. Blog, social media, and other collaborative spaces have become important avenues for certain types of archaeological conversations. (It was flattering to see my blog mentioned in Sarah Witcher Kansa’s and Francie Deblauwe’s article on middle space in scholarly communication in zooarchaeology (it would have been even cooler had they spelled my name right!)).

While much of the book went over well-trod ground among those who follow trends in the digital humanities, the scope, accessibility, and intensely reasonable perspectives offered by the authors made the book particularly compelling. There was little in the way of naive sensationalism or even the utopian tech-evangelism that is sometimes found in these kinds of volumes. The limits of funding, issues of sustainability, and the need to protect certain kinds of sensitive data appear as serious considerations without simple answers. While this is a reality among scholars discussing digital archaeology and history, it rarely seems to be so fully articulated and recognized in the texts that these scholars produce imagining the digital futures of our disciplines.

The greatest limitation of this text comes not from the technological side, but rather from the intellectual or academic side.  An issue that I have raised on my blog before stems from reflecting on the interpretative agendas advanced by many Mediterranean archaeologists.  While the idea exists that it could be possible to collect data from numerous projects, across a vast area, and crunch it into a broad reaching, novel synthetic perspective, I think that it remains an open question whether there is a substantial scholarly interest in this kind of research. Vast, quantitative studies of even single regions – from single data sets – remain relatively rare in our field. And, there are significant questions whether the quality of data produced even in the most carefully monitored projects reach a sufficient standard to allow for complex generalizations across regions.

Moreover, more qualitative analysis – which does not rely necessarily upon the raw data of excavation or survey, but on published objects – is becoming better served by the greater accessibility and visibility of standard print publications via various journal databases and projects like Google books.  (And it is worth noting that standard issues like naming of various vessel types, places, or even contexts (across multiple languages) are not any more easily resolved in databases than in more traditional publications).

In my world, most academic archaeologists design their field research to collect data that answers a particular question. Their research question, then, absorbs their energy, structures their data, and shapes their interpretative and publication strategies. In fact, the absence of useful data is often the reality that prompts fieldwork. At the same time, the inadequacy of other projects’ data is the conceit that makes one’s own data stand apart. This is not to say that comparative analysis does not occur between projects or that we don’t search for comparative “type-fossils”, but rather that this work tends never to be a major research priority. In fact, in Mediterranean archaeology tends to approach comparative analysis from the attitude that “our data” is unique and meaningful in and of itself, and other data “merely” provides it with context. (I do understand that this is not the same process for professional archaeologists or CRM types. There is obvious and tremendous value to the various digital projects described in the volume that sought to open up the vast body of “grey literature” to a wider professional audience.)

The issues facing large scale data distribution schemes isn’t, then, a technological one, but rather a more profoundly methodological one. Archaeologists simply are not asking the kinds of questions (yet) that queries across vast swaths of intensively produced data would support. So, the lack of support for the massive data repositories, comes as much from the intellectual limitations of our discipline as from institutional, professional, or technological concerns.

This being said, I do recognize that changes in technology does shift the conceptual footing of the discipline, but the nature of archaeology as a craft (as opposed to a more rigorously standardized science or profession) remains a major limitation to how scholars think about data.