Ephemera

I’ve been thinking a good bit about ephemera lately and how to distinguish between things that should be kept and cherished and things that have value in the moment, but there’s no particular reason to keep them in our lives and world. I always think of newspapers and magazines as ephemera. They are useful to read on a lazy Sunday, but are best kept (and slowly altered and recombined and sifted) in our memories than on the end table in the living room or in a stack near the most comfortable chair in the house.

A few things promoted me to think about the ephemeral.

First, one my goals for North Dakota Quarterly was to make the entire run of the journal available on various online platforms. The idea is that people could delve back into the Quarterly and find overlooked gems or return to reflect on an essay or story. To that end, I’ve linked to a bunch of the NDQ archive online and made it available via the HathiTrust, the archives has seen a good flow of traffic, which is heartening, but only about 5% of the visitors click through. 

One of the things that I’ve come to realize about little magazines is that they have an ephemeral quality to them. The desire among some members of my editorial board to produce NDQ in paper was grounded not in the persistence of the medium, but, in someways, in its ephemerality, in parallel with magazines and newspapers, compared to the easy persistence of digital formats. 

Second, I read a few posts lately about the carbon footprint of websites and the emerging low-tech green web. I’ve toyed with the idea refashioning my blog as a static site. This is partly because static sites are lightweight, quick to load, and widely compatible with even the most simple devices and use less energy. I also wonder whether I a very lightweight static site would complement a version of my blog where I produce a single post per day and that post to overwrites the previous days post. This would create a more ephemeral quality to my web writing. The ideas and text would be accessible for a day and then vanish (or move onto a more permanent home in an article or a conference paper or something else).  

An experiment like this would both be liberating for me (as I could be more provocative when I am less worried about the archive of my site being easily accessible forever), but I also could write more in the moment with less responsibility to trace some kind of coherent arc of thought.

Less selfishly, it would also celebrate the vibrancy of media ephemerality not as producing idea that don’t persist, but as a way to create ideas that only persist within the person who reads them and are not burdened by reference to a particular text. 

Finally, I started think more about the tension between possessions and things. The idea that we possess a thing implies its persistence. An embrace of the ephemeral, on the other hand, privileges the momentary utility of an object. As various popular voices have urged us to minimize our possessions and maintain a trim and tidy personal space, it seems to me that they’ve drawn greater attention to the value of ephemeral objects that are useful and then passed on or discarded once they’ve served their immediate purpose. On the one hand, this might create a world where there are fewer things encroaching on our space. On the other hand, personal austerity rarely is possible without access to a wide range of services and objects that are ready to use, but also at arm’s length. Useful and ephemeral things appear in our lives and disappear back into the margins when their purpose is fulfilled. (I’ve argued, playfully, that pickup trucks are like that. Despite being a symbol of bourgeois excess, they are often useful, and truck owners often share their vehicles with a community of friends and neighbors who, for various reasons, do not want to burdens of truck ownership.)   

A New Golden Age of Blogging Antiquity

2019 is an important year for bloggers. It marks the 20th anniversary of the Blogger platform which appeared in August of 1999. Four years later, Typepad and WordPress appeared and the Blogosphere emerged as a significant space for politics, creativity, and academic expression.  

In 2008, I wrote a little piece on the “Blogging Archaeology and the Archaeology of Blogging” for the now-defunct AIA blog. I followed this up in 2015 with a piece co-authored with Andrew Reinhard in Internet Archaeology: “From Blogs to Books: Blogging as Community, Practice and Platform.” In both of these pieces, I imagined a world where blogging would complement or at least slowly encroach on traditional scholarly practices (a view shared by several other bloggers). Blogs would not only reveal how the sausage of academic knowledge was made by being an outlet for preliminary drafts, rough and raw ideas, and fragments that have value, but don’t fit the argument of the moment. I also thought blogging would provide a place for academic conversations, critique, and comment that would lead to formation of new communities unconstrained distance or academic affiliation or rank. Finally, I thought that the gap between informed readers in the general public and academic readers was relatively small. This view of blogging has largely informed what I write on my blog. 

I also think that it’s probably wrong. I didn’t really anticipate the growing impact of social media. I probably underestimated how deeply entrenched traditional writing, publishing, and knowledge making practices were. Blogs continued to be fairly marginal spaces for serious scholarship in archaeology with a few notable exceptions (like Andrew Reinhard’s Archaeogaming blog , Colleen Morgan’s blogJeremy Hugget at Introspective Digital Archaeology, or Shawn Graham at Electric Archaeologist). More than that, I think I misread the interest by the general public in how academic knowledge was made.

What I missed in my narrow interpretation of academic blogging is that this practice also provided space for sustained and meaningful critiques of institutional practices in archaeology and related fields. To be clear, I don’t see academic work and institutional or disciplinary critiques as mutually exclusive, but when I consider the impact of academic bloggers over the last few years, I see their incisive and thoughtful criticism of academic practices far more valuable than the smattering of academic or popular citations that my blog has seen (as just one example).

The online work of Sarah Bond, for example, while taking nothing away at her steadfast effort to engage a diverse audience, has offered brilliant and distinctive commentary on the political and institutional character of ancient history (and her work with the SCS blog likewise highlights recent debates in the discipline of Classics). Rebecca Futo-Kennedy’s blog is another remarkable space for disciplinary critique in matters of race, gender, and civilization. Dimitri Nakassis’s blog has also provided insights and offered arguments along similar lines and Andre Costopoulos’s blog has consistently critiqued academic publishing and recently the character of field work projects.  Larger projects like Eidolon or Sententiae Antiquae provide remarkable platforms for conversations about the future, past, and present of the discipline. Eidolon’s commitment to a wide range of often-marginalized voices represents an important expression of the egalitarian spirit present among some of the earliest academic bloggers who wrote as the “Invisible Adjunct” or BitchPhD. 

What is more, it is pretty clear that there is an audience for this kind of commentary and critique. Even my modest efforts along those lines saw a 50% increase in page views, but also comments both on the blog and across social media. My more academic posts don’t get nearly as much attention. In other words, there’s an audience for this kind of work among academics. 

In particular, this new Golden Age of Blogging (in caps!) is backed by a robust and consistent social media presence and a willingness to engage with readers in near realtime (rather than occasionally as commenters).  It shows that while blogging may not have toppled traditional publishing practices or provided an outlet for a wider audience to engage with scholarly practices, methods, and knowledge making at a provisional stage, it nevertheless has played a key roll in challenging academic orthodoxies through direct critique of institutional and academic practices. I’m pretty happy to have a venue to contribute my little part to making academia better (or at least trying), and while I probably still want to believe that there is an audience for the academic process, I’m also not disappointed that a new Golden Age is doing something quite different with the venerable old blog.

Unlocking the Commons: Tim Carmody, NDQ, Amazon, and the Digital Press

There is a ton of tech writing on the internet these days and some of it is really good. None is better, I think than Tim Carmody who wrote really great pieces for The Verge and Wired back in the day, and now partners with one of the original bloggers, Jason Kottke, to produce a regular newsletter called Noticing that blends content from Kottke.org and the rest of the web. He also has a Ph.D. in Comparative literature from Penn.

What’s more interesting to me lately is his interest in the economics of good writing on the web. As a writer, editor, and a publisher, I have long relaxed in the relatively luxury of academia which has given me the security to do creative work — whether through my professional writing, my blog, my editorial role at North Dakota Quarterly, or my work as publisher at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota — without having to get too far into the weeds of funding and finance. At the same time, I do realize that if these projects are going to have a life beyond my own energies and attention, some kind of sustainable model will have to exist to support them.

Carmody has proposed and developed a model that he calls “unlocking the commons.” It is predicated on the idea that a project – like his new newsletter on Amazon – needs a certain amount of support to exist. Carmody is a freelance writer and, from what I gather, he earns his income from his writing. At the same time, Carmody is aware that locking content behind a paywall or the like makes it difficult to demonstrate the value of the content and difficult for supporters and authors to share their work. In fact, it actually reduces the impact of any content produced by making it less visible and less likely to influence a larger community. In this way, Carmody is following arguments long held by the open access community who see the value of creative work not in its narrow and immediate monetary value realized through subscribers, but in its expansive potential to inspire and influence a wide range of audiences. By unlocking the commons, subscriber support allows Carmody to develop his ideas, write, and produce his work, and once it is supported, the work is available freely to anyone who wants to read it. He and Jason Kottke modeled this approach with Kottke.org’s membership program, which apparently worked.

For his new newsletter on Amazon, the threshold for unlocking the commons and making supporting Carmody to produce one newsletter per week was 200 subscribers at $5 per month. If he manages 400 subscribers at $5 per month, he’ll write two articles per week. You can subscribe and support the newsletter here.

This project is interesting to me for two reasons.

First, NDQ has a money problem. Right now, it’s not existential, but it is limiting. We have a great publishing partner in the University of Nebraska Press, and moving forward, they will handle subscriptions and most production for the Quarterly. The goal is that as we rebuild our subscriber base, we can break even for UNP and, then, with a little help from our community, generate some revenue. In the meantime, we rely on three sources of revenue: a small endowment that provides us with enough to copy edit the journal, a funding “backstop” provided by donors and income generated by The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, and surplus energy provided by our editors and editorial board. This is enough to keep our head above water and to survive the occasional emergency, but isn’t really enough to innovate in a sustainable way. 

Recently, several editorial board members suggested that we install a reading fee for submissions. Other members of the editorial board pushed back arguing that the submitters and contributors MAKE the journal and they shouldn’t be charged for that privilege. While I’m not entirely convinced by this argument, I share its broad sentiment that submissions should remain free as a way to encourage the widest possible range of potential contributors. Moreover, ideologically, there’s something democratic about allowing anyone to contribute and, practically, I think even a modest reading fee might discourage contributions from marginal writers especially in the global south.

What if instead of a reading fee, we included a link to a Patreon or Memberful account or created a formal NDQ newsletter using Substack subscription. To be clear, these wouldn’t be subscriptions in a formal sense — that is money provided in exchange for a product — but they’d unlock the commons and make more of the same creative content that typifies NDQ. More than that, the synergy between a funded newsletter and the regular publication of NDQ will be complementary. After all, the print version of NDQ is what makes us NDQ.

The second interest that I have in Carmody’s new project is that we built The Digital Press, in part, on Amazon’s print-on-demand infrastructure. Whether we like it or not, the world still loves paper books, and the ability to distribute our paper books from the nearly global Amazon marketplace is a massive advantage to a small press like ours.

At the same time, we realize that using Amazon is problematic. First, it limits our reach to small book sellers in the region who have not really warmed to Amazon’s direct sales to retailers. Second, Amazon’s labor practices and corporate culture are in many ways antithetical to the values that we have at The Digital Press. Thirdly, our relationship with Amazon’s production system, platform, and marketplace is completely outside of our control. Of course, as our catalogue expands, we will likely have other opportunities to partner with distributors, but at present, we’re stuck with Amazon whether we like it or not.

Carmody’s regular columns exploring Amazon as a company will offer us insights into both the present and future of the current distribution model for The Digital Press. 

A Year in Blogging

Over the past couple of years, blogging has attracted some renewed interest. Folks have become increasingly wary of social media for obvious reasons. There continues to be an interest in long-form writing on the web, and the long-standing interest in public outreach and low cost of entry has always made blogging an appealing option for scholars in the humanities who want to expand the audience for their work. 

At the same time, blogs have become a bit passe and fit awkwardly into changing Internet culture. On the one hand, this risk of exposing oneself to the wilds of the internet feel greater than ever as social media has accelerated and amplified growing coarseness and incivility in public discourse and created a space for the worst elements in our society to operate behind a veil of relative anonymity. On the other hand, the rise in podcasts, email newsletter, and a new generation of high-quality multi-author sites (and the decline of blogrolls, aggregators, and other web infrastructure that made the famous blogosphere possible) has created a new web landscape that makes blogging seems rather more pointless than maybe it was a decade ago.

That all being said, I did somehow manage to write slightly over 158,000 words in 225 posts on my blog this year. That’s just over 700 words per post which is the longest average post since I started blogging in 2007. This year also saw the fewest post since 2008. 

As far as traffic goes, I’ve had about 28,000 views from 17, 378 visitors. This is slightly higher than the last couple of years, but nowhere near as busy as 2013-2015. The main drivers of traffic is search engines, followed by Twitter, Facebook, Wordpress Reader, the WARP website, and various places that have reposted or linked to various posts. The most popular posts for the year were my review of Donna Zuckerberg’s book, my list of links to various ASOR Annual volumes, a post on Wesley College at UND, a review of Andrew Reinhard’s Archaeogaming book, and my little discussion of Sarah Murray’s recent article on Hesperia.  

Finally, I’ve been toying the idea of doing something different with the blog. Maybe making a weekly or month newsletter to draw attention to my post, as well as those by other people, that I really enjoy. I’ve toyed with the idea of opening up my blog to more, different voices. I’ve even pondered ramping it down to three posts a week or focusing more on projects in 2019. In the end, this is all probably unlikely, because as much as I probably need to change things up, I’m more pre-occupied with other projects to have time to think through what this change could and should be. In short, look for more of the same in the coming months.

Happy New Year!

Reflecting on Blogging in 2018

For whatever reason, I tend to think of blogging at the end of the calendar year. In the past, I’d publish (mostly tongue-in-cheek) an Archive of my blog which was really just a pdf of the blog posts, lightly edited, and made available for download. I believe the last one that I did was in 2015.

This week, I actually decided to look at my blogs statistics for the first time in months and, at around the same time, I started to think a bit about how I prioritized my time, how I wanted to make an impact on my field and the world, and whether maintaining a blog even matters as we come to the end of the 21st century’s second decade.

Readers of this blog know, of course, that I’ve taken on some new responsibilities over the past few years, from publishing The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota to editing North Dakota Quarterly (and, at the end of the year, the Annual of ASOR). This work is very gratifying because it allows me to work and learn from a remarkable group of authors and editors and bring their work to a wider audience. In fact, it gives me the same sense of excitement that I had in graduate school when each quarter introduced me to new books, new ideas, and new approaches to studying the past. 

It also stands in distinct contrast to my work on the blog which tends to be about my own work and ideas. It’s not that sharing my views on things is bad, but it’s just not the direction that my career is going. The time I spend writing here and promoting my own view of things detracts in some ways from my ability to work with the words and ideas of others. At the same time, I do think that I’ve learned a good bit by writing my own words. I’ve wrestled ideas on this blog into articles, books, and edited volumes (and I have a couple of more of those in the pipeline) and learned about the publishing business from the perspective of an author as much as from the editor’s perch or working as a typesetter, reviewer, and marketer for my little press. 

There’s also the issue of audience. Over the past two or three years, the audience for my blog has plateaued at around 80 per day. I suspect partly because there are more really great bloggers out there than in the past (although to be fair these aren’t all new bloggers!), there are more remarkable web-based projects too, and social media occupies a more central role in academic and popular communication about our field. At the same time, my blog posts have gotten longer. This year, my average post was over 700 words which is about 20% more than my average post over the past 8 years. I’m averaging about 240 posts per year, but only 230 in the past couple of years. I think I’ll manage to fall a bit short of that mark this year (this is my 203rd post for 2018), but still write about 150,000 words which is a bit more than my 145,000 word average for the past 7 years. I’ve written about 1.1 million words on the blog (and others have contributed an additional 50,000 or so). This is a lot of words that probably could be used somewhere else.

Finally, I do wonder whether blogging as a medium has entered into hoary middle age. I don’t think it has revolutionized academic communication (although it certainly has had its moments), and it doesn’t really represent a transgressive medium (if it ever did), although I suppose it has helped some voices be heard that would not have otherwise. Despite my optimism in the past for the place of blogging in an expanded and decentralized academic publishing ecosystem, I wonder whether other forms of communication, from the email newsletter to the collective web journal (like Eidolon) represent the development of web based communication (and allow for individual readers and authors to escape from the increasingly commercialized and commodified world of public internet). More than that, I wonder whether the vulnerability of individual voices on the public web has created a space that is unfriendly for solo voices and projects. 

The purpose of this is post is not to propose that I end my blog or stop blogging or whatever, but to think out loud about how blogging fits into my career, what it means to blog in the changing landscape of the internet, and what triggers would make me consider cutting back, transforming, or closing up the old blog shop. In the new year, I want to think a bit more explicitly about the goals of my blog and public humanities scholarship more broadly and figure out whether being a public voice is the only way to promote humanistic (and academic) values to a wider audience.  

Blogging as Slow Practice in a Post-Facebook World

Over the last few months I’ve thought a good bit about blogging. Part of this was motivated by the 10th anniversary of an article I wrote for Archaeology Magazine’s website on the “Blogging Archaeology and the Archaeology of Blogging.” This piece feels like it’s from another era when Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr were in their infancies and academic publishing on the web still felt like a risky proposition that needed to be explained or advocated (especially as this piece was written in my spare time as a fellow at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens!). More recently, Andrew Reinhard and I wrote a piece on blogging in archaeology for Internet Archaeology. In this piece, I tried to emphasize academic bloggers as disciplinary and generic community of practice that initially organized around blogrolls and RSS feeds and now has become increasingly mediated by the growing reach of social media. While the open reviewers of this piece (and my coauthor!) were somewhat less sanguine about the viability of blogs as a platform for serious scholarly communication, I remained committed to the blogging platform.

Only very recently, did I experience a crisis in faith for lots of reasons. Partly, I worried that my droning voice takes up a certain amount of space in the collective attention of my peers, colleagues, and readers, and I should maybe cede the floor. I also worried that maybe the culture of the web had changed enough that my rather unguarded posts could do real harm in an increasingly politically charged environment. After thinking about it for a few weeks and actually deciding to quit, I quietly kept blogging for all the reasons that I’ve always blogged

Over the last week, my friends and colleagues have started (once again) to announce their departure from Facebook after the most recent data mining scandal. I’m vaguely sympathetic in that I find Facebook’s business practices distasteful and annoying. Twitter continues to overwhelm me and I struggle to filter my feed down to manageable numbers of posts to read, people to follow, and conversations to engage.

On the opposite end of the new media spectrum from social media is the recent impressive growth of collaborative projects like Eidolon for Classics and, of course, the rise of the academic columnist on mainstream media platforms like Sarah Bond or Ian Bogost. These individuals and projects are remarkable for the scope and depth of their perspectives and the genuine spirit of collaboration, but they lack the provisional character of blogs and the polish and professionalism clearly indicate that these individuals (and the editors with whom they work) know how to play their instruments, speak to a wide audience, and, in the case of mainstream media platforms, generate content that attracts page views and advertising dollars to their patrons. 

Folks like Jason Kottke and Dan Cohen have written interesting things about the place that the independent blog occupies on the web. If social media and mainstream publishing are designed, to some extent, to commodify content – whatever their other benefits – independent blogging remains something else entirely. Among academics, the independent blog is almost certainly non-commercial (and in this way is manifestly a luxury of the “creative class” who have the time, freedom, and expertise to indulge such practices). In most cases it neither counts for academic promotion or tenure nor is it easily commodified. It relies, at best, on small pools of readers who know of its existence through word of mouth or random searches on the web. The quality of independent blogs is uneven and they ideas that they play are often provisional and require a kind of critical awareness on the part of reader. I’ve increasingly come to think of my blog as a space for first drafts and for ideas.

Finally, there is something unmistakably “slow” about independent blogs. While they certainly emerged alongside other manifestations of the interactive web (Web 2.0) with the expectation that readers would comment and engage with authors on blogs, the reality is that this rarely occurs on the blog page itself. More frequently, of course, are conversations between blogs with mutual links making clear contested or nuanced perspectives between authors, but even this practice is relatively deliberate and sparse compared to the spontaneity present in the dense social networks hosted by Facebook or Twitter.

More importantly, the links between blogs and bloggers are largely done by hand meaning that the intellectual, academic, and topical networks manifest in academic blogging are not algorithmically generated but genuine commitments to dialogue, sharing ideas, and community. If the automated communities of social media provide us with almost instant gratification, then the deliberate relationships established by blogging require patience and intentionality on the part of the reader and the writer. If the current flight from Facebook marks a change in how we consume media on the web, then as bloggers we have an opportunity to step into the gap and replace a sense of community based on computer generated relationships with one built around genuine connections to other writers and readers. This will be work, but might be worth it.

Announcing the Publication of Volume 1 of the Epoiesen Annual!

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota is very excited to announce the publication of the first volume of the Epoiesen Annual. This is an annual volume based on the extraordinary new journal, Epoiesen: A Journal for Creative Engagement in History and Archaeology, edited by Shawn Graham and colleagues and hosted by the library at Carleton University in Ottawa. Check it out here.

Epoiesen (ἐποίησεν) – made – is a journal for exploring creative engagement with the past, especially through digital means. It publishes primarily what might be thought of as “paradata” or artist’s statements that accompany playful and unfamiliar forms of singing the past into existence.

What have you made? What will you make? This journal, in its online home, makes space to valorize and recognize the scholarly ways of knowing that are expressed well beyond the text. Bill White reminds us why society allows archaeologists to exist in the first place:

“it is to amplify the whispers of the past in our own unique way so they can still be heard today.”

The journal seeks “to document and valorize the scholarly creativity that underpins our representations of the past. Epoiesen is therefore a kind of witness to the implied knowledge of archaeologists, historians, and other professionals, academics and artists as it intersects with the sources about the past. It encourages engagement with the past that reaches beyond our traditional audience (ourselves).”

Download, explore, or buy it today!

~

For a bit of the backstory, Epoiesen is really the work of a group of dedicated and innovative collaborators, editors, and partners, as Shawn Graham himself makes clear in the introduction. The native format for the journal is on the web, but Shawn reached out to The Digital Press in the middle of last year to explore producing a hybrid, print/digital (pdf) format. The hope is that this form will appeal to readers who more comfortable with print for reading, citing, and cataloging.

The work of the Digital Press, then, was largely translation from they dynamic digital form to the more conventional print-ready format which at times was a bit tricky, as even a quick review of the PDF will show. We adopted a format that intentionally played with the tidiness of the textbook and the grid, pushing images over the boundaries and outside of lines.

The cover is itself is a vibrant piece of scholarship thanks to Gabe Moshenska’s generous decision to make his book, Key Concepts in Public Archaeology, free and open access. For the cover design, we listened intently to the authors, members of the editorial board, and various sundry social media commentators. It seemed fitting that the cover emerged from the very creative, digitally mediate milieu that journal itself celebrates.

Finally, this project embodies the kind of laboratory publishing that The Digital Press has pursued since Punk Archaeology appeared four years ago. So it’s particularly fitting that on the fifth anniversary of the Punk Archaeology conference, some of the same collaborators (Andrew Reinhard, for example, designed the cover for Epoiesen) returned to the scene of the crime to produce this volume.

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.

End of the Blog?

Over the last week or so, I’ve been thinking a good bit about the future of this blog. I’ve been writing this blog for 10 or 11 years or something, and I’m starting to feel that it has strayed pretty far from its original intent. Or maybe it hasn’t. Maybe it is the context for the blog (and maybe blogging in general) has changed over the last decade.

I know for certain that my position in the field has changed and in academia has changed, and, as a result, my priorities have changed.

I also know that all projects should come to an end and, sometimes it is better to fade away rather than burn out.

This is what I’m thinking:

1. Internet Culture has Changed. Over the last year or so, I’ve had a few missteps in managing my online persona. Some of these are more visible than others for casual readers of this blog. For example, this summer, I responded a bit too assertively to an article. It was not my intent and I am still bothered by both what I said (I was not generous) and how I said it (I was too casual and flippant).

More recently, I was scolded by a couple trusted colleagues for responding a bit too puckishly to scholars on social media. In hindsight, I was clearly in the wrong and more than a bit tone deaf to both the medium and the particular conversation (and this isn’t the first time that I’ve been a bit off base). More than that, I responded in haste like I would in a casual conversation over beers rather than in a deliberate and thoughtful way. So not only were my comments hasty but they were unproductive as well. From the start I viewed social media as a kind of casual space designed for playful banter (something like the banter one has at the bar at an academic conference), but if we’ve learned anything from an armada of Russian bots, social media is much more than that. There is probably less space in it for my silly (and largely selfish) sense of humor today than there once was. People are doing serious work in social media and my fucking around is not helping.

At the same time, I wonder whether there is less space today for a blog like this. I’ve always seen it as a platform for the informal exploration of ideas, for half-baked throughs, and for intellectual ephemera. But as many of my colleagues have demonstratedespecially lately – blogs should do more than just serve as a platform for my assorted ramblings or as a self-indulgent expression of my puerile personality. More to the point, I worry whether continuing to write this blog runs the risk of diluting the good work that other folks are doing in this media. Things done changed.

2. Professional Persona. When I started this blog (approximately 2500 posts and a million words ago), I felt pretty marginal in academia. I was an Assistant Professor at a school on the edge of the frozen prairie. I worked on Cyprus and the Late Antique and Byzantine period. I was a specialist in material culture and archaeology in a history department. Even the archaeology that I did – intensive pedestrian survey – stood at the margins of conventional archaeological practice. I was relatively un-published and anything I wrote could be easily dismissed as the inconsequential thoughts of a junior faculty member at University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople. This gave me a good bit of cover and allowed me to cultivate a persona grounded in alternative practices whether punk archaeology or my overly enthusiastic embrace of blogging.

While I hate to admit this, I am no longer at the margins of my profession. I’m certainly not at the center or even a central figure, but I can no long indulge my vox clamantis fantasy. I have too many conference papers, invited talks, articles and books, and various other academic gewgaws to be a genuinely marginal figure in my field. I’ve run my own project, I have tenure, and I even have two dogs. With my professional development, however, comes greater expectations, and, as I asserted in point (1), probably requires me to embrace a greater seriousness of purpose in my online persona. This really struck home when in a debate this summer a scholar pointed out to me in a twitter thread that my position and academic credentials give much greater platform to assert my views.

It goes without saying that as a tenured, married, middle-class, white, male my very identity carries additional authority in public sphere. Even my scruffy beard and largely unkempt hair reinforces my academic credentials in an inescapably masculine way. My interest in stereotypical male things, from my editorializing on sport on my Friday Varia, to my fascinations with high-end stereo gear and fancy watches subtly (and unintentionally) assert my position as a male scholar.

My position then as a mid-career male scholar with tenure means that, whether I intend it or not, people take the things I do seriously. Even ideas and projects tinged with a bit of intentional frivolity, like Punk Archaeology, have attracted serious academic attention (and this has been remarkably gratifying to me!). More importantly, by taking on the role of editor at North Dakota Quarterly and developing the profile of The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, I’ve accepted responsibility as a steward of other people’s work. My frivolous behavior online and the half-baked ideas spewed forth to the world from this blog could reflect poorly on other people who have trusted me to promote and support their ideas.

I guess all this is to say that I need to grow up or at least acknowledge that I have grown up and start to behave more like a professional and less like a failed graduate student or a former age-group swim coach (which is how I’ve always thought of myself).

[As an aside, I’m increasingly anxious about the book I just had published on the Bakken. It was very much experimental in approach and content, but in today’s increasingly politicized culture (and extractive industries in North Dakota are nothing if not political) a book like this might be seen as poking the bear rather than a genuine academic exercise. While I’m not worried that the book will cause me discomfort, I do worry that it might cause other people discomfort from my colleagues (by association) to folks who work hard to represent the University of North Dakota in a positive light in the state. I don’t want to say that I regret having written so publicly on the Bakken, but it can’t shake the idea that there is a time and a place for everything.]

3. The Food is Bad and the Portions are Tiny. Over the past couple of years, the number of page views on my blog have declined steadily from usually well over 100 a day to just over 80. On the one hand, maybe this does say that my ideas are genuinely marginal, but it probably suggests that they are increasingly banal and the blogosphere has more appealing options. The decline also reflects my reluctance to Tweet or Facebookle my daily posts out of concern that some half-baked thought upset or annoy someone.

I know that the internet is not, strictly speaking, a zero sum game, but I wonder if people who are reading my blog are people who are not reading other much better blogs out there. A year or so ago (and I can’t find the post), I got to thinking about how to ramp down a project or transform it when it no longer is working. The decline in readership, the change in online culture (and readers’ expectations), and my changing professional status have made me really think that this blog has more or less run its course.

That being said, I do like to write this blog and like to write in general, and I’m pretty sad at the thought of bringing it to an end, but maybe I’ll figure out something else to do that fills my morning and gives me a space to work out ideas in an informal voice that is less public, less frivolous, and less fraught.

Hybridizing Paper

This is probably too grandiose a title for this blog post, but after my post last week, I realized that I had some odds and ends that I meant to include, but for various reasons did not. Most of these focus on the idea that the potential of digital media and digital books has tended to be set in opposition to paper books and traditional media. If hybridization occurred, as I proposed in my post last week, it tended to be in the creation of digital media that formally adopted some of the characteristics of paper books. This is best manifest in the continued currency of the PDF files as probably the most common and perhaps the most functionally useful way to circulate digital content. They look like a page, act like a book, yet are open to external hyperlinks, video, audio, and 3D content, and relatively seamless linear and nonlinear organization that does not compromise the basic structure of the page or the codex.

I’m more interested right now in the flip side of this situation. This past week a paper book that I wrote with Bret Weber has appeared from North Dakota State University Press. It is published only in paper, and as far as I know, there are no plans to make the book available in a digital format. As I’ve blogged on before, I have an interest in expanding the paper book to include both updates to the itineraries, but, more important, updates to the ideas present in the work. In effect, I want to wrap the book in a new context that allows the original paper volume to continue to stand as a unit, but can also offer new ways of thinking about it through updated research, reading, and thinking.

The desire to move from digital to paper and to digital again, I think is one of the intriguing challenges facing publishing these days. As I outlined with my new project in collaboration with the digital journal Epoiesen, establishing ties that link paper to digital content is both an aesthetic and practical challenge. 

It is interesting to note that there are some recent ventures in commercial publishing that have wrestled with the exact same issue. In my little corner of the world, for example, the watch blog Hodinkee recently published its first paper magazine. Carrying over many of the key aesthetic features from the blog, including the high quality color photography and genteel style, the magazine runs to $27.00. There are, of course, branding issues here that suggest that perhaps serve to distance the premium periodical from the more lowly blog while at the same time demonstrating a family resemblance.

My favorite audiophile blog, Parttime Audiophile, has recently initiated a similar venture with a downloadable .pdf called The Occasional. While this is a clever play on the “part-time” name, it sets itself apart with its higher production quality and its explicit print orientation, although at present, it is only available as a download. The presence of two page spreads, the organization of the text in difficult to read (and non-justified!) columns, and the absence of hyperlinks makes it more difficult to read as a digital document, but also clearly echoes the paper page. 

As I’m looking ahead to new ways to bring North Dakota Quarterly to a new and expanded audience, I’m likewise facing the challenge of integrating regular digital content appearing on our website with ab annual paper version.  

There are reasons, of course, for the persistence of paper. In the case of Hodinkee or (perhaps hinted at by The Occasional), there is a prestige associated with print even if it is digitally mediated. For upscale commodities like watches and high-end stereo equipment people expect a certain kind of luxury even in the media surrounding these products. My colleagues at NDQ have tended to emphasize the physicality of the paper book and the character of the final product as evidence for having MADE something. I admit that this feeling of making has carried over into my love of producing paper books as well. 

For academic work, there is another important and more practical aspect to producing paper that hybridizes with the digital. In academic culture it is still easier to cite paper (or paper-like) versions of books and article according to page numbers. Reviewers continue to prefer paper books – when given the option – and libraries remain better equipped to catalogue, preserver, and circulate print copies even as their book budgets continue to shrink. Paper copies, whether on the desk of an editor or on a library shelf, conform to certain institutional expectations for how knowledge looks physically. Of course, this might be a temporary or transitional stage in how knowledge looks and circulates as we come to terms with a more robust and complex digital future, but the massive history and continued ubiquity of printed media suggests that these paradigms will be slow to change.

All this is to say that one of key challenges facing publishing these days is not making digital less like paper, but making paper more like digital. There is a present need to create hybrid forms of paper media that push the boundaries of how the paper codex has traditionally functioned and to blur the lines between paper and digital. This under-appreciated and under-recognized form of hybridity will be part of what The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota explores.