Tuesday, 26 September 2017

The Promise and Peril of Digital Engagement

In this post, I want to bring up examples of “participatory digital archaeology in action,” and how this might affect the discipline and expectations placed on archaeologists. What is the promise and what are the pitfalls of digital engagement? The article by Morgan and Eve (2012:522) speaks of the positive impact of archaeologists such as Mary Beard, Michael Smith, and Rosemary Joyce taking an active online role. The idea is that we can enable digital media in archaeology as an emancipatory force. Morgan and Winters (2015) continue to advocate tools such as blogging as a key tool in enhancing communication and even potentially revolutionizing publication. As researchers struggle with publicizing their work, many are turning to blogging (it was actually recommended to me and some other students this morning). Additionally, as it was pointed out in class, many online conversations over archaeological finds and/or heritage continue with or without archaeologists. This implies that archaeologists (and other researchers) have a certain responsibility to engage online to contextualize their work and/or dispel misconceptions. In contrast, Perry et al. (2015) address the potential negative consequences to the researcher from such engagement, such as harassment, abuse, and threats to physical safety, as well as the lack of institutional support for targets of abuse. Public backlash, and even harassment, has always been a risk in academia, but now the internet provides unprecedented levels of accessibility to targets. While proponents of digital engagement espouse creating a more open and inclusive environment, it may paradoxically create a chilling effect on participation. Having personally seen the sometimes tragic effects of online harassment, I share their concerns, though I appreciate (and read) the efforts of archaeologists that voluntarily engage in public online discussion. As archaeologists are becoming more expected to create an online presence (be it through blogs, personal pages, or funding mandated project websites, etc.), I believe it’s important to be aware of these challenges as well as potential resources for online engagement.

As we consider the potential of digital engagement in archaeology, what role do you see archaeologists taking, especially when confronting different concepts of cultural heritage, “alternative” histories, pseudoarchaeology, and refuting public misconceptions?

My first example is the continued discussion over Confederate monuments in the United States: http://blogs.berkeley.edu/2017/08/16/losing-the-past-or-changing-the-future-archaeologists-and-modern-monuments/

Second is this example of an archaeologist attempting to put together a guideline for spotting misinformation about the Maya in online resources:

Finally, there is Trowel Blazers: http://trowelblazers.com/
Which is a site "dedicated to outreach activities aimed at encouraging participation of women and underrepresented groups in archaeological, geological, and palaeontological science."

What about these attempts at outreach do you find effective? Ineffective?

Big Data. Deep History. Oh, brave new world.

I’m quite taken with this article on two fronts:

First, in light of this week’s discussion topic on Open Access and the linking of data into larger datasets, through this project we will witness the ways in which existing, disparate data are aggregated and employed to attempt to yield greater insights. In this article, pulling together an array of datasets is conveyed as a technical challenge – one that involves digitization and establishing the right synthesize of column names and data types.  Yet, recall the variation in results on Scottish castles from two different “comprehensive” databases; considering the subjective, dynamic nature of data and the relational practices of the researchers, it seems apparent to me that they will encounter – if they choose to – deeper differences in: methods of classification; areas of research attention; and theoretical, temporal, and personal perspectives of the researchers, among others. If I do an aggregate search in this database for “Hopi Yellow”, who decided where yellow ended and orange began? Did they do it the same way?

I’m hopeful the interdisciplinary constitution of the project team will generate theoretical and practical differences that don’t permit unspoken assumptions; however, I’m as much interested in their process as their project outcome. Perhaps they’d be willing to publish paradata associated with the database’s creation.

The second element of this article that interests me is the positioning of Big Data as an opportunity for better Digital Archaeology. This is not just an article – it's a press release developed by the university’s communications department. The headline is not about the place(s) or people(s) that form part of the project scope; it’s about Big Data. That’s all you need to know! Big Data is the point – it’s an end in itself. Given the intended purposes of the article, it’s unsurprising that the project is pitched as a chance to crunch bigger numbers, be more “streamlined”, and help website visitors (the public?) easily access data.

Friends, this is not just a database. This is a KNOWLEDGE DISCOVERY SYSTEM.

These are uncritical rallying cries for the benefits of Big Data. It’s interesting to see this article, at this time, in light of the discrepancy between utopian conceptualizations of Big Data from a few years back and the messy, uneven realities of data sharing now.


I’m re-reading this before posting, and realizing I’m coming across as quite pessimistic. That’s not my intent. I’m not going to reject Big Data as an idea because I find it off-putting or because it doesn’t live up to the idealized hype. For any shortcomings in practical implementation, if bigger data sets can help us tell better stories about the past, I’m excited for that. If we want to realize these benefits, I suggest we need to be attuned to the contingent processes of knowledge generation, whether as an archaeologist 75 years ago or a professor at INSITE: Centre for Business Management and Analytics today.


Monday, 25 September 2017

Fantastical Archaeology Websites Review - Fascinating

Hi All,

Issue 3, Star Trek Current series, IDW Publishing (2011)
So this week we will be starting to schedule your Fantastical Archaeology website reviews. The range of subject matter of the websites you've chosen are impressive, and We'll be exploring interesting notions such as the archaeology of Bigfoot and, the perennial favourite, the archaeology of aliens, ancient or otherwise. And not to take away anyone's thunder, I do want to flag an over-arching theme or two that I hope we'll all think about in these presentations.

Importantly, while there will be lots to smile at, maybe shake a head at, and be gobsmacked at in the sites we will be exploring, what we will also be exploring are the ways in which archaeology and the idea of heritage is used in fantastical assertions to counter human heritage and agency in the archaeological record (something very distinct from alternative ways people access archaeology to define a heritage beyond archaeology). Beyond the spectacle, there are some important realities wrapped up in denying ancient peoples their ability to have shaped and made the archaeological record they left behind, as discussed in this post, or in the contemporary political agendas and drive to situate facts as just someone's opinion, and the ability to wholesale construct fiction and present it as fact in a time where all knowledge has become politicized opinion, as explored a little in this post.

So keep in mind, beyond the particulars and our own certainties that these are fantastical notions without substance, these constructions of the archaeological past are a) believed as factual by some, b) believed to be actively suppressed "truths" as a conspiracy of the intelligentsia by more, c) and are really a  surface veneer to a range of racial and legacy colonialism logics that in effect and aim, remove the past as the heritage of other peoples. And as we will see, there is a plethora of such worldviews out there in the social ether, and ignoring them is really not an option.

Indeed, as we negotiate how archaeology is in the world today, and how the material past is valued beyond the arcane science of archaeology by people, we need to develop rather nuanced awareness and abilities to recognize where archaeology can service communities whose heritage values arise from and beyond archaeological interpretation, and where archaeology can counter - or "trump" Trumpian alt logics - found in these assertive fantastical archaeologies that dispossess the past from those descended from it.