Adventures in Podcasting 4: ISIS, Iconoclasm, and the Humanizing of Objects

Richard Rothaus and I once again ventured into the uncertain waters of podcasting. Content enough with our efforts to discuss academia, our research, and our shared history, we decided to turn our banter to more controversial topics.

So, this week, we discuss ISIS’s highly-publicized video showing their destruction of objects in the Mosul museum. There has been some debate concerning the authenticity of these events and the extent of the destruction, but they have nevertheless captured the attention of archaeologists and antiquity lovers the world over.


Of particular interest to us was how these videos pushed archaeologists to break out of our scientistical mode of inquiry and actually express genuine emotional concern for these objects. The ISIS destruction of these statues suggests that they saw these objects as potentially competing source for authority, and this understanding of statues extends back at least to Late Antiquity where more fanatical members of Christian communities defaced pagan statues (see below). Modern archaeology, however, has tended to privilege a more dispassionate attitude toward objects. In fact, it is only with the discovery and destruction of objects that archaeologists “allowed” to express genuine compassion for the material evidence for the past. Outside of these circumstances, we typically accept that even the most spectacular find is merely an arbitrary sample of an unknown total number of objects, monuments, and sites. The ritualized destruction of objects by ISIS evoked emotion (both the triumphant celebration of the destroyers and the anguished cries of the western world) that trumped the scientific rituals associated with archaeological practice which work to suppress emotional commitments to destructive practices of archaeology in much the same way that the ritualized interaction between doctor and patient reinforces a kind of scientific objectivity.

 What’s interesting to me (and not to speak for Richard here) is that recent work in archaeological theory has made efforts to consider more critically the role of artifacts in the archaeological process. Some scholars have advanced complex arguments arguing that objects have agency, require ethical treatment, and provide the foundation for a more symmetrical archaeology. Witnessing ISIS destruction of antiquities has provided an opportunity for even more conservative members of the profession to humanize their objects of study as they abandoned their staunchly defended place among the post-Enlightenment sciences and indulge in Romantic sentimentality. At the end of the podcast Richard pushed me to consider the ultimate implications of an emotional investment in these objects as he recounts the story of a young soldier from Minnesota who lost his life guarding a museum in Iraq and the podcast concludes with Richard’s rather abrupt assessment of this. For him, the agency of objects and their ethical treatment has very clear limits. Our hope is that our discussion offers an provocative perspective to critically engage recent events!

Here’s a link to the impressive joint statement by the AIA/ASOR/AAA/SAA/AAMD on ISIS and here’s a link to Wayne Sayles blog (for the post he took down, I can only provide a dramatic reading).

I won’t link to the video of ISIS destroying antiquities. 

Here’s a link to the Life of Porphyry of Gaza and Marinos’s Life of Proclus.

Here’s a link to the Atlantic Monthly story: “What ISIS Wants”, and here’s a thoughtful response.

Here’s a link to the The Egyptian martyrs of Libya added to the Coptic Synaxarium.

Here are some images from Richard’s book Corinth: First City of Greece (Brill 2000) which you can purchase for the low, low price of $177.72.


Here are some resources regarding Pfc. Edward Herrgot.

Your Enthusiasm for Protecting Antiquities Cost Army Pfc. Edward J. Herrgott His Life


The full tale of Pfc. Herrgott, the first Minnesotan to die in the Iraq war (3 July 2003), is little known. The news reports all read “Herrgott, 20, of Shakopee, Minn., died July 3 when a sniper shot him in the neck outside the National Museum in Baghdad.” But here is a fuller account from our fellow The Ohio State University Alum, Colonel Peter Mansoor:

“Two days into my command, the Ready First Combat Team lost its third soldier since its arrival in Baghdad and the first of my tenure. Private First Class Edward J. Herrgott was guarding the Baghdad Museum when he was shot and killed by armed gunmen. I visited the location shortly after his death and was shocked by what I discovered. The museum was not the one that contained the ancient treasures of Iraq but was rather more akin to a wax museum for the enjoyment of locals and tourists. The curator had removed all of the exhibits to a safe location to prevent their theft in the aftermath of the war, but nevertheless CJTF-7 had ordered us to guard the place. The media frenzy over the looting of the National Museum of Antiquities had provoked a knee-jerk reaction to guard every place that could possibly be construed to have cultural value. The end result was that we were guarding an empty structure, one made indefensible by the cavernous buildings that engulfed it on both sides and parking garage several stories high across the street. The gunmen who killed Herrgott had sneaked up a side alley and engaged him from the flank as he manned his position in the hatch of a Bradley fighting vehicle.

I was determined to get my soldiers out of that death trap. . . . “

Peter Mansoor, Baghdad at Sunrise: A Brigade Commander’s War in Iraq. Yale University Press, 2008.


Note 1: Herrgott’s Aunt is worth quoting: “President Bush made a comment a week ago, and he said, ‘bring it on.’ They brought it on and now my nephew is dead.

Note 2: I didn’t meet Col. Mansoor when we overlapped at the massive OSU. I met him while working on a battlefield study of New Ulm, MN, his home town. If you don’t think the world is ruled by serendipity and The Ohio State University, you are mistaken. And we are fine with that.

Note 3: It looks like the Washington Post ran the Wax Museum Story on 8 July 2003, but I’m not 100% sure.


The Man Camp Dialogues

Last year the inestimable Bret Weber and the local icon Tom Isern co-wrote a North Dakota Humanities Council grant to support a series of conversations in communities across western North Dakota about workforce housing. 

The first stop will be Killdeer, ND where I’ll be joined by Emily Guerin, Richard Rothaus, and Tom Isern in our first “Man Camp Dialogue.” This is particularly fitting because Killdeer has had some interesting press lately about their efforts to adapt to new housing needs.

Tom Isern and I were on Prairie Public Radio’s Main Street on Monday talking about our project.

If you’re planning to attend the forum of want to read more about it, we’ve published a short study guide which you can download here or purchase in paper here.

The good folks at the Dunn County Historical Society have also provided us with a great press release which I’ve included below:

3 1 15 Man Camp photo P1090565


Be part of the community conversation! Hear what your neighbors have to say!

March 2, 2015 (Killdeer, ND)—The Dunn County Historical Society welcomes scholars from the University of North Dakota’s Man Camp Project to the High Plains Cultural Center in Killdeer on Sunday, March 8, 1 – 3 p.m. Researchers will share findings from a two-year study on the temporary housing systems that have sprung up throughout western North Dakota to shelter Oil Patch workers. As part of the public forum, officially known as “The Man Camp Dialogues,” audience members are invited to ask questions and share observations. Panelists include Project Research Associate Dr. Richard M. Rothaus; Co-Primary Investigator William Caraher and Emily Guerin, Inside Energy’s North Dakota reporter. 

“The North Dakota Man Camp Project has reached the point in development when it is ready to engage in conversations to generate more questions and more insights,” said Public Forum Project Leader Tom Isern. “We encourage the voices of those directly living the history of the Boom. Everyone is welcome to contribute.”

Man camp research shows similarities to towns and state’s historical agricultural and settlement patterns Rothaus and Caraher have been touring man camps and documenting observations about the camps’ environments. Some of their findings have been surprising, considering the often underpopulated and underserved areas where the man camps are built.

“Overall, they are pretty clean,” said Rothaus. “Not as clean as I would keep my yard, and there are a few bad neighbors who are terrible slobs, but the camps are as clean as one can expect from people working long hours with irregular services. The big camps, like Capital Lodge, are spotless.”

Many man camps resemble other, if less temporary, communities in North Dakota. “I think people will be surprised to think about how temporary workforce housing sites are similar to small towns, suburban subdivisions or even small cities that dot the landscape both here in North Dakota and across the United States,” said Caraher. “The immediate impression of workforce housing might be different, but once we peel back some stereotypes and look at what folks are really trying to do in these settlements, we’ll begin to see that things are more similar than different.”

The Bakken Boom may encompass the largest and most dramatic industrial oil and gas activity that many North Dakotans have witnessed and lived through. But, said researchers, crew camps have always played a role in settling and developing the country, especially in the 19th-century American West. 

“The continued development of this practice into the 21st century is hardly surprising as remote locations like the sparsely settled counties of western North Dakota continue to pose logistical and economic challenges for resource extraction,” said documents generated by The Man Camp Project. “Clustered outside or around the fringes of the longstanding towns in the area, the temporary settlements represent the practical needs of an itinerant workforce.”

Boom not easy for anyone; public forum welcomes all Bakken voices Although Caraher and Rothaus are quick to say their research doesn’t provide answers, one thing they found is certain: Along with great prosperity and opportunity, the Bakken Boom has also created human hardship and societal challenges.

“We all are living in a world thrust upon us,” said Rothaus. “Residents have an oil boom to contend with, whether they want it or not. Oil workers, driven by economic necessity, have descended upon a place they didn’t know existed and struggle with the boom as well. Opinions about the boom vary widely, but what we do share is the life experience of crowded stores, high prices, traffic and lots and lots of people coming and going. Few would choose to do it this way, but we are all here anyway.” 

Generating new avenues of research and helping people make informed decisions about the boom in general and man camps specifically is the point of the March 8 public forum in Killdeer.

“Our research was never meant to be the source of singular authority on workforce housing, but part of the conversation,” said Caraher. “We’d like as many people in that conversation as possible!”

Bill Flaget, president of the Dunn County Historical Society, agrees: “This is an important opportunity for Dunn County residents to learn about and comment on the effects that man camps are having on their communities,” he said. “We are proud to work with the North Dakota Humanities Council to bring this event to Dunn County.”

This event is hosted by the Dunn County Historical Society and funded by the North Dakota Humanities Council. It is free and open to the public. Refreshments served. To learn more: and    

Mobilizing the Past Workshop Review, Part 2

Yesterday, I posted a review of the Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future Conference held last weekend in Boston. This review focused on things that I really liked about the event. To be clear and fair, the event was great, and it left me with tremendously positive feelings about the digital future of our discipline. That being said, there remain opportunities for a more critical engagement with the digital tools that we use.


In the second part of my two part review of the conference, I thought I would touch on some of my key concerns as we continue to explore the potential of digital archaeology. Most of my critiques are not focused on particular papers, but on the overall direction of digital archaeology as a form of critical practice in the discipline.  As they say, great conferences leave you with more questions than answers, and I hope my comments below reflect this…

1. Slow Archaeology. I tried to open a space for some critical engagement with my paper on “Slow Archaeology,” but I fear that I mostly confused things. One benefit of having a blog is that I can take a moment to clarify a few points. First, I was less concerned with the speed of archaeology than my paper may have suggested. By invoking “slow” I attempting to shift the focus to the context of archaeological practice and to interrogate the relationship between how we do things and why we do things. So for me, “slow” meant “critical practice” which often, but not always takes more time. Next, I tried to refer to the emphasis on the local in the slow movement. When we talk about slow food, for example, we’re as likely to discuss the origins of the food as how long it takes to prepare it. Slow food, despite its critical and practical limits, represents local cuisine, prepared with a sensitivity to its economic, social, historical, and political context. By slow, I meant to shift our attention to the entire processes of archaeology rather than just its convenience or efficiency. Finally, I made an entirely unsuccessful effort to suggest that our investment in digital surrogates does have an effect on the ancient objects that we study. To put it another way, we have opened a digital divide in our discipline as we spend more and more time with digital objects standing in for physical objects and contexts.

2. It’s a Mac World. It was pretty remarkable to see the preponderance of Apple gear at this conference. IPads remain the preferred tablet in the field and FileMaker Pro seems to have ousted Microsoft Access as the relational database of choice among archaeology’s digital elite. This got me thinking about how much the tools that we use and our relationship to particular manufacturers shapes our approaches.

3. The Digital Divide. At the very end of the conversation several of us bantered a bit about the cost of digital archaeology. One speaker suggested that digital tools should cost around 10% of the total budget of a project; another suggested that if I project couldn’t afford iPads, maybe they shouldn’t be excavating; and another person noted the trend of B.Y.O.T. (bring your own technology). I recognized that it was the end of a long and intense day, but nothing revealed more about the role of digital practices in archaeology than the very evident divide between projects who prioritize investment and development of digital tools and those that do not. This seems to have manifest itself not so much in the use of digital tools per se, but in whether we take the time to articulate the significance of these tools in our archaeological workflow.  

4. The Politics, Products, and Policies. I was a bit disappointed that there wasn’t more discussion of the rapidly evolving policies in host countries regarding the digital output of archaeological projects. As several of our presenters pointed out, in passing, many indigenous communities, local governments, and government agencies lack the infrastructure to access and manipulate the most robust and complex archaeological datasets. Moreover, as digital surrogates of sites and objects become more complex and precise (for lack of better terms), archaeologists are increasingly able to take highly accurate copies of buildings and objects abroad for study in a way that they could never manage with physical artifacts. I was curious to understand more about how these trends might effect the politics of a archaeological work and our responsibilities to local communities, host countries, and our discipline.  

5. Context is Everything. I was really excited about the range of digital tools and practices on display the conference. The best papers clearly demonstrated how digital practices solved particular problems – real problems – that existed in traditional field practices. The most obvious problems were the most simple: the fragility of paper documents, difficulties accessing dispersed character of archaeological field archives, or inconsistencies of traditional data collection. Less obvious at the conference were examples of digital tools solving the interpretive problems at the core of archaeological practice. I found myself asking (in my own head mostly because people got pretty sick of hearing me talk), “how did these digital tools help you to understand the past better?” Eric Poehler’s paper came close to this, for example, when he showed how a suite of digital tools revealed the presence of a polygonal structure in the middle of Pompeii’s famed Quadraporticus. Many of the other papers, however, seem to have started with the less focused issue of whether it was possible to do archaeology better. As I mentioned yesterday, I left the conference feeling like it was possible to do archaeology differently, but without understanding the particularities of each project, I struggled to understand how digital tool engoodened our field practice. Without taking anything away from the fun and utility of experimenting and play in an archaeological context, context remains everything even in the realm of digital solutions. Greater efficiency is not an archaeological problem.

6. What is Data? This simple question led my back to work of the R.G. Collingwood. Whatever his limitations are, he makes a simple point: for the historian and archaeologists, evidence (or data) never exists on its own, but must be data or evidence for something. In Collingwood’s mind, evidence or data must provide a way to answers a question. 

Now I recognize that archaeologists have an obligation to do more than dig a hole in whatever way is most efficient in order to find an answer to a question. Much of the “methodological turn” in the discipline has emphasized the need to answer questions responsibly and to strike the balance between the destructive character of archaeological practice and the need to collect evidence for particular questions. At times, however, archaeologists have confused the importance of data collecting with the importance of question answering. If our goal as archaeologists is to collect all possible information from a trench in the confidence that we can reconstruct the relationship between all objects (natural and man made) displaced by our excavation, we’re bound to be disappointed. In fact, Mediterranean survey archaeologists have long been accused of “Mediterranean Myopia” in which the intensity of data collection impairs our ability to answer questions on a regional scale. 

I left the conference wondering whether the digital turn in Mediterranean archaeology could continue to exaggerate these problems as improvements in efficiency and accuracy are relatively low-hanging fruit in comparison to difficult task of wresting meaning from the data collected. Our goal as archaeologists is not to reconstruct the entire ancient world or even the processes that created an archaeological deposit, but to answer particular and specific questions relevant to our modern condition. Archaeological excavation is destructive and all recording practices fragment a unified whole. Archaeologists reconstruct this fragmented whole not as it once was in the ground or in the past, but as it has meaning to us as an answer to a particular question. 

Mobilizing the Past Workshop Review, Part 1

This weekend’s Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future: The Potential of Digital Archaeology conference was great in every way. It was well-organized, collegial, and very useful. Videos of the various papers will be (or maybe are already) available on the web and I hope the organizers consider some kind of publication of proceedings. Having been to several of these conferences over the past few years, I feel confident in saying that this event reflected the coming of age of digital archaeology. While it is probably too soon to call the all archaeology digital, the range of presentations and tools on display essentially eliminated the possibility of a non-digital practices. 


Since my notes and comments on the conference are pretty expansive, I think I’ll break it into two posts. The first group of observations today are the positive things that I learned at the conference. The observations tomorrow will be a bit more probing and critical, but nevertheless a positive outcome from the conference:

1. Collegiality. The level of collegiality at this event was remarkable. There was a genuine effort to make the various projects, programs, and approaches presented talk to one another. Folks even made a genuine effort to bring my (perhaps overstated) luddite critique into the fold and to engage seriously the ideas and issues that I was attempting to explore. In fact, outbursts of apologizing punctuated the event as scholars let their passion for various approaches and platforms slide toward critique, but these apologies were never really necessary. It is clear that that an overwhelming sense of respect and academic humility permeates the entire digital archaeology community.  

2. Paper is technology. This was a key refrain that echoed through many of the papers. The technology of paper notebooks and recording forms shaped the social structure of archaeology and the structure of the information collected at trench side. Digital tools offer new models for both archaeological organization and new methods of information collection. Our generation of archaeologists will be the last to remember (or continue to use) paper to collect information in the field at any significant scale and the kind of information that archaeologists collect, analyze, and archive will start to diversify digitally mediated 3D models, video, mass photography, and illustrations become the norm. John Wallrodt’s key note set the stage for this conversation and presenters used it as a constant point of reference. 

3. Archaeology and Design. Chris Motz presented one of my favorite papers at the conference. One of the most obvious things that a guy like Motz brought to infield data recording was a sense of design. His elegant forms on the iPad led the archaeologist through the process of constructing an comprehensive and consistent infield dataset. For example, filling in the digital recording form produced an illustration of the physical tag that the archaeologist would copy onto the paper tag attached to the artifact bag. This simple tag design then continued through the entire digital workflow integrating the digital and physical records of field work. Likewise, consistent icons, colors, and other visual cues provide structure for the recording workflow and, presumably, improved the efficiency by visually demonstrating the relationship between certain data sets.         

4. Bringing Data in the Field. A few of the papers discussed the intriguing potential of bringing both project data as well as secondary publications into the field. I could immediately appreciate the advantage of having the full data set of a project in the field at our finger tips especially in dynamic visual forms could provide field teams with valuable information that would lead to better decision making. More than that, it offers the possibility of overlaying earlier views of the landscape, site, or trench to complicate (in a productive way) what the archaeologists sees.

5. Publication Options. Presentation by Eric Kansa of Open Context, Michael Ashley of Mukurtu, and Shawn Ross of FAIMS demonstrated the publication of archaeological data is keeping up with our ability to generate it. FAIMS and Mukurtu, in particular, demonstrate how publication can exist as part of the same workflow as data generation in the field. It seems clear to me that a major fork in digital archaeology involves an integrated workflow from trench side to data publication within a robust (and dynamic) application. 

6. Bespoke. By the end of Saturday, the word bespoke was being used to describe both applications and particular data structures made within those applications. The era of standardized data models is well and truly over and digital archaeologists have come to recognize that no matter how similar two data sets appear, comparing them in the most productive way remains a process best accomplished within the infinitely flexible context of the human mind. What digital archaeology can do, however, is to demonstrate relationship between data sets and assist in hypothesis building. The messy act of comparison – as a step toward understanding – remains a human endeavor.

7. Data and Efficiency. It was unsurprising that so many projects discussed how digital tools improved the accuracy and efficiency of data collection in the field. Indeed, some of the papers presented some outstanding of examples of streamlined recording and John Wallrodt’s keynote imagined a new, digitally mediate, structure of field work that would perhaps be more at home in CRM environment than an academic project. Despite such assertions of efficiency and the common-sense appearance of improved workflow, there were almost no arguments that used evidence from actual field practice to show how great an improvement digital archaeology actually managed. Informal conversations at the event made clear that such data likely exists, but none of the presenters deployed it during their at the conference.  

More tomorrow as I need to scurry off and catch up on my day job…

Adventures in Podcasting 3

Richard and I have released our third podcast this morning. If you’ve missed the first two go here and enjoy and check out the show notes here.

This one was edited by Richard and is probably our best so far. We talk about abandonment in the Bakken, the speed of modern society, and whether academia funding models can keep up with the rapidly changing modern world.

Richard also prepared extensive show notes:

Season 1, Episode 3 brings you:

  • A question from a listener! Richard talks more about how to document structures using HD video.
  • Man Camps are emptying? Is the boom over? (No). Is the bust here? (No). What do we learn from the “abandonment” of some camps.
  • The Slow Movement
  • The North Dakota Quarterly! Subscribe!
  • How to be a capitalist spend all your extra money on chasing earthquakes or audiophilic delights.
  • “Just-in-Time” Research and funding in slow-moving Academia.
  • Why are Universities so slow and risk adverse?
  • Faculty now have to work for a living – this has changed things.
  • Richard says tenure is “crippling,” says age-discrimination may be real, and suggest faculty may be bored (as the listeners may be with this section).
  • What does “moving out” mean in a Man Camp – what did Richard see in his last visit?
  • How video can manipulate your opinion of Man Camps.
  • Interviewing Man Campers, finding the edge, and abusing graduate student Aaron Barth.
  • Man Camp Talk at Killdeer (not Dunn Center like we said): 8 March 2015, Killdeer, High Plains Cultural Center
  • Richard tells an earthquake story.
  • The History of Presence, why we are welcomed when we pry into Man Camper’s lives and how our Man Camp project (and similar projects) help people in unexpected ways.
  • For your viewing pleasure, here is some of the high definition video from the Fox Run RV Park, Williston, N.D.

One benefit of viewing this in YouTube is you can enjoy the “slider” effect. Once the video has loaded, you can drag the video backward-and-forward to find the structure you want to see. YouTube, understandably gives you a low resolution preview as you slide. So download the actual video file (compressed, so imagine higher resolution). If you load the file into your favorite media player, you will notice you don’t get a preview (or a good preview) as you slide back and forth. What you need to use is a video editor to see the slide in all its glory. Windows users, get Window Movie Maker. Mac users, find the equivalent.

An evocative and manipulative video of an abandoned trailer:


The Alec Soth video that defines your emotions with music and annoys Richard:

An earthquake photo from Gölcük, Turkey


Finally, we’re thinking a bit about branding and now have a snazzy Caraheard website, and are beginning to think about how best to disseminate these podcasts moving forward. Any opinions or advice would be great!

More on Slow Archaeology

Over the past 12 months, I’ve put together three papers on slow archaeology that a more ambitious and organized scholar could envision on a nice article. Instead (or, more optimistically, in advance of that work), I’ll put them together here in one glorious blog post for your consideration.

The first paper was given around this time last year at the University of Massachusetts. This paper mainly focused on archaeology as craft and the role that technology has played in deskilling certain aspects of archaeological practice through the application of Taylorist principles. 

It’s titled “Practice and Method in Creating 3D Models in Archaeology.”

The next version of the paper took on a more popular tone and reflected a return to some basic scholarship in archaeology and developed the slow angle more specifically. This paper was published in North Dakota Quarterly earlier this year. For an earlier and I think more substantial draft of this article click here.

Finally, I have finished a draft of my paper that I’ll deliver over the weekend in Boston at the Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future. The final program is available here, and it looks like a fantastic event. It’ll be live streamed starting Friday afternoon here. It’s going to be particularly tricky to both attend a plenary talk and a dinner while watching the Australia v. New Zealand World Cup Cricket Match. It is possible that Steven Ellis and I will come down with some kind of strange 8-hour flu. 

If you’re more of a reader than a watcher-of-live-streamer (or have other cricket-related issues) then you can enjoy my paper below. This is the most mature version of my slow archaeology paper, and I think that the three papers not only demonstrate my effort to wrap my head around the effects of digital practice on our discipline, but also a kind of critical and productive luddism. Again, in the hands of a more able scholar, I think these three papers would make a lovely article:

Sabbaticals, Study Guides, and the Man Camp Dialogues

I’m entering the last leg of my sabbatical and feeling pretty good about wrapping up the projects that I had set out to accomplish. I will not have a completed manuscript documenting our excavations at Pyla-Koutsopetria prepared by the end of the spring, but it will be far enough along to guide our study season. I won’t have submitted an article on the site of South Basilica at Polis-Chrysochous, but that manuscript will be submitted this fall and will serve as a useful guide for this summer’s study season on that project. With any luck (and a bit more collaboration from my colleagues) we will have submitted the first major article from the North Dakota Man Camp Project to a top tier journal. 

This winter and spring, however, I have spent a good bit of my time working on my little press, and a little time working on writing for a wider, public audience with my Tourist Guide to the Bakken and my essay on Slow Archaeology for North Dakota Quarterly.

So last week, I wrote a humanities study guide for a series of public talks called the Man Camp Dialogues. These are funded by the North Dakota Humanities Council. The first one is on March 8th in Killdeer, North Dakota at the High Plains Cultural Center. Some time today, our study guide will be ready to circulate, and I’ll put up a link as soon as it’s live. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, I’ll share a little design study that I did for a cover. Another thing that I’ve worked on during my sabbatical is becoming more comfortable with Illustrator and more comfortable with the mechanics and aestheticsof cover designs. 

Man Camp Study Guide Alt Cover 01 01

Here’s the guide:

Audiophiles, Sciences, and Democracy

Over the last few months, I’ve begiun to wonder why audiophiles are so angry with each other and why journalists, bloggers, and ordinary people seem to take so much pleasure in criticizing carefully engineered gear, high resolution music formats, and other typical audiophile fare.

Just over the past few weeks, for example, I have read articles claiming that Neil Young’s overhyped Pono is no better than an iPhone (echoed endlessly). I’ve read Fred Kaplan’s “courageous” public claim to being an audiophile on Slate attract some rather nasty comments (but do click through to the story about the conflict between Michael Fremer and the Amazing Randi!). I’ve seen one of my favorite tech bloggers, a man with no audiophile interests at all, chime in on the longstanding debate on whether 24 bit audio actually sounds better, and another get into some kind of crazy Twitter flame war with the Wirecutter about headphone preferences (it all worked out). I’ve even seen the fine folks at Pitchfork chime in on whether high resolution audio is worth it, and witnessed endless new fronts in the cable wars.

These are my thoughts on the issue:

Much of the recent interest in audiophiles stems from the attention garnered by Neil Young’s high-resolution, crowd-funded audio player, the Pono. The anger and bombast leveled in many of these conversations, however, stems from something deeper in American (and more broadly Western) society: our ambivalent relationship with science.

Anyone who has watched the news, listened to the oldy timey radiophone, or read the interwebs lately knows that many Americans look upon science and scientific authority with more than a jaundiced eye. People have questioned the safety of vaccinations, the existence of man-made climate change, the basis for evolution, and the universal applicability of the law of gravity.

The reasons are not complicated. Science and democracy have always had a strange relationship. On the one hand, science has served as a leveling institution in society by demonstrating how all humans function under the same set of limitations and rules. The universality of science has played no small part in our view that all people are created equal. In fact, Enlightenment reasoning undermined the authority of earlier political regimes that depended upon the idea that some folks were superior to others on the basis of their birth.

At the same time, the role of science in leveling society has come at a cost. Those who understand science have come to represent a key voice in maintaining equality in our communities. While scientists and their supporters have stopped short of being philosopher kings, knowledge and understanding of scientific truth is unevenly distributed, and those of us without the skills to understand scientific arguments have to trust scientists when they tell us that the earth is getting warmer, vaccinations are a good idea, and that we should never lick the seats in a New York City subway. So science gives us a kind equality, to some extent, but the rules within which this functions are not equally understood. It’s a fraught predicament for a society like ours in the US where everyone’s vote counts the same and most of us can run for office and participate in decision making. It is hardly surprising that the tension between our (let’s say) equal access to political power (writ large) and the uneven distribution of scientific knowledge manifests as frustration and anger in the media especially when we’re asked to make changes to our lifestyles to accommodate the newest scientific finding. To put it personally, I want people to be REALLY sure about climate change before I give up my Ford F-150.

Most of the time, those of us not steeped in the most recent scientific research have to make decisions based on a certain amount of faith in the scientific processes. In a recent series of blog posts (part 1, part 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, part 3, part 4) on expertise over at Parttime Audiophile, Scot Hull ruminated on how difficult it was to understand expertise and to identify experts among audiophiles. Hull finished his impressive series of essays with the conclusion that most audiophiles rely on aesthetic judgements to declare a product “good” or “bad.” At the same time, he concedes that there is a science to audio, and “good” and “bad” equipment does related to “good” or “bad” engineering practices. And, often times, the good or bad engineering and good or bad scientific measurements coincide with the aesthetic judgement of reviewers. This is not always the case, of course. Poorly engineered gear is rather less likely to sound good than good sounding gear is to be a paradigm of rigorous engineering.

The ambiguous reality at the intersection of measurement, engineering, and aesthetics is hardly satisfying to those of us whose very concept of society is grounded in the authority of science to help us make important social, political, and economic judgements. After all, how is it possible for us to trust science in some vitally important areas of our life and ignore it in others?

The result of this kind of ambiguity is predictable. People get angry, and on the internet this anger often quickly escalates to irrational fury. This is typically most visible among audiophiles when debating high resolution audio, the value of cables or various room correcting devices. On the one side of the conversation are those who often argue using engineering and science that high resolution audio, $2000 speaker cables, or various acoustic gewgaws do nothing to improve our sound quality and our listening experiences. On the other side of the debate, are people who insist on the greatest high resolution standard, wire their systems with cables the size of my wrists, and can understand (frankly) the latest digital room correction technologies. Both sides claim science supports their perspectives and the other side is selling unscientific snake oil.

The arguments are generally dull. And, if these arguments remained confined to audiophile forums and ended with both sides dismissing the other as fools, we might simply overlook them.

Recently, however, these arguments usually escalate to something more when the internal wrangling of audiophiles becomes public fare. Audiophiles are attacked as arrogant elitists who lord their tastes over the “common man.” It is not enough to attack their taste, however. For justice to prevail, ordinary folks must demolish the foundation of their tastes and disclose that the emperor is, indeed, naked. The goal of these attacks is to eliminate the basis for a perceived audiophile elitism and return the listening world to a kind of equality where democratic opinions can thrive. No longer will some arrogant audiophile lord the supposed superiority of his or her system over iPods, phones, or other affordable media players. Taking down some audiophile conceit is a win for democracy!

Why are audiophiles, in particular, the object of such scorn? On the one hand, I have detected some of the same anger directed against athletes who swear by gear, supplements, or training techniques of dubious scientific value. On the other hand, we don’t usually see folks arguing that their 1992 Honda Civic is every bit as good as a 2015 Ferrari FXX-K. I suspect the distain shown audiophiles, in particular, comes from three things.

First off, audiophiles are a minority and have perpetuated a steep learning curve to participate in audiophile conversations. As I have argued elsewhere, most of this the language used in the audiophile media is specialized and as a result, exclusionary. Most people do not have access to audiophile quality components: there are relatively few high-end audio stores in the U.S. and the brands associated with the hobby are unfamiliar. Our encounter with the hobby and high-resolution sound is typically through the media. In other words, for most of us, encountering high-end audio is not a first hand experience (and this includes many audiophiles!), but encountered through other folk’s descriptions of how gear sounds. Some audiophiles can compare these descriptions to their own authentic experiences, but this requires that one has heard a good bit of gear and understands the language used to describe various kinds of gear. As I have argued elsewhere, the language of the audiophile media represents formidable barrier dividing the world into into those who get it an those who don’t.

Second, the defining quality of audiophile equipment is the experience that its provides. Since in most communities, it remains challenging to find high end audiophile systems – much less listen to it over a sustained period of time – people are fundamentally unfamiliar with the experience of high performance audio. Of course, people are generally unfamiliar with the experience of high performance cars as well, but cars and other luxury commodities that offer rarified experiences have more accessible aesthetic qualities. Cars are highly visible design studies and a series of numbers (quarter-mile times, 0-60 times, skid pad figures, or even lap times) represent more accessible surrogates for automotive performance. So folks will argue over whether a Porsche or a Ferrari is a better car, but they rarely argue about the fundamental validity of the criteria used to compare them. They have different styles that might appeal to different tastes, but their performance figures can be readily compared.

Finally, audiophile stereo equipment is not only discussed in exclusionary language and difficult to access and experience (even through available surrogates) but it also tends to be expensive. Audiophile gear smacks of economic elitism and nothing disrupts the placid life of contemporary democracy like visible symbols of economic inequality.

This short column argued that some the anger present in audiophile forums derives from the uneven distribution of scientific knowledge among audiophiles. Like the anger directed at folks who who do not vaccinate, who deny climate change, who believe in so-called “evolution,” or who insist the gravity does not effect them, most people lack the training in science and engineering to challenge the scientific claims made by audiophiles and their opponents. This is profoundly undemocratic. It’s simply unfair that everyone’s opinion and methods for understanding the world are not equally valid.

Anger toward audiophiles often comes from practices used by those in the hobby to distinguish those inside the hobby from those outside the hobby. Particular language, access to the experience of high end equipment, and, of course, economic privilege likewise appear to undermine the universal experience of music.

So next time we read an irate comment on an audiophile blog or read about a scientistic A/B test that proves your favorite cable, component, or format is really no better than than listening to the neighbor’s internet radio through a closed window, take a moment to remember that most people are not arguing about sound, engineering, or technologies. They’re arguing for freedom.

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

This has been a complicated week here at Archaeology of the Mediterranean World Headquarters. I’ve been writing frantically, then watching the cricket world cup, and thinking about Sunday’s Daytona 500, and keeping an Cyclone Marcia, while tending to a crazy yellow dog with an injured tail. When you have a 2 year old yellow dog, it is impossible to “limit his activity.”

That all being said, I can see the faint light at the end of the tunnel and am looking forward to a trip to Boston next week for the Mobilizing the Past for the Digital Future workshop and catching up with some friends. Now I just need to finish that paper…

In the meantime, enjoy some varia and quick hits and hopes for a less eventful (but no less entertaining weekend):

IMG 2902Is it playtime, NOW?

IMG 2904What’s up?