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to publish a certain amount of their material so they could attack other (usually junior) scholars on the basis of “unpublished material” from their own dig or other secret knowledge.)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.) 


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.

AJA1203 02Donati pdf page 8 of 40

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. 

The Impossibility of a Slow Professor? (Part 2)

The problem of making a post with a “part 1” is that I feel obligated to publish a “part 2.” Go read Part 1, which is basically a review of  Maggie Berg’s and Barbara Seeber’s The Slow Professor (Toronto 2016). In it, I suggest that the problem with their lovely little book is that many (if not all) of the conditions that produced a professionalized faculty are the same that have produced a corporatized university. We can’t be professionalized – with the clear distinction between work and life – and slow because the industrial roots of the process of professionalization are inseparable from the kind of social acceleration that has so impacted our working life. In other words, you can’t look for work/life balance without understanding the notion of “work” and “life” as products of the professionalization process.

If Berg and Seeber really want to understand how to embrace being a slow profession, I think they need to consider a fundamentally new model for life in the academy. This isn’t a radical proposition, actually. Most faculty in the humanities are not fully professionalized and our refusal to completely grasp the work/life division provides us with the opportunity to do meaningful work. Part of the slow movement’s core philosophy (such as it exists beyond a series of vaguely interrelated platitudes) is to live life in a more deliberate, thoughtful, and engaged way and to avoid the slick efficiencies that dominate the corporate world and its tradition of industrial speed. After all, time is money.

In the place of an industrial model, I wonder if we should think of what we do in the academy as craft rather than work. I recognize that this has risks. That standardization and professionalization of academia is part of a larger process that marginalized the kind of informal practices that made disciplines “old boys clubs” unfriendly to women, minorities, and unorthodox ideas. Professionalization has contributed to a more fair and inclusive work space by managing the grown of informal policies. The trick for the slow professor is to preserve the spirit of professionalism, the sense of fairness, the inclusiveness, and the democratic standards in university life, while at the same time grounding this in an earlier model for understanding academic life. 

1. Do work that matters. One of the great things about the humanities is that we can blur work/life so easily by simply doing work that matters to our life. We can draw on our experiences, our community, and our family as an influence on our scholarship. A walk with my wife can be a research trip, serving on a committee in the community can spark new ideas, and my experiences on a lazy early summer day can shape a published article. Live a life where it’s impossible to “take time off” from doing “work.”

2. Work with friends. One of the aspects of the Slow Professor that I really liked was their chapter on the value of collaboration in creating a more meaningful experience from research. (It goes without saying that the output of collaborative ventures tends to be better than that from the solo author… at least in my experience). I’d expand Berg and Seeber’s view of collaboration to suggest that we make a real effort to collaborate with friend. While there is always a risk of group think in these situations, I would add that there is also an opportunity to further erode the boundaries between work and life that threaten to box in creativity and to compartmentalize how we see the world.  

3. Control your work. While academics often complain about the relentless pace and expectations of university life, we can equally impatient about our work as it wends its way through the publication process. I contend that the division of writing from publishing (that is the work of publishing) locates writing as a stage in the process of knowledge production that culminates, to some degree in the appearance of a publication. The division of labor throughout this process reinforces the professionalization of academic work (as well as publishing) and it supports a system that is designed – in large part – to improve the efficiency of our work. To be clear, I’m not overlooking the value of peer review, copy editing, careful typesetting, et c., but I do think that our work should adopt more fluid models that subvert the calls for professional efficiency by exploring ways to control the entire process of knowledge production.

4. Break things. I loved that The Slow Professor recognized that the slow movement was a form of resistance. At a number of meeting on campus lately, administrators have emphasized that we as faculty need to assert authority through action. In most cases, the actions that we’re expected to take coincide with administrative initiatives. At the same time, being a slow professor does offer a strategy to undermine the “audit culture” so prevalent in the modern university. It takes a commitment, however, to slow processes down, to disengage from the pressures of both disciplinary and institutional expectations, and to break things designed to speed up, to improve efficiency, and to undermine our ability to blend work and life. Being a slow professor involves more than just embracing the virtues of a non-professional life, it involves working and taking risks to create that space within institutions designed to promote professional values. 

Speed and Practice for a Digital Archaeology

I spent rainy and grey Sunday afternoon Skyping away to glorious Boulder, Colorado and a panel at the Theoretical Archaeology Group annual meeting. The papers were engaging and the conversation was fruitful. My paper is “below the fold.”

As per usual, everything is always about me, and the biggest take away that I have from this panel is that I want to explore the relationship between field practice, analysis, publication, and … branding. My ideas are still really unformed right now, but I think I want to explore the link between how we do our work and how we build our “brand” in a world that is shaped by not only the real flow of capital, but also a set of expectations that are dictated by a totalizing neoliberal (modern?) view of the world.

Anyway, the final paragraph of this paper would be a point of departure for another book that I probably won’t have time or intellectual horsepower to write, but one could imagine the chapters:

1. Introduction
2. Slow Archaeology in Field Practice
3. Digital Archaeology and the End of Place
4. Cooperative and Collaborative Modes of Publishing 
5. Slow Archaeology as Brand: Archaeology and Culture 
6. Conclusion

Anyway, I’ll add it to the queue, but see below for the paper. 

Speed and Practice for a Digital Archaeology

William Caraher, University of North Dakota Paper
Delivered in the panel “Just Google It: Archaeology, Pop Culture, and Digital Media” at the
Theoretical Archaeology Group Annual Meeting Boulder, Colorado
April 24, 2016


I had this ambitious idea to start this paper with a discussion of David Harvey’s idea of time and space, to flow gracefully into a discussion of Virilio’s dromoscopy, and then consider Harmut Rosa’s recent views on social acceleration while sprinkling my clever introduction with references to the more popular (and problematic) slow food movement. Then I realized I’m joining this panel over Skype, and this probably does more to demonstrate the peculiar situation facing traditional scholarly discourse in the 21st century than me generalizing a complex and subtle body of theory. The space and speed of scholarly conversation and archaeological knowledge production has changed significantly over the past two decades and this is having real impacts on how archaeologists do there work.

To put this in some larger context, this paper is an extension of my recent interest in technology and speed in archaeological fieldwork. I have recently tried to argue – with varying degrees of success and acceptance – that the more recent crop of digital tools have transformed fieldwork by accelerating the longstanding interest in efficiency to the detriment of an engaged, reflexive, practice. I’ve called my critique “slow archaeology” and while it hasn’t exactly caught on, it gave me an excuse to think about speed in archaeology more broadly. In fact, it caused me to wonder how much of the current interest in our ability to use the digital realm – particularly the internet – to build communities, link data, and collect and distribute knowledge freely is tied to the speed of the digital age and its impact on the complex network of social practices and technology that constitutes our world. Part of this is my sensitivities as a landscape archaeologist to place and David Harvey’s compelling observation that the time of “late capitalism” annihilated spatial barriers and fundamentally transformed the notion of space and place.

The barriers that I’ve become particularly curious about are those between the private and public work of archaeology. I am thinking about private archaeological space nestled within what Bruno Latour called “black boxes” which can range from complex and proprietary digital devices to old style analogue notebooks, casual conversations between colleagues, and correspondence that have – more or less – resisted rapid dissemination and reproduction. The public work of the discipline appears in lectures, traditional publications, site presentation, and museums. This division between a public and private archaeology coincides with a deeply modern line in the discipline that divides the collection of archaeological information in the field and the work necessary to understand it from its interpretation and publication. As our interest in gaining efficiency in the field, for example, has blurred the distinction between data collection and publication as archaeological information collected with digital tools is nearly ready for public consumption as “raw data.” The acceleration of academic correspondence has likewise introduced blurred generic divisions when conference papers circulate beyond the audience at the conference, informal academic conversation transpires in the public space of social media, and public working drafts anticipate peer review.

Speed and the Ambiguities of Publishing

Last month, the New York Times published an article in their science section documenting how a group of biologists, including Nobel laureate Carol Greider, “went rogue” and published pre-prints of important research on the bioRxiv site for open research. This kind of thing is hardly new, although perhaps a researcher of Greider’s stature adds some additional clout to this particular case study. The Times article observed that this kind of publishing is useful because it brings scholarly attention to pressing, immediate problems like the outbreak of the zika virus. These articles appear prior to peer review and this follows a practice common in various fields in the social and traditional sciences. Peer review, then, takes place at a later stage of the publication process and serves mostly to validate ideas after they have been subject to intense scrutiny from a wider academic audience. The audience for this kind publication is product of speed. In fact, the hashtag associated with these publications is #ASAPbio. (For more on this go here).

Archaeological research rarely enjoys the urgency of zika outbreak (and that’s probably a good thing), but we can still argue that timely publication forms an important responsibility for archaeologists. This responsibility is not as simple as just sending a report to one of the rapidly proliferating number of journals or preparing a manuscript for a publication series. Speed, of course, is a factor in understanding the dissemination of archaeological knowledge. In a traditional archaeological publication, archaeological knowledge percolates slowly through the publication processes. This pace cultivates a sense of indeterminacy that parallels the casual encounter with a site or an object. Years of research, conversation, and even arguments allow archaeological artifacts to accrue meaning. In my experience as survey archaeologist, the production of archaeological knowledge comes as a result of hours, days, and weeks of walking through a landscape and talking, thinking, and seeing. As a result, a site or an object comes slowly into view and one’s perceptions of the thing changes. In traditional archaeological practice, characterized by peer-reviewed and often paper publications, final published artifact represents the total of this deliberate process that begins in the field and culminates, often many years later, with the final publication. One might even extend this further to argue that getting access to the results of traditional publications involves a process of patient waiting for books and article to arrive via interlibrary loan or enter into a libraries catalogue. A review of a book might take another two years.

Like fieldwork, academic publishing proceeds at a deliberate pace limited as much by social convention as technological limitations. Many of the technological barriers associated with traditional academic publishing, however, have come down. Today, scholars have embraced scholarly publishing tools that allow for the almost instant dissemination of archaeological information through blogging platforms, the social media, or applications designed to publish digital images of objects like Omeka, Kore, or Mukurtu. The speed with which artifacts, sites, and analysis become public has, of course, caused alarm and confusion.

For example, some countries have sought to limit how archaeological data enters the digital realm, demonstrating some real discomfiture with the character of instantaneous publication. Even archaeologists experienced with the nuances of the digital realm find it challenging to discern the relative value and generic character of new digital forms. A recent blog post by long-time blogger Michael Smith inspired a tempest of debate when it offered a less than polished critique of a paper presented by Rosemary Joyce at the University of Colorado the night before. Whatever one thinks of the particulars of this conversation, it is clear that some of the debate focused on both sides understanding how something like a blog post contributed to academic conversation. Smith’s blog appeared quickly, embraced an informal language, and demonstrated a kind of eagerness to engage and critique that most academic writing lacks. The response from the anthropology department – disseminated via Facebook – demonstrated some offense to Smith’s blog post citing in particular that “Small children often see things and instantly want them… Smith never learned the kind of discipline/impulse control that they had acquired by the time they were perhaps 8 years old…” The intemperate character of Smith’s response was related to its speedy appearance and that paragraph of the response concludes with a blanket statement about blogging: “But blogging on the internet does evidently does not require understanding, a sense of professional courtesy and ethics, or much thought of any kind.” 

It is clear that some of the anthropology department’s critique stems from a particular understanding of blogging as a medium. For example, they suggest that “most people who by their own admission did not understand a lecture would refrain from commenting on it.” Perhaps the authors of this statement meant “would refrain from commenting publicly on it,” and that would make clear that public nature of a blog distinguished it from the kind of private scholarly conversation that often occurs after a lecture where scholars try to make sense of complicated ideas and invariable misunderstand or admit to incomprehension. The problem with Smith’s blog then was its immediacy and how this immediacy is more frequently restricted to private space of conversation than the public space of the published word. (For more on this go here and here).

Speed and Slow Data

Even if we accept that the rapid publication of opinions about public lectures falls to the margins of significant scholarly expression, most archaeologists can agree that the timely dissemination of archaeological data is a disciplinary responsibility. It is almost possible to publish data directly from the field (and in effect, some projects do this when they push data from tablets to servers from the field), and this practice would reduce almost all latency between field work and publishing.

Recently, however, some scholars have suggested that instant data production may not represent the ideal. Eric Kansa, for example, has argued for “slow data” as an alternative to hyper-efficient models designed to collect “big data” sets. Kansa suggested that slow data stands at the intersection of thoughtful collection, curation, and dissemination practices. While Kansa’s soon-to-be-published work will develop these ideas more fully (he has posted a draft on Github), he articulates “slow data” as the digitized aspect of slow archaeology. In my toying with ideas related to a slow archaeology – that is an archaeology that is explicitly aware of how our desire to accelerate and become more efficient influenced practice – I considered how speed has influenced the kind of data that we collect in the field and suggested that some forms of data are still not suitable or useful for rapid digital dissemination. The more complex the data sets, the more curation is required and the slower the pace from trench or survey unit to published data set. Curation is the private work of archaeology carried out within a kind of Latourian black box, “behind the scenes” that serves as a buffer between the private experience of field work and the public world of publication.

If pushing out an overly-informal blog post less than 24 hours after a public lecture demonstrates the potential risks associated with almost instant publication, Kansa’s work and the ideas behind slow archaeology seek to understand how the generally positive attitudes toward more efficient and timely archaeological publication entail certain compromises as well.


Speed is changing the nature of archaeological publications, and the changing landscape of archaeological publishing is accelerating and transforming the discipline. There now seems to be legitimate – and at times heated – debate concerning the speed with which ideas and objects should move from the mind of the scholar or some archaeological context to the public. Perhaps we should not be surprised by this. As recent thinkers about speed have recognized, certain expectations of speed and the disciplinary underpinnings of archaeology share a profoundly modern view of the world. The speed of the digital world, in particular, is breaching divisions between public and private space within a disciplinary discourse. Harvey described the “annihilation of space by time” in the flow of global capital. We might apply this idea to the space of the academic discourse where the speed with which ideas can circulate has undercut the various modern boundaries that have compartmentalized the disciplinary practices.

I might even the nudge these ideas a bit further. Objects, landscapes, data, and knowledge can now circulate the world at the speed of light; a 3D print of a scanned lithic artifact retains enough of its physicality to be identifiable. The use of low-cost and efficient 3D structure-from-motion imaging is close to allowing entire contexts to be analyzed, reconstructed, distributed, and critiqued. Speed is undermining concepts of ownership grounded in a physical possession, context, or an archaeological sense of place.

In my work on slow archaeology, I argued that archaeology should remain critical of practices designed to increase efficiency in the field. As I think about disciplinary speed more broadly, however, I wonder whether current efforts to renegotiate the expectations of time and speed facing archaeology today demonstrate more profound challenges that extend beyond the discursive limits of archaeology as a discipline or a method and ask us to consider the larger place of archaeology within culture as a whole.

The Impossibility of a Slow Professor (Part 1)

I really enjoyed reading Maggie Berg’s and Barbara Seeber’s The Slow Professor (Toronto 2016) this weekend. It was a lovely book, and a nice essay length introduction to the slow movement as a possible foundation for resistance to the accelerating pace of academic expectations and, more broadly, as an accessible interpretative position for critiquing the modern world. 

The slow movement initially emerged as a critique of agribusiness and the globalization of food. Slow food emphasized locally produced and prepared produce and cultivated an interest in local styles of cooking and dining. On the one hand, this approach to consumption is a luxury available to hyper-affluent and increasingly post-industrial western society. On the other hand, advocates of slow food argue that a move to more sustainable agricultural and consumer practices offer benefits to more than just refined western palates, but to the increasingly unviable global economy and environment. From these positions, individuals have applied concepts borrowed from the slow movement to critique the accelerating pace of modern life. Here the popular concept of slow intersects with more thoughtful critiques of speed developed by philosophers like Paul Virilio and Hartmut Rosa and perhaps most powerfully in the Marxist critiques of David Harvey. Reader of this blog know that I’ve applied the concept to the influence of technology on archaeological field work and co-edited a volume of North Dakota Quarterly on the topic.   

The Slow Professor applied the concept of slow to academia. They argue that the permanent state of crisis has helped fuel an increased service workloads, research expectations, and teaching pressures. Most of this pressure on faculty, as Berg and Seeber see it, derives from the rise of the corporate university which has promoted a kind of audit culture that to assign quantifiable outcomes to all aspects of higher education. Whatever the validity of this approach to higher education, for Berk and Seeber, it has put a massive premium on time and led to a dramatic increase in stress among faculty. This stress has made faculty less able to teach and research effectively. 

A few years ago, I documented what I did every day for about 2 months to get a sense for how I spent my time. I discovered that I worked just over 75 hours per week and about 40 hours per week are dedicated to research, reading, and writing. 3-4 hours per day relates to teaching or service (or about 30 hours per week), and about 5 hours a day (or 35 hours per week) is leisure ranging from about 1:45 minutes eating, an hour a day watching TV, a couple of hours exercising. I suspect that my life reflects, more or less, the average academic workload. In other words, my world is more or less symptomatic of what Berg and Seeber see as problematic in academia. To be a moderately productive scholar takes a serious commitment of time.

Berg and Seeber look at ways to slow down our busy academic lives from taking time to savor and enjoy the experience of teaching to respecting the irregular schedule of research and writing, building time and space for collegiality, and the genuine joys of collaboration. In general, they stop short of giving direct advice for how to slow down our hectic pace, but do a nice job of arguing that we should take more time during our day to step back from our immediate pressures and use this space to let our minds settle into less structured, but perhaps more productive rhythms. This is good advice and most harried faculty will appreciate the message that sometimes less is more.

The problem with this book, however, is that they critique the corporate university without really offering a meaningful alternative. In some ways, the absence of an alternative to an academic world dominated by a concern for outcomes undermined the subversive message of the book. If taking the time to enjoy teaching made us better teachers, if working to cultivate collaboration and collegiality makes us better researchers, and if embracing the often circuitous route of research makes our work more engaged and engaging, then the slow movement doesn’t necessarily offer an explicit way our of the academic grind. If being good teachers, good researchers, and good colleagues remain priorities, they offer little in the book that connects a slow approach with any kind of recognizable outcome. Their book insists that embracing a slow approach to academia will help us do our jobs better, but they don’t make entirely clear what better really means.

They also seem to accept that academic work as professional work. For example, part of their goal for advocating a slow approach to being an academic is finding the right “work/life balance.” Unfortunately, the slow movement is decidedly more ambivalent about the modern distinction between work and life. The professional professor is someone who has, to some extent, bought into a model of the modern, corporate university. In fact, the professionalization of the disciplines was a contributing factor to the emergence of an outcome driven university. The professional disciplines required measurable standards in order to ensure that they contributed to the university and, more importantly, society. After all, if your law school graduates can’t pass the bar exam or your accountants can balance the books, it’s hard to advocate for the utility of professional, academic training.

As part of this professionalization process, practitioners of disciplinary knowledge – whether in the humanities and social sciences or in more professional fields – increasingly shifted from avocational, “gentleman scholars” to working members of the middle class. If we as professors provided vital training for the functioning of the university and the society (typically construed as the nation), then we wanted to be recognized as professionals ourselves and our disciplines increasingly took on the trappings of professional organizations. The idea that being a professional historian or a English professor or whatever is our jobs and work, is something that paralleled the rise of the university as a vital cog in the “military-industrial complex.” As part of the rise of the modern university, we set standards for ourselves, our disciplines, and our work and defined what we did in our offices, in research, and in the classroom as separate from our “lives.” As a result, it is impossible to separate issues of work/life balance from the rise of the corporate, modern university.

I’d contend that many of these many aspects of the modern university run counter to the basic ideas embodied in the slow movement. Whether its the expectation that higher education have a degree of uniformity, our concern about some form of measurable “standards” (grades, assessment, accreditation, et c.) or our view that professors have formal credentials (the Ph.D. is a professional degree), we run counter to a slow movement that frequently sees these regularized aspects of modern society as the kinds of traps push people to have less authentic encounters with their world. A tomato harvested from a backyard garden doesn’t have standards, doesn’t meet codes, and requires only the barest level of mediation for us to enjoy it fully and completely. Once we embrace the idea that work and life should be separate and “in balance,” we partition off the authentic experiences of living from what we do to make money. Our professional, economic self is not our “living” self. 

While I recognize that our work as university educators and researchers often forces us to blur the distinction between “life” and work. In fact, I’m writing this post in my home office and fretting about a raft of paperwork and an unfinished conference paper. My university’s budget cuts that will be announced later today will impact my quality of life because they will invariably reduce opportunities for public cultural events in our community, spread anxiety through local businesses, colleagues, and students, and undermine good will. These are “life” issues that are not separate from “work” issues even if I know that my salary and position is relatively secure. My reading of a slow life recognizes the deep interpenetration of living and working and undermines distinctions like the dreaded (and largely meaningless) “work/life balance” as well as the very underpinnings of the modern, professionalization project.