Two Abstracts for the European Association of Archaeologists Annual Meeting

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

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

Here’s the abstract:

Punk Archaeology, Slow Archaeology, and the Archaeology of Care

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

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

~

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

And, here’s my abstract:

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

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

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

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

Pencils and Pixels: New Perspectives on Digital Illustration

On Friday, I read with great excitement Colleen Morgan and Holly Wright’s very recent article in the Journal of Field Archaeology titled “Pencils and Pixels: Drawing and Digital Media in Archaeological Field Recording” (and here too). It’s worth reading for quite a few reasons, but I want to highlight a little gaggle of observations here (that don’t entirely reflect the scope and character of the article, but do represent my own interests in it).

1. The Heroic Archaeologists. A few years ago, I became enamored with the idea that there was a heroic age of archaeology based on a bit of a cheap parallel with the heroic age of science. These heroic archaeologists have names that are associated with their notebooks (Blegen’s notebook), their sites (Wheeler’s excavation at the Great Palace), and who game name and form to their discoveries (Schlieman’s discovery of Priam’s Gold). To this we can add, following Morgan and Wright, their plans and drawings like Aubrey’s drawing of Avebury and Wheeler’s illustration of Segontium.

Morgan and Wright complicate this, of course, by pointing out that these drawings did not always spring from the impartial pens of master excavators, but from rather less known draftsmen, associates, and even, as in Wheeler’s case, the archaeologist’s wife.  Indeed, the work of Pitt-Rivers, Piggot, and Wheeler was informed by industrial, or in some cases, military practices and organization of labor which involved specialists with specialized skills, but also preserved elements of the “heroic archaeologists” vision of both methods and the sites themselves. In other words, even my heroic archaeologists, with their elegant and idiosyncratic, and sometimes signed illustrations, represent an already industrialized organization of archaeological practice (one that nevertheless allowed for a good deal of latitude and imagination, as Kostis Kourelis has recently noted regarding Georg Vinko von Peschke’s work around Corinth). In fact, the tension between the elegant plans and industrial practices are a defining feature of early 20th century archaeology.

2. The Ethnography of Archaeological Practice. One of the key strengths to this article is that Morgan and Wright draw effectively on the small, but growing body of work on the ethnography of contemporary archaeological practices. By using not only their own experiences as well as the immensely valuable and overlooked work of Matthew Edgeworth and others (although oddly not Mary Leighton’s work, which I’ve found very useful), they enter into the every day practices that define archaeological knowledge make at the edge of the trowel or the click of the mouse. 

This kind of work is not only incredibly important for understand how the tools that we use shape the knowledge that we produce, but also lays bare the complex and – to my mind – often problematic world that our technologies inhabit. The affordances that condition our use of digital tools are increasingly complicit in dense entanglements of exploitative practices in ways in which writing in a notebook or drawing on a piece of graph paper are not. This isn’t to suggest that the latter is beyond reproach or innocent, but to point our that what we do and how we do it constantly forces us to embody a dense organism of political, economic, social, and cultural relationships that do have consequences. The shift from analogue practice in the field to digital practices may or may not be a paradigm shift in terms of the incommensurability of knowledge, but, I’d argue, does reflect a paradigm shift in terms of practice and the range of affordances that shape those practices. Greater attention to practice, then, in the field allows us to unpack these relationships in productive and, to me, socially responsible ways.

(What’s more, here, is that Morgan and Wright have some of the ethnographic details to back up the sort of idealized generalizations that have tended to inform my work on slow archaeology. What I write, seems “right” based on my memories and experiences, but it certainly doesn’t have the rigor to support it that genuine ethnographic practice would 

3. Embodied Knowledge. On Saturday, I read a copy of a paper that Ömür Harmanşah generously provided that, in thoughtful ways, explored the significance of embodied knowledge, informed by the senses, in archaeological practice (among other things). Morgan and Wright’s treatment of the embodied knowledge of drawing in the field articulates in really smart ways ideas that I’ve struggled to understand over the past five years. Not only is the act of drawing with a pen or pencil on paper an act with definable and distinct cognitive significant, but it also opens onto ways of seeing archaeological contexts that more efficient, more streamlined, and invariably more digital methods do not support.

I like this way of thinking because reflects my experiences, particularly after this summer when I spent time documenting a series of fortifications on the basis of drone photography and structure-from-motion and ortho-rectified photographs. In some of my 20th century archaeological work, I worked with archaeologists who taught me how to illustrate by hand and it was tedious, long, hot work that provided remarkable (and sometimes illusory) familiarity with buildings. In contrast, drawing from a ortho-rectified series of drone photographs allowed me to produce a detailed plan much more quickly than work in the field and also made it much easier to scale my encounter with the site (i.e. by zooming out for context or zooming in for a detail), but I certainly feel less familiar with the site. Again, some of this a sense of familiarity may not be real (and I can’t help but extend the sense of possession, paralleling, perhaps, the work of heroic archaeologists, of a site where I spent countless hours drawing stones), to my sense of detachment from a site that I visited 8 or 10 times to ground-truth plans drawn from drones. 

The sense of place that develops from the act of manual drawing and illustration goes well beyond (in probably crazy ways) what Morgan and Wright explore in their article and is probably an effort to make their article into something that I want to say, but to me, at least, it is a useful point of departure for continued musing on the rise of digital field practices.  

For my work on these topics go here and here.

Slow Archaeology, Punk Archaeology, and the Archaeology of Care

Over the last week or two, I’ve been trying to figure out a paper for a panel at the European Association of Archaeologists annual meeting in Barcelona in September. The panel is titled “Human, Posthuman, Transhuman Digital Archaeologies” and the abstract looks for papers that: 

“… evaluate the growing paradigm of digital archaeology from an ontological point of view, showcase the ways digital technologies are being applied in archaeological practice—in the field/lab/studio/classroom—in order to critically engage with the range of questions about past people and worlds into which digital media give us new insights and avenues of approach.”

It’ll be a good panel and the folks proposing it are both cutting edge and super smart.

Obviously, this is something that deeply interests me, but it also has demoralized me in some ways. Whenever I read the latest paper on the use of digital tools, technologies, and practices in the field, I feel a bit anxiety. The language geared toward efficiency, accuracy, precision, and seamlessness in archaeological work doesn’t make me happy and to think that the archaeology of the future will be better, that the knowledge that we produce will be better, that the discipline that defines us will be better, and that the society that we inhabit will be better. I don’t like the feeling that – to paraphrase any number of recent dystopian science-fiction plots: “humanity is a bug” and technology is the solution.

Slow Archaeology, Punk Archaeology, and the Archaeology of Care.

I’m not sure that humanity is a problem to solve and challenge to overcome and somewhat is begging to be enhanced, augmented, or virtualized. I actually like just normal reality. I don’t really want to click here to save everything. I’m not comfortable with the idea that symmetrical archaeology requires symmetrical practice, and I don’t enjoy the realization that the varied abilities of humans are affordances that constrain the functioning of tools.

I’m not saying that we don’t all need a little BLOCKCHAIN in our lives or that I haven’t adapted to the keyboard on my space-grey MacBook Pro. I mean, I wear and Apple Watch and it has nudged me to exercise more regularly. I used a drone to map a hilltop fortification this summer in probably 20% of the time that even a bad conventional survey map would take. I now stream cricket, the NBA, television shows, movies, and most importantly for me, music. Running my high-resolution, streamed music through a vacuum tube amplifier that drives full-range, paper drivers makes me feel a little better, but only because it obscures how deeply embedded I am in the internet of things. I mean, I think my dogs are real. I’m pretty sure. I’ve asked them repeatedly if they dream of electric squirrels. The bigger, yellow dog, just tilts his head.

What also causes me anxiety is that technology is also a problem to solve. Perfect music forever has become high resolution audio has become high definition audio has become vinyl spinning on turntables. The portable digital document in portable document format has become obsolete in the age of linked, machine readable data. Text mining offers ways to strip meaning from the tangled clutter of language or to strip language from the page or mine meaning from the ore of style or something. Mountains of text are now laid low, but the slag heaps of un-mineable documents threaten to bury the town. The codex discarded on a riverbank becomes an object rather than a source.

In fact, everything is an object now. We catalogue objects, collect objects, objects become database objects, objects orient toward ontologies. Things fall into line or create lines or become lines or push us to fall into line. Sometimes, I feel like I just can’t deal with it all.

And all the while, the churning hum of technology of data of objects pushes us people – symmetrically – to become data too. Uberfication. Archeology isn’t about the past. It’s not about people. It’s not about societies or buildings or art or identity or even the archaeologist. It is about data. Archaeology is a data problem to be solved. Uber is really a data analysis company. So is archaeology these days. 

To be clear, I’m part of the problem. I use the word workflow, I’ve talked about data, I’ve thought about blockchain (but not really), and I’ve even considered efficiency and inefficiency as metrics to evaluate practice. Even if I admit that good practices are inefficient, the friction in the system contributes energy to creativity. Industrial and post-industrial metaphors saturate my prose and introduce seams to the smooth contours of experienced reality.

Maybe it makes sense. After all, books have pages. Archaeology is a discipline born from industrial practices. Schliemann was an industrialist. The tools of the industrial and the post-industrial revolution – the railway, the assembly line, specialization, the manager, the spreadsheet, the database – have coevolved (and it been compounded by the university). It’s hardly surprising that archaeology is post-industrial these days and data driven. 

Even craft and slow and punk these days stands apart more and more as a response or a reaction. Craft beer isn’t less manufactured somehow and mechanical watches use silicon balance springs and were designed in AutoCad and 3D printed. Vacuum tube amplifiers have integrated circuits to balance the tubes.  Vinyl records are produced from digital masters. Craft and slow are an affect. There is no outside the digital.

Anyway, I’m spiraling now. I’m going to give a paper in September and it’s going to try to say some of these things in a way that embodies my very human anxiety. Digitally mediated anxiety. Craft anxiety. Intentionally imperfect to remind us that perfect data forever used to not be a thing.

What Counts in Academia

As readers of my blog know, I’ve had a recent interest in the concept of craft and the slow movement. Part of that interests appears as a critique of academia. While I probably don’t buy the entire “slow academia” philosophy (at least as it has been articulated in some recent works), I have begun to see many of the problems in modern academic life and culture as problems in professionalization. Last week, I participated a bit in a conversation on Facebook spurred by a post from a very well regarded colleague that centered, in part, on what counts in one’s academic career. The specifics of the post are less important, than thinking about the language of “counting” in academia and its relationship the the larger professionalization project in American academic life. 

First, a requisite “checking of privilege”: I recognize that I can openly discuss what counts in academia because I am a white, male, tenured, professor in the humanities. I have a privileged position from which to judge a professional system that despite my own professional mediocrity, has benefited my own place within academia. I recognize that my critiques will ring hollow especially when directed at individuals for whom the the last 70 years of professionalization has benefited directly. At the same time, my right to critique the system is profoundly compromised because whatever its flaws, I am both within the system and as a white, middle aged, affluent, “classically educated” male, I am one of the architects of the current system. There is nothing to say that my criticism of the system will do anything more than change the finish line or adjust the boundary markers without changing the fundamental assumptions that allow the system to persist. As a result, I’m in a Catch-22. My position is sufficiently compromised that my critiques are not to be trusted, but at the same time, I’m in a position to produce what I perceive to be meaningful changes to the system. I’m going to try to articulate some things in this post that will invariably offend people. 

I have to admit to being a bit depressed by the discussion of what counted. I get, of course, that academic culture is increasingly dominated by an assessocracy whose primary goal is to produce comparable measures of performance across campus. In many ways, this is a noble goal and in keeping with the late-19th century trend toward professionalization. We can thank this process for making academic positions part of the middle class, for example, by recognizing that the university faculty who were preparing their students for professional careers where themselves professionals. Professionalization also contributed to academic protections around research, academic freedom, and the development of tenure, and these shaped the contours of academic publishing ranging from footnotes to plagiarism rules, academic societies and conferences, peer review standards, and even the prominence of the mighty monograph. These professional standards undermined the “old boys club” and opened the university to students and faculty on the basis of academic accomplishment rather than patronage or wealth. This, in turn, held forth the prospect of transforming faculty ranks by making academia more welcoming to women, immigrant groups, and minorities. Within the university, professionalization refined university curricula to keep it abreast of changing professional expectations, developed accreditation standards, and attempted to level the campus playing field between traditional humanities departments and new professional and vocational disciplines. In short, the modern university is the product of professionalization of academia.

Counting was a key element in the process of professionalization. In my discipline, history, one of the earliest conversations held among members of our newly christened professional organization, the American Historical Association, was whether to include avocational historians. The issue revolved around whether their work counted as professional history (despite the towering figure of George Bancroft and his New England compatriots whose vision continues to shape our views of the American past even today). Professional standards like citation and formal attribution practices seem readymade for counting and a created a basis to judge the significance of a work within the field and the skill of the scholar by a standard at least theoretically independent of their identity. At the same time, this approach formed a foundation for impact factors and other methods of citation counting used (and derided) today.

The industrial model of the university that sought to recognize both disciplinary authority in their given fields while also streamlining and standardizing university education for a generation of students coming of age in the professional and industrial era reinforced professionalizing trends in academic culture by promoting a model that sought to use professional standards as way to find new institutional efficiencies. It is hardly a surprise today that university administrators seeking to streamline the industrial education machine look to ways to compare departments from a wide range of disciplines across campus. Counting is fundamental to these efforts and whatever reductionist tendencies we see in these approaches to understanding the (in)efficiencies in university structure, we can also understand the historical roots of these models.

The question of what counts is almost always framed by what counts for tenure or promotion, and these metrics, at their best, reinforce professional standards in a discipline, work to mitigate personal (or disciplinary) biases at the university, and help scholars focus their energies as much toward institutional as individual goals. At their worst, however, we find ourselves pinched between overly rigid (or overly vague) guidelines, our own professional aspirations, and the changing professional expectations of our disciplines. 

The examples of these pressures are legion. My colleague Eric Kansa has regularly inveighed against the pressures of academic culture that work against the systematic and consistent publication of useful archaeological data. Publishing data just doesn’t fit into the our standard models of evaluation (yet) and so often doesn’t count. The respondents on the Facebook thread bemoaned that even high impact publications for a non-academic audience do not regularly count toward tenure and promotion. The dull and dirty work of service to professional organizations often falls to the edge of how we’re evaluated for institutional service and is unevenly valued across our disciplines. Other forms of outreach, like blogging, social media rabble rousing, and even mentoring peers, directing an archaeological project, or running for public office, require commitments of time and energy, but do not fit within established or easily quantifiable standards of professional accomplishments.

In my own experience, this very blog has never “counted” toward my tenure or promotion, my work with The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota does not fit in a category on my contract or evaluation form, and my off campus service is “valued,” but never really counted. The irony is, of course, that my blog is a vital part of my academic reputation and it almost always features prominently in any professional introduction to my work. My publications at The Digital Press are some of my best work as a scholar and on level with my years directing my own archaeological project, cited regularly, and meaningful contributions, but they aren’t easily categorized or counted. 

The reasons for this are clear, of course. The counting culture has given rise to a gaggle of disreputable, open access, publishing ventures that prey upon faculty needs to boost various impact scores, produce publications quickly, and do work that’s counted. Creating a press to publish marginal work is fun in a “punk rock” or DIY kind of way, but it falls to the troubled margins of good academic practice. At the same time, most academics recognize that the pressures to publish in countable ways has even tarnished the gold monograph standard by flooding the market with works of questionable significance and value. Counting culture has winnowed the pool of scholars interested in collaborating (at least in the humanities) when solo publication carry more value than collaborative ventures, pre-tenure scholars willing to contribute their insights to professional organizations, and, some would argue, the instinct to pursue innovative career trajectories both in graduate school and in early career. At my most cynical moments, I wonder whether counting culture on campus has undone a bit of what tenure offers to senior scholars, the freedom to innovate, take risks, and explore new approaches to knowledge making. With merit raises tied to performance based formulae, doing work that might not count has direct financial consequences and, as a result, many of the most innovative scholarly moves are coming from individuals who are financially well-off, outside academia, or who just don’t care. This is hardly a diverse cross section of academia and seems to subvert both the intellectual freedom of tenure and ostensible goal of democratized professionalism. Moreover (and I’ll admit this is tinged with as much paranoia as jealousy), I wonder whether our scramble to do what counts, particularly in an era of increased competition and economic austerity, has intensified the value of informal professional networks that provide connections for publication, research, presentation, grants, and other perks that allow high performing academics to skirt both the risk of DIY and the stench of more marginal publication and professional practices.  

What is lost in all this is that most of us entered academia not to do things that count, but to do work that matters. As I read more and more on academic culture, I wonder whether the larger professionalization project hasn’t failed in some profound ways. The idea of counting to produce a level playing field in academia has, instead, created a culture where we reserve innovation to finding ways to put the round pegs of our varied professional lives into the square holes of institutional expectations, diversify our portfolios in the name of impact factors and risk aversion, and still lean heavily on non-professional relationships, the “old boys club,” or other shadow networks to advance our professional goals. I hope we still do privilege in our race to be counted things that matter.

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”