Slow and Ethnoarchaeology

Somehow I missed this recent article on ethnoarchaeology as slow science in World Archaeology. Jerimy J. Cunningham and Scott MacEachern argue that the ethnoarchaeology offers a counterweight to fast science driven by big data. This contributes to some of my recent ideas on slow archaeology.

The clever argument that Cunningham and MacEachern make is that ethnoarchaeology can work to create a space for archaeological thinking outside of dominant narrative of modernity (as well as capitalism). For most working archaeologists, this includes our desire to fragment knowledge, promote efficiency, and develop typologies. The rise of big data – and data-driven archaeology – fits well within this trajectory as it promotes streamlined acquisition of bits of information and the granularity and fluidity to support its large scale aggregation. I am not necessarily suggesting that big data and data-driven archaeology is bad, but that it does fit within a particular disciplinary, social, economic, and even political discourse. As the authors contend, big data is often part of a larger direction in archaeology that promotes large-scale projects, resource intensive computing and analytical practices, costly archiving protocols, and exacerbates the divide between a small number of highly-resourced projects who work to set global standards and a large number of poorly provisioned projects that either conform or exist at the margins of the discipline. To my mind, this reflects the intersection of contemporary, institutional archaeology, as well as long-standing historical practices dating from the origins of the discipline. 

I have argued for a “slow archaeology” as a way to critique this trajectory and to promote a sense of disciplinary self awareness (and I’ve been fortunate for some of my ideas to be advanced and developed by others who are far smarter than I am!). Cunningham and MacEachern align themselves with the slow science movement – particular scholars like Lisa Alleva, Olivier Gosselin, and Isabelle Stengers – and argue that the ethnoarchaeology offers a way to escape the modern pressure and trajectory of archaeological practices and processes by studying explicitly the complexity of traditional practices and modern lifeways. This allows us to grasp paths in the modern world that are not as neatly shaped by the pressures of capital, industrial production, and progress, but hold fast to craft practices, for example, as a means to communicate certain values that lack expression or are marginalized in the market.

Returning then to the idea that archaeology traces the trajectory of modernity, ethnoarchaeology offers a space to critique the impact of modern thinking not by denying its impact, but by understanding how it shapes what we do. In this way ethnoarchaeology, slow science, and slow archaeology share a concern even if they deviate in terms of methods.

 

Slow Academia and the Summer

I found Dimitri Nakassis’s recent blog post in response to Mary Beard’s recent column in the TLS pretty interesting, and it seems to have generated a bit of social media buzz as well. Go read it. 

[For those of you who read my blog regularly, you can probably skip this post!]

To summarize Dimitri and Prof. Beard briefly: they let folks know that academics work all summer despite the tendency to see our profession as primarily involved in teaching undergraduates and getting “summers off.” As readers of my blog might suspect, both Prof. Beard and Dimitri are really busy over the summer doing research, prepping classes, and even doing professional service to their disciplines and their universities. For most academics, this is hardly a surprise. We have the luxury of working when we want and sometimes even where we want for part of every year and most of us embrace these times not as an opportunity to turn our back on our professions, but to actually do things that enrich and expand our professional lives. As some of the comments on social media suggest, academics even define leisure activities like vacations or (in my case) bike rides or long walks as professionally productive time. 

I’ll return to these ideas, but first, it’s important to acknowledge the context context for their post. Both Beard and Dimitri work at publicly funded schools and these posts have a real value inasmuch as they remind the public that despite many of us not teaching in the summer, we, in fact, still work. They might have added that technically many of us are not even under contract in the summer months (although I am not sure about Dimitri and Prof. Beard). So those of us who continue to do our jobs – read drafts of theses, do research, respond to emails, revise classes, and the like – are doing so without being paid a salary. At the same time, most American universities do treat tenured and tenure track faculty as employees even when we’re not being paid, providing lab and office space, library access as well as health insurance during the summer months. In other words, American (and I assume most) universities provide their tenured and tenure track faculty with the basic tools to do their jobs even when they’re not drawing a salary. 

That being said, both posts also address one of the most interesting conflicts in the life of academics: the tension between our lives in the industrial world of education and the pre-industrial world of research. Research, especially in the humanities, frequently follows a pre-industrial model and ebbs and flows in fits and starts. We race toward deadlines and, at times, work settles into prolonged lulls. We work on weekends, over the summer, and on holidays, but we might also find ourselves taking weeks off from research as teaching, service, or other obligations take priority. Teaching and service, in contrast, tend to follow an industrial pattern with regimented flow of classes and semesters shaping our work rhythms.

This tension between industrial and pre-industrial work contributes significantly to the confused discourse of work/life balance in academia as I noted in my two part review of the Slow Professor, and I think it also creates some confusion when I discuss slow archaeology and the like. There is a tendency to see pre-industrial work rhythms as less efficient and positioned to benefit from any number timesaving tools designed to streamline workflow from research to publication. There’s also a tendency for industrial expectations to influence preindustrial work rhythms. This isn’t necessarily always bad. For example, the division between work and life is a product of industrial modes of production, and it allows for academic lives fit more easily into a world shaped by middle class expectations. Dimitri and Prof. Beard advertised the work that most of us do in the summer when either not on contract or at least not engaged in the regular work rhythms associated with teaching, continues to align rather closely with regular industrial practices. In other words, we don’t have time off in the summer; we work then too, just like normal working janes and joes. 

On the other hand, among academics, there is tendency to see our preindustrial lives as particular pernicious because until the industrial routine centered on punching the clock and performing tasks on time and on clearly defined specifications, preindustrial work is not circumscribed by such tidy expectations. We work when we need to, how we want to, and to deadlines and specifications that are largely (if not always) of our own devising. For some, this leads to malaise as our structured training in academia gives way to the unstructured preindustrial world of research. In other cases, the lack of structured expectations can give way to pervasive anxiety about work or a drive to re-compartmentalize work and life. 

This is where a slow approach to academia has merits. Putting aside the tangled and unconvincing arguments in The Slow Professor which try and fail to accommodate the tension between industrial and preindustrial practices, I think embracing slow aspects to research offers one way to remind researchers that we don’t need to accommodate industrial work rhythms in all of our productive work. Slow practices allow for such disparate and seemingly inefficient practices as a vacation, a field season, a weekend reading, or a frustrating night writing to all be regarded as valuable and productive time. In this sense, slow has less to do with the speed at which once accomplished a goal and more to do with an approach that rejects tools or work rhythms that promote efficiency or speed at the expense of effectiveness. Slow practices draw a line between time defined by structures designed to promote the goals of the industrial academy and those designed to ensure the most effective contribution to our scholarly communities. There will always be a need to generate equivalencies between the slow aspects of our professional lives and those set apart by industrial expectation – as Dimitri and Prof. Beard have shown – but it remains particularly important that we not internalize these expectations.

(And I’ll leave this post for now, but I’d like to think more about communities of practice and the role of slow practices in the academy and archaeology in shaping the expectations of these communities…)

Illich and Slow Archaeology

As you might have gathered from my post earlier in the week, I’m interested in applying Ivan Illich’s ideas of conviviality to archaeological practices as well. One of the longterm failures in my argument for slow archaeology is that beyond advocating for a more critical engagement with digital tools and practices in the field, I’ve struggled to articulate why a slow archaeology is a better archaeology.

My efforts along these lines have centered on three critiques that I’ll summarize briefly here:

1. Fragmentation. Digital tools fragment the archaeological landscape into smaller and smaller fragments that archaeologists then need to re-integrated typically away from the field using another set of digital tools. 
2. Efficiency. Some archaeologists have argued that digital tools will increase efficiency and this will lead to more time for intensive analysis while in the field. I remain unconvinced and evoke claims as early as the industrial revolution asserting that more efficient production practices would lead to fewer hours at work, more abundance, and more leisure. While it is hard to deny that industrialization has improved our quality of life in some ways, the utopian visions of a world without poverty and with abundant free time have not come to pass.   
3. Deskilling and Blackboxing. Finally, I argue that our growing dependence on digital tools in archaeology runs the risk of deskilling archaeological practitioners. While some recent work has suggested that the use of more digital tools will lead to the retooling of archaeological knowledge rather than the deskilling, it is hard to deny that the latest generation of digital tools remove the archaeologist from moving archaeological information from the field to the lab.

Over time, I’ve added little observations here and there that expand these points. For example, I’ve argued that the use of digital tools is unevenly distributed across projects of different sizes and funding levels. Others have observed that digital tools distinguish well-funded foreign projects from local archaeologists and could evoke longstanding colonial practices in archaeology. And others have suggested that the adoption of new technologies in archaeology have sometimes reinforced gender differences in the discipline and the pace and expectations of research often force the hand of junior or non-tenure track faculty to embrace digitally mediated archaeological work.

(Full disclosure: as I am writing this I’m waiting for our new 17 inch laptop (code name: War Daddy) to generate a mesh from a dense point cloud… oh, good, it restarted 4 hours into the process.)

After reading Ivan Illich’s Tools for Conviviality I got to thinking about which tools in our archaeological kit are genuinely convivial and which promote more alienated and abstract forms of engagement with knowledge production. Illich was particularly concerned with matters of professionalization and specialization and how institutions (especially schools) used various forms of credentialing to limit access to professions and services. This generated wealth for those with various credentials, but also exacerbated inequality. For Illich, conviviality was the opposite of industrial practices and offered a path toward a more just, more equal, and ultimately, more happy society. I suspect that most practicing archaeologists would apply at least some of Illich’s goals to the ongoing course of our discipline. Equality and justice within archaeology are as important as finding common ground between archaeologists and the various communities that they serve. This is especially visible when we work abroad or among groups who have less access to expertise, technology, and wealth.

(I just scrapped the entire project and started to process photos again after the software crashed. PROGRESS!)

The question then becomes which tools offer opportunities for more convivial practice in archaeology. At a conference on digital tools, I recall a colleague – in a bit of puckish way – noting that if a project couldn’t afford iPads, maybe they shouldn’t be doing fieldwork. While his comments were meant in a bit of lighthearted way (and in response to a wide ranging discussion), I think he expressed how certain kinds of practices produce unconvivial environments in the discipline. The need for digital tools in archaeology produces new forms of specialization from data managers to folks to set up servers, design applications, manage digital processes, and even use particularly complex tools like differential GPS units, drones, or various devices designed to analyze the chemical constitution of artifacts. This isn’t to suggest that archaeology hasn’t always had some degree of specialization with material experts and technicians making certain aspects of field work and analysis more efficient, but in some ways, the advances in digital technologies in archaeology has led to greater specialization, at greater cost, and at greater distance from the disciplinary core of archaeological practice. At the same time, people can make reasonable arguments that technology opens up the field of archaeology and all of its practices to individuals with less specialized skills. Anyone with a phone can now produce 3D models of a site. Portable XRF technology makes it possible for even a non-specialist to analyze the chemical composition of an artifact. As GPS units become cheaper, more accurate, and easier to use, projects no longer need dedicated architects to plot points. Yet, these tools all require investments in money, shift part of the expertise in measuring, observing, and building to hardware and software that is beyond the user’s control, and require complex, usually institutional, data management practices to be accessible to other people. The stakes here are complicated especially as we realize that Illich’s tools for conviviality are not necessarily anti-technological, but emphasize that some tools open the door to more convivial practices than others.

Of course, Illich would see the very disciplinarity of archaeology part of the problem with its exclusive or at least relatively narrow claims to knowledge making. I still think that a convivial approach to understanding knowledge production within the discipline offers perspectives that are useful for thinking about how to keep archaeology moving toward both more just as well as more sustainable and open practices. 

A Critique of Slow Archaeology

I still think about slow archaeology a good bit and even more these days as I get my feet set for my 21st season of archaeological field work. So I was pretty excited to read Andre Costopoulos’s recent post at ArcheoThoughts titled “the traditional prestige economy of archaeology is preventing its emergence as an open science.” 

In this thoughtful post, he doesn’t actually refer to slow archaeology, but he argues that the personal connection between the archaeologist – and archaeological experience – and material remains a crucial (and problematic) element of the archaeological discourse. In effect, archaeologists who “know the material” continue to serve as an important level of gate keeper for the discipline. This kind of deep familiarity with a region, its material, and local disciplinary contexts authorized who can speak for and about the material. This kind of “fuzzy” expertise is often reciprocated among various experts with different areas of specialty, and it represents an important structuring discourse in the discipline. In other words, familiarity with a particular body of material, region, or practice gives an archaeologist authority and fortifies his or her own reputation. In this way, the Archeothoughts post work has similarities with a critique of slow archaeology that Shawn Graham offered a few month ago.

At the same time, a reputation and authority grounded in this kind of particularistic knowledge discourages me from presenting my knowledge in a transparent and open way. If I give away what I know – even through traditional publication, but especially through practices that make the link between practice, evidence, and knowledge making transparent, I run the risk of undermining my own authority and potentially my ability to gain more specialized knowledge. (I used to joke that a certain type of Greek archaeologist would refuse to publish a certain amount of their material so they could attack other (usually junior) scholars on the basis of “unpublished material” from their own dig or other secret knowledge.) This kind of “knowing the material” contributes to the key role of apprenticeship in the discipline where learning archaeology often involves learning techniques as well as gaining special access to material and sites based on personal relationships with master practitioners.

I read this, in some ways, as an important critique of slow archaeology. First, I’ve insisted that slow archaeology depends upon deep familiarity with a site and its material. This kind of knowledge resists the kind of neatly-organized and regimented transparency that is sometimes presented as open science (although, to be fair, open science types have recognized the value of slow data). If we argue that archaeological methods and practices (and the knowledge that it produces) is more similar to craft and communicated through personal networks, apprenticeships, and experience, then it would seem that it is resistant, to some extent, to open science.

At the same time, openness is not absolute, and archaeology will always be a funny kind of science. There is a kind of embodied knowledge that passes down through the discipline that will likely resist the kind of openness that certain kinds of bench sciences celebrate. There are, however, ways to mitigate the unintended consequences of the knowledge gain through archaeological experience, deep familiarity, and various ways of “knowing the material.” I will continue to contend that part of the way in which slow archaeology contributes is through a critical engagement with all aspects of knowledge production. It may be that critiques like this one are crucial for understanding the function of open science within academic life, and, perhaps, is some ways, this blog post (and other arguments like it) is as valuable for framing a disconnect in archaeological knowledge making as offering a clear solution.

Preliminary Thoughts on Digital Practices in Archaeology

Before you read my blog today, head over to Shawn Graham’s Electric Archaeologist and check out his critique of my idea of slow archaeology. I agree with 98% of what Shawn writes in his post; in fact, I started writing the following post prior to reading his. You’ll not that it is not a perfect response, but that’s ok.

I’ve been trying to systematize my ideas about digital archaeology in light of recent (and largely deserved) critiques of slow archaeology (for my most recent and formal publication on this, go here; for a bit of an idea how my ideas developed incrementally go here (and read this here)). This is just kind of a draft of ideas, but maybe it’s a helpful way to organize my own thinking moving forward.

The critiques that have stung the most are not that I’m some kind of Luddite archaeology with my dumpy level and notebook, but that slow archaeology by appropriating the popular “slow” moniker carried with it the elitist baggage of the slow food movement or the hipster movement or whatever. From my privileged position as a tenured professor with a number of successful (let’s say) field projects under my belt, I’m changing the rules of the game when I preach the benefits of archaeological practices that privilege reflexive practice over systematic “data collection” and digital analysis. Shawn Graham delicately hints that this kind of rhetorical posturing could represent a kind of gate-keeping that excludes a vast number of good, working archaeologists who spend their days interpreting data, racing before the bulldozers in salvage projects, or living hand to mouth as an adjunct professor.

Of course, this critique horrified me!  I have always considered my interests in digital archaeology as much a work toward ethical practices as methodologies. What has become clear to me at this point is that my ideas of slow archaeology and my critiques of digital practices have become pretty muddled (probably because I’ve been working them out in a very public way at conference, on this blog, and in conversations).

Here’s another effort to systematize my ideas and to bring to the fore the ethical issues not so much in response to Shawn’s critiques, but as a kind of counterpoint that argues for slow archaeology as an reflexive archaeology of care as much as prescriptive set of practices. 

My interest in digital archaeology centers three key, but interrelated issues. To my mind (right now), each of these has their own issues related to them, but also overlap with other categories in meaningful ways. A slow archaeology – or whatever – would represent a critique that runs through all of these categories.

1. Ethics of Access.

A few years ago, I wrote a paper for an AIA panel where I basically said that the digital revolution (or whatever) was pretty uneven in archaeology. Big projects could afford big, bespoke digital systems and small and midsized projects tended to use off-the-shelf solutions in ad hoc and DIY ways. At the time, I think that I imagined that this was a pretty disturbing revelation to many people (and in the spirit of Punk Archaeology). Small projects, in my mind, represented the future of archaeological work because, to my mind at the time, disciplinary and economic realities had long ago eroded the preeminence of large projects in our field.

In hindsight, I probably underestimated the degree to which big projects have set the standard for small and mid-sized projects. For example, my little project, PKAP, used a version of the Corinth Manual as a our field manual and adapted databases that had been in use for decades earlier on the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey (EKAS).

Despite these reservations, I continue to think that access to digital tools remains a crucial concern. In the most obvious way, we can talk about how digital tools tend to be developed among wealthier academic projects in the Mediterranean and South America rather than local archaeologists (who, as we all know, innovate in different ways). At a conference once, a colleague once said (with a bit of a wry smile) that projects that couldn’t afford iPad maybe shouldn’t be doing field work. This was directed at academic excavators and there is maybe a kernel of truth there, but most archaeological projects in the world today still do not use tablets or iPads for economic and historical reasons. In fact, the rather lavishly funded (by global standards) archaeological project in Greece, the Western Argolid Regional Project, does not use iPad, in part, because we thought that the expense of maintaining iPad for 6 or 7 field teams over a 3-year season and attendant infrastructure was too high. 

Issues of access take on a more dire cast when we consider the extreme example of how digital technologies bring the tools of the surveillance state to our discipline with all of the panoptic exclusivity that this entails. At its most extreme, we have projects using drones and satellites taking images to track the progress of looting in war torn regions. At its most mundane, we’re talking about projects using “inexpensive” drones that allow archaeologists to map out landscapes in a ways that are both arresting and invasive.

New tools from iPads to drones are shaping both explicit models of “best practice” and our disciplinary expectations in ways that embrace both the spirit and costs of technological solutionism.

An ethics of access considers how uneven levels of technological knowledge and expertise functions at the level of the dig. For example, we all know projects where senior project directors don’t really “get” the database or the GIS and this has a significant impact on how the project is run on both a day-to-day level and over time. The fragmentation of digital data (as I’ll discuss later) quite literally reinforces the fragmentation of archaeological expertise which is both a vital part of the larger professionalization process of the discipline, but also challenge and a barrier for any model of knowledge production that seeks to synthesize specialist knowledge to produce holistic or totalizing views of the past. As professionalization is – first and foremost – an ethical concern, the transparency and compatibility of various forms of specialist knowledge, whether mediated by digital practices or not, intersect vitally with issues of access.   

Finally, there are also issues of who and how much access the “public” has to our data especially when projects are funded from pubic funds.

It seems to me that these are all issues of access that are not exclusively digital (after all access to material has always been a key aspect of archaeological knowledge making), but have emerged with particular vividness in discussions of digital technologies in the discipline.

2. Ethics of Process

I originally wanted to call this the “ethics of practice,” but I supposed that issues of access are important elements of practice as well. What I’m really trying to get at with this the issue of process is how digital technology has shaped the process of knowledge making in the field. I think this is where Mobilizing the Past has made the greatest contribution and where my views on things are both most out of sync with the field, but also perhaps least clever.

With slow archaeology, I tried to argue that digital tools are transforming how we produce knowledge “at the trowels edge.” The application of slow archaeology to this process was not to tell archaeologists that digital practices were bad, but to encourage archaeologists to think reflexively about digital technologies. This largely grew out of an anxiety that there are folks who want to see digital technologies as “tools” that are somehow value neutral or who offer a simple cost/benefit binary as a the best way to understand the adoption of a particular technology. In the most simplistic application of this “toolbox” mentality, digital technologies replace existing “analogue” archaeological practices with a cheaper, more accurate, and more efficient alternative. This level of methodology is not very helpful to my mind because the “tools” we use shape the knowledge we create.

On the other hand, I probably pushed the argument too far when I started to become overly fixated on archaeological knowledge making as a holistic or somehow integrative process from the first day of planning to the final publication. Of course, viewing archaeology “holistically” (or systemically?) is important, but I suspect that my tendency to understand the entire process of archaeological work as irreducible caused me problems. Archaeologists have long devoted critical attention to the various phases in the larger interpretative project, and practical attention to how technology transforms these processes is vital to understanding how the discipline is changing.

As folks know, I see most of how we talk about digital technology being shaped by either industrial practices like Taylorism or the empiricism of New Archaeology. Both of these things tend to like to fragment archaeological processes in the field and in analysis and interpretation, and I see a parallel between these processes and the way digital technology fragments data. Maybe there’s a parallel between Wheelerian pixelization of archaeological sites into Wheeler boxes and open area excavations?

The role of Latorian “black boxing” contributes to the ethics of process in archaeology (as well as to issues of access) and real conversations about how much control over archaeological processes digital technologies offer and how fragmented we make our sites remain of interest to me. How do we understand the dense networks of technology, interpretative assumptions, historical practices, and objects creating archaeological knowledge?

Perhaps the ethical issues, for me at least, involving the use of digital technology in archaeological processes center on how we talk about these technologies. I do not see archaeology as reducible to a series of practices and tools grounded in efficiency, accuracy, and economy. I am not even sure that I see archaeology grounded in the “proof of the pudding is in the eating” (although that does play a part). After all, we regularly make ethical decisions in practice and on a disciplinary level that do not require such proof. We don’t need to prove, for example, that greater gender balance in projects produces better results, for example.

So for me, (and this is why some of these critiques have stung a bit), slow archaeology or critical attention to processes and practices is not simply about producing better results, but about producing a better, more inclusive, and more reflexive discipline. 

3. Pulling Apart Publication

So if an ethics of process asks archaeologists to pull apart archaeological practices in the field to understand how both current and longstanding technologies have shaped archaeological knowledge, pulling apart the publication asks archaeologists to think about how the same digital tools will challenge how we understand the boundary between the published and the unpublished, the public and the private, and the provisional and the final.

I think the same pressures that have fragmented archaeological knowledge production at the digital trowel’s edge are fragmenting publications as well. For example, platforms such as Open Context are highly specialized and the needs for a project to present different kinds of data within particular technological contexts will continue, I suspect to drive a kind of specialization within publishing. I am really excited about Eric Kansa’s idea of slow data as step toward conceptualizing digital publishing in practical and ethical ways. 

I think there is some interesting cross pollination between folks working on the history of the book (I was particularly intrigued by Laura Mandell’s Breaking the Book (2015), but she essentially summarized a vast (and intimidating) body of recent scholarship that has located the book (and the scholarly article as well) at the intersection of particular historical, social, cultural, and technological circumstances (which I know can be said of anything)). But Mandell’s point (among many) is that the nature of the book itself produces a kind of authority. It’s physical shape, the role of publishers, authors, and even copyright promoted the integrity of the book or article as as source of authority.

Without becoming one of those people who call everything revolutionary or disruptive, I do think that digital practices will lead us – particularly in technical publications – to publish our work in different ways as we look to adapt the concept of publication to the structural strengths of digital technologies. Maybe this will allay Shawn’s concern that by adopting the concept of “slow” from the slow food movement that we are advocating a kind of anti-technological or worse intentionally impractical approach to archaeological knowledge or attempting to drive a wedge between “digital archaeologists” and “analogue archaeologists.” Nothing could be further from the truth! At its core, slow archaeology is nothing more than a targeted rebranding of long-standing conversations in archaeological methodology and reflexive practices. Slow offered a convenient foil to calls for increased efficiency and speed so closed aligned with dominant narrative of technological solutionism and the speed of capitalism.    

 

More on Digital and Paper Picking the President

I spent a little time this weekend doing some finishing touches on the paper version of the most recent book from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota: Picking the President: Understanding the Electoral College edited by Eric Burin. With any luck, the paper version of the book should be out by the end of the week.

As readers of this blog know, Picking the President was produced very quickly and as a result, some little infelicities slipped through our editing. Over the past week we were able to tidy up the text and have released an updated version here: Picking the President (v1.2).

We also created offprints of each contribution to make the text just a bit more accessible useful in the classroom where you might want to assign, for example, Eric Burin’s introduction and Allen Guelzo and James H. Hulme’s article arguing for the ongoing importance of the Electoral College. We also made the “Documents” section available as a stand alone download.

So far, we are pleased with the number of downloads of the book with over 170 in its first week. While this is probably not quite enough to secure a major motion picture deal or an eager international translator, we expect book downloads to have a tail over the next 18 months if for no other reason than debates about the Electoral College are a bit evergreen. 

We’re also interested in experimenting a bit with ways to generate digital conversation around this (and other) book projects from the Digital Press. I served on the North Dakota Humanities Council board for nearly 5 years, and we regularly discussed whether digital projects were truly interactive. Those of you know the NDHC recognize that they tend to favor face-to-face events – book clubs, lectures, workshops and the like – to publishing or digital projects arguing that their primary goal is to stimulate conversation. That’s fair enough, I think, but it also pushed me to think about how to make a book or a webpage more interactive.

On Friday I had an intriguing meeting with some of the folks from Hypothes.is. Hypothes.is is an application that allows you to comment and mark up anything on the web including pdf files. You have to create a free account to use Hypothes.is, but that’s relatively painless. Once you get an account, you can join the conversation by using either a Google Chrome browser plug-in or going to a designated link that allows Hypothes.is to run natively in your web browser.

So, I’ve opened up my contribution to the Picking the President book for commenting here and added a “comment” link on the Picking the President download page (although anyone could have done the same thing by dropping the link to the pdf download into the little box on the Hypothesis webpage). I’d love to get some feedback on my paper.

For something perhaps a bit more fun for long-time readers of this blog, I’ve also created an annotatable version of my “Slow Archaeology” article in Mobilizing the Past.

The good thing about Hypothes.is is that it’s easy to use and pretty fun. It allows for comments on both the page level and for comments tied to specific passages in the text as well as highlighting that can be seen by anyone who either visits the page or has the Hypothes.is plug-in installed in their browser. It allows for private groups, which would make it appealing for a teaching environment where a class would mark up a text. I’ve already floated the idea to Eric Burin, the editor of Picking the President, that maybe he could set up a Hypthes.is group for his class and they could comment on the book.

I also have a simmering project where we imagine using a private Hypthes.is group to produce an annotated version of a book. We would then collate these annotations into an expanded edition that we’d publish both as a digital book and print-on-demand. In other words, we’d take the annotations and make it part of the “permanent record” of the book. This fits into some of the ideas that Andrew Reinhard and I bandied about in our article in Internet Archaeology last year: “From Blogs to Books: Blogging as Community, Practice, and Platform.” In this article, we envisioned publishing as not a separate species of work from blogging or even social media posts, but as a part of the same continuum that begins with professional conversations at (say) an academic meeting and (one fork at least) culminates in traditional publishing. By opening up the final “published” product to annotation and comment we both leverage digital technologies to take the book beyond the limits of the page but also look back to the earliest days of publishing when printed books circulated within far more circumscribed communities and were often reprinted to reflect the conversations and annotations offered within the communities. 

So please check out my experiments with more interactive publishing. More important than that, though, let me know what you think about my contribution to Picking the President and the most recent version of “Slow Archaeology”

Revenge of the Analog

Over the holiday break, I read David Sax’s Revenge of the Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter (Public Affairs 2016). It’s a popular book and Sax is a journalist who write on culture and technologies for a range of periodicals. His book is was intriguing to me not because he has an answer to why there is a persistent interest in the analog (or at least a simulacrum of the analog), but because he identifies a number of seemingly incongruous places where the “analog” practices appear to running counter to the prevailing trends of digital life.

In some ways, his book has parallels with recent popular move toward the “slow moment” as a antidote to the speed of life (and particularly capitalism) in the contemporary world. At the same time, Sax is clear that the analog isn’t a challenge to capitalist practices. In fact, one of his examples in Shinola which is a Detroit based company that specializes in luxury watches, leather goods, bikes, and, now, turn tables (of course). Another example is Moleskine notebooks which he recognizes as both a practical tool for members of the “creative class” as well as deliberately crafted corporate product. While the small time book seller appears in the books pages as does the owner of vinyl pressing factories and entrepreneurs looking to profit on the resurgence of film, these figures aren’t marginal or radical figures looking to scratch out a living at the margins of the global economy, but rather figures who recognize the potential to find profits among communities who embrace technologies and experiences that run counter to prevailing trends in our digitally mediate world.

Sax’s classic example of this is recent resurgence in vinyl records. He looks beyond audiophile arguments for the superior sound of vinyl (which may be valid, but only at price points way beyond the means of the average vinyl record buyer), and considers the rituals associated with the use of vinyl. The removing of a record from its dust cover, the cleaning of the surface, the placing of the stylus on the grooves and the endless fussing with tracking, tone arms, and cartridges. Even the need for separate components and cables and space for the records and the gear involves a spatial commitment to the experience of playing music that goes beyond what is required for digital or streaming music. In other words, the analog, at least for Sax, is physical. Books require bookstores, records encourage record stores and vinyl pressing factories, and film requires bulky manufacturing plants. Sax explores the world of board game cafes, the Detroit based workshop of Shinola watches, and cafes of Milan during fashion week where cognoscenti sip Peronis and sketch notes in their Moleskine notebooks. 

This link between spatiality and the analog while not explicit in Sax’s book got me thinking about my own ill-defined anxieties concerning the growing role of digital practices in archaeology. Increasingly, I have started to recognize that digital practices offer archaeologists ways to de-spatialize both their practices and their objects of study. High resolution digital models, for example, take up virtually no space and can move without particular ceremony or ritual from one computer to the next instantly. The modern digital storeroom is distributed across multiple computers, servers, and disks and is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere.  The analog, in contrast, whether it’s a physical notebook or an object or a site, is explicitly spatial.

This spatiality gives archaeologists, national governments, and communities a sense of control and command over their objects of study. The analog world described by Sax is one shot through with these moments of control and possession. We can hold a vinyl record, destroy a Moleskine notebook, and watch chemical entropy slowly transform a prized photograph. So perhaps our desire for the analog has more to do with our desire to hold and control and act as physically defined agents in a world increasingly mediated by elusive digital data and technologies and seem to dance just beyond our grasps.

Slow Archaeology in Mobilizing the Past

This week, I’ve largely turned my blog over to promoting newest book from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. The centerpiece of this promotion has been the pre-release of the introduction. This has resulted in substantial traffic to the Digital Press website, some great social media buzz, and a heartening number of downloads.

As part of this preview, I also offered a little easter egg. Near the bottom of the table of contents page, I included a download link to my contribution to the volume. Only 11% of the folks who downloaded the introduction scrolled down the page and noticed the other download link highlighted. (What’s interesting is that about 10% of the traffic to the Digital Press site came from this blog where I told readers there was an easter egg, and while I cant track the behavior of visitors referred from this site, at best only only 30% of those visitors downloaded the the easter egg.) 

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Here’s the abstract to that paper. 

Slow Archaeology

Slow archaeology situates contemporary, digital archaeological practice both within the historical tradition of the modern discipline of archaeology and within a discourse informed by calls for Taylorist efficiency. Rather than rejecting the use of digital tools, slow archaeology advocates for a critical engagement with the rapidly changing technological landscape in the field. This contribution draws upon lessons from the popular “slow moment” and academic discussions of modernity and speed to consider the impact that the rapid adoption of digital tools has on archaeological practice and knowledge production. Slow archaeology pays particular attention to how digital tools fragment the process of archaeological documentation, potentially deskill fieldwork by relying on digital (Latourian) “blackbox” methods, and erode the sense of place so crucial to archaeological claims of provenience. The result of this critical attention to digital practices is neither a condemnation of new tools nor an unabashed celebration of their potential to transform the discipline, but a call to adopt new technologies and methods in a deliberate way that grounds archaeological knowledge production in the realm of field practice.

Slow Reconsidered

This week, for various reasons, I’ve started to re-think my position on “slow.” As readers of this blog know, I started to use appeals to the slow movement as an endearing and popular hook for some of my ideas about archaeological field practice, technology, and even teaching in the last few years. I co-edited a volume of the public humanities journal North Dakota Quarterly on slow and have published a pair of articles on “slow archaeology.”

At the same time, I’ve thought a good bit about speed and teaching and recently enjoyed Michael Serres book, Thumbelina which argues that millennials have profoundly different ways of engaging the world and that we should embrace and celebrate this. Serres views runs counter to folks who see “slow teaching” as an antidote to the quickening pace of every day because it sees the pace and connectivity of the world something that a problem that teachers need to solve, rather than an opportunity that we should embrace. At its most insistent, the need for slow teaching blurs with calls for reform in academia more broadly. Margie Berg and Barbara Seeber offer a flawed, but well-meaning treatment of academia as a blurred space of slowness (and I review this book here and here). 

A very recent article by Andrew Sullivan in New York Magazine prompted me to revisit these ideas. Sullivan was one of the first new media superstars and this thoughtful article reflected on the toll that his immersion in the 24-hour news cycle and the hyper-connected online world took on his mental, physical, and spiritual health. It makes a compelling case for us to slow down. At the same time that I am making final revisions on an article on slow archaeology slated to appear in this book. My own arguments for a slow archaeology and my immediate (non-slow!) appreciation of Sullivan’s article feel like they contradict my desire for fast teaching and enthusiasm for Serres’s view of the millennial generation. While I have some tolerance for contradiction in my thought, I took a walk yesterday convinced that this contradiction could and should be resolved.

Here’s what I thought:

First, I’ve increasingly come to appreciate slow archaeology as less of an issue of archaeological practice and more of an ethical issue. In other words, digital practices will continue to influence how we do archaeology in the field, but our entanglement with digital tools and a vastly complex ecosystem of commercial products is no less challenging that the legacy of colonialism, sexism, and economic inequality that shaped archaeological practices for the last century. Just as archaeologists have critically engaged  these complicated legacies in an effort to create a more ethnic and responsible discipline, we should also engage critically our approach to technology. These are lessons about digital tools in our discipline and the structure of our discipline more broadly that I’ve learned from Eric KansaÖmür Harmanşah, and Richard Rothaus. I’m not sure that I understood this aspect of my argument very well in the last two things that I’ve published on slow archaeology, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’m getting it now. The spread of digital technology into our field and publication practices is not just about how we document material culture and produce archaeological knowledge, but also how we engage a commercial ecosystem that has values which often run explicitly counter to those associated with our discipline.

Second, critical resistance to technology is not the only way forward, of course. Our students, for example, have grown up immersed in this technology and thrive in a connected, accelerated, and global world. While there is nothing wrong about asking students to put down their phones, close their laptops, and unplug, we should be aware that our students life with technology is fundamentally different from our own. Sullivan observes as much when deeply immersed in a meditation retreat, he reconnects with a childhood full of emotional trauma and largely devoid of technology. As a result, Sullivan sees a world of bird songs, tree bark, and mottled sunlight as “real.” Our students today largely grew up with technology and just as crowded neighborhood eateries, well-worn woodland trails, and freshly-mown suburban lawns represent the real world to my generation, a digitally-mediated existence reflects the reality for our students. The pace of a digital world that makes those of us who worked to normalize the pre-digital “life of the mind” feel disoriented and overwhelmed, may not influence our students in the same way.

Finally, the idea that we need to slow down to be critical of how we engage the world is something that archaeologists and teachers should attend to. The pace of digital life makes the siren call of efficiency and speed in archaeology unavoidable. As archaeology is always the work of translation and mediation between material traces of the past and the present, our view of the past is shaped not only by the tools that we use, but our fundamental view of the world. As digital technology has become implicit in how we see the world – particularly the millennial generation who have grown up without whatever idyllic conceits we reserve for “reality” – it is inevitable that our archaeology will become more digital. At the same time, maintaining critical awareness of these changes will preserve an awareness of our disciplinary lens without invalidating the experience of the next generation of scholars. 

This is not a situation that leads to a simple resolution. Rejecting slow teaching runs the risk of putting “pre-digital” faculty in an uncomfortable and inauthentic position, alienating a generation of students who are already prone to resist our pedagogy, and forfeiting a critical opportunity to understand how technology shapes our world. Rejecting slow archaeology, carries fewer practical problems (as the tradition of slow archaeology (pre-digital and otherwise) persists throughout the world) and more ethical challenges as it risks normalizing efficiency, speed, and precision as crucial considerations for archaeological knowledge production.

Satellite Remote Sensing in the AJA

I have to admit to being equal parts geeked out and creeped out by recent advances in satellite (or, more broadly, aerial) remote sensing in archaeology. I am excited as anyone to read about the latest “lost city” to appear from the use of LiDAR in the jungle and recognize that ever increasingly resolutions of multi-spectral satellite images provides new ways for archaeologists to tease out subsurface features from subtle variations in vegetation, soil color, and even elevation. Moreover, as someone interested in regional-level intensive survey, I appreciate the potential of satellite images to help us understand large-scale phenomena in the landscape. We use satellite images to map our survey units and have even used some basic multispectral analysis to target potentially significant subsurface features in the Western Argolid. In this context, I was excited to see the recent article of J. Donati and A. Sarris in the American Journal of Archaeology 120.3 (2016):  “Evidence for Two Planned Greek Settlements in the Peloponnese from Satellite Remote Sensing.”

Donati and Sarris combined historical excavation data with satellite remote sensing to reveal the ancient city plans of Hellenistic towns of Mantinea and Elis in the Peloponnesus. The article is an impressive blend of traditional archaeological data from excavations and remote sensing, historical sources, and the technical analysis of satellite data. The analysis of satellite images through the use of various band combinations and enhancements to pull out subsurface features is a major point in the article.

When I had finished the article, I couldn’t help feeling a bit uneasy. Maybe I’ve seen too many haunting images of satellite and drone images from the Middle East (check out Bard’s Center for the Study of the Drone). Or maybe I have read too much on technological solutionism over the past couple years. I could even be that I just spend 7 weeks hiking around the Greek countryside and felt put out that my physical labor could so easily be replaced by digital tools.

Whatever the reason, there was something disconcerting about the remote study of the landscape, and I was hoping that the article included some brief discussion of the ethical issues surrounding using satellite images in archaeology. This is not to suggest, even obliquely, that Donati’s and Sarris’s fine work had any ethical flaws, but the use of increasingly sophisticated remote sensing tools in archaeology is already having an impact on the discipline. For example, the use of drones and satellite images to monitor the looting and destruction of archaeological sites is almost common practice, and saturated with a kind of irony: the same technologies that have contributed to the political and social instability in the Middle East are being used to monitor the consequences of this instability.

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Of course Donati and Sarris weren’t using drones to monitor looting or to document the changing landscape of an off-limits prison camp. And I recognize that military technologies – ranging from the basic organization of excavation “campaigns” to the extensive use of GPS, satellite images, and drones – have shaped archaeology since its emergence as a modern discipline. At the same time, I do wonder about the de-spatialization of archaeological work. I won’t invoke my long-standing reflections on the significance of physically being in an archaeological environment. Any reader of this blog is probably familiar with my painfully romantic sensibilities.

Instead, I couldn’t help think that the use of remote sensing to take archaeological work from the field and to transport it to the lab, office or library seems to represent the obverse of the call by communities for the repatriation of archaeological objects. Our ability to analyze the material culture of a region and a community from miles in the sky or through millimeter accurate digital surrogates offers a potent challenge to those who see objects, sites, and heritage as profoundly local. Satellites, for example, defy the authority of local communities and national governments to grant access to sites in the same way as high resolution 3D scans challenge what it means to posses “the original artifact” in new ways. These perspectives should not necessarily lead us to rejecting the use of digital or remote sensing tool, but I’ll continue to feel a vague sense of discomfort when I encounter the use of new technologies without any reflection on its ethical impact.