Just before the holidays, I was invited to give the library’s Elwyn Robinson Lecture. The librarian suggested that I do something that highlights how my research will benefit from the newly established Working Group in Digital and New Media. This would coincide well with Elwyn Robinson’s interest in the “new media” of his day, namely radio. Robinson’s Heroes of Dakota radio broadcast brought the University of North Dakota, the department of history, and his research on the history of North Dakota to a broad audience far beyond the limits of scholarly publication. His broadcasts were so popular that he circulated paper copies of his broadcasts to listeners across the state and his research for this broadcasts became the basis for his course on the history of region and the state and eventually his magnum opus, The History of North Dakota. So in some sense, Robinson embraced what some scholars today would call a transmedia approach to scholarship.
My approach to using the digital and new media in the service of historical and archaeological research shares two features at least with Robinson’s: it is both practical and, as yet, under-theorized. I am contemplating using the Robinson lecture to try to assign some theoretical or at very least methodological aspect to my use of digital and new media approaches in my own research. In particular, I am thinking about articulating the notion of digital workflow and its implications in my own archaeological research.
By digital workflow, I mean the use of digital technologies across the entire range of archaeological procedures from pre-season planning, data collection in the field, and the dissemination of our results across multiple platforms for diverse audiences. I like to imagine that our deep dependence on digital data and applications shaped not only how we approached historical and archaeological problems but also how we understood the results of our research and imagined the process of scholarly critique as well as pedagogical . This is, in part, a response to the view of digital technology as merely a tool that scholars and teachers deploy in the ongoing search for truth rather than an “active” participant in the process of determining what truths are significant, knowable, and even imaginable within a particular academic discourse.
This is a pretty ambitious goal for a 30 minute paper and would reach well beyond my intellectual comfort zone. It would require me to link the mundane world of field procedures to the more ethereal world of epistemology. The most obvious point of contact is through an emphasis on documenting archaeology as a performance. If the performance of archaeological procedure and method is central to the production of authentic archaeological knowledge, then archaeological knowledge would certainly benefit from the growing set of tools capable of documenting efficiently the whole range of archaeological experiences (from the daily grind of excavation to evening banter with colleagues and the reflective moments at the end of a chaotic field season).
Another, perhaps more practical, example would emphasize how the wide dissemination of applications designed to facilitate collaborative research from Wiki-pages to blogs and the yet unrecognized potential of applications like Google Wave open the door to more democratic approaches to field research as it became easier to distribute decision making and analysis across a more diverse team. These applications allow almost real-time collaboration across the world blurring the century old division between academic periphery and the center. While such de-centered projects have clear limitations – our project is often better at identifying problems than establishing a clear course of action – and rest on assumptions of how knowledge production is organized that precede the existence of particular digital applications, digital collaborative workspaces rest upon the assumption that so-called “collective intelligence” is superior to judgment of a single individual serving as director.
A similar process of relying upon a digital, collaborative environment appears in the way in which the curation of archaeological data will change with the production, storage, and dissemination of archaeological data in digital media. In past, the careful documentation of archaeological information was largely confined to analog storage devices. This included film based photographs, paper notebooks (often archived on microfilm), and carefully archived paper illustrations and plans. Today, most projects have some level of digitization involved in the recording of archaeological information. Forward thinking project store this data on servers which typically include digital back-ups in their basic infrastructure. Once on a server, this digital data, unlike its analog predecessors, is available to groups of researchers around the world. As these scholars use this data, they can typically download some form of the various datasets onto their personal computers, servers, and backup systems, effectively multiplying the copies of the existing archaeological data. As researchers use the data, they invariably move the information from one format to another for analysis or manipulation and, in some case, they produce alternate versions of the original data (hopefully with a full complement of metadata). As a result, they participate in the process of preserving the data by ensuring the proliferation of copies and ensuring that it remains in a useable format. Like the de-centered, collaborative model of decision making, the de-center, collaborative model of archaeological data curation relies upon the (relatively) easy movement of digital data from person to person and from format to format.
The audience of the Robinson lectures is a mix of academics and non-academics. My talk would largely focus on the part of the audience who still struggle to understand why it is important to develop not only the physical aspects of the digital infrastructure (servers, computers, software), but also the theoretical and practical aspects of the digital infrastructure especially in the humanities (which have remained on many campuses bastions of unapologetically analog thinking). At the same time, the paper will continue my own effort to articulate in more sophisticated terms the effect of the digital technologies on my own research.