Science, AAA, and Anthropology

I am not going to spend much time describing the controversy regarding the American Anthropological Association removing the word “science” from their long-range plan statement. What has been called #AAAfail is aptly covered by the great folks over at Neuroanthropology if you are interested in the details. My first reaction (also possibly my second and third) was more exasperation and disillusionment than outrage. It might be a problem of perception, but I share the feelings of exclusion and sometime condescension that archaeologists face when trying to reach out to our “parent” discipline, anthropology. If you are wondering about that tone of condescension, check out Savage Minds’s characterizing the critique of the AAA’s actions as having “as much complexity as an average episode of WWE Smackdown.” Bloggers get caught in the middle–how to complicate the public understanding of our practice and remain comprehensible is a fine art.

Anyway, I think there is a mostly good outcome of this controversy in that it has 1) made people really consider their ideas regarding science and the study of humans in present and past and 2) that there has now been a dialogue opened to discuss this apparent sore spot in the discipline. Perhaps a third beneficial outcome is that more people will read Neuroanthropology, and hopefully contribute to the wiki that they have created to discuss and edit the AAA Long-Term Plan.

Finally, I hope that there will be two other outcomes of this AAA PR disaster–that my fellow blogging archaeologists will (continue to) blog their research, demonstrating our own flavor of scientific truthiness, and that more anthropologists and archaeologists will read blogs and find them to be useful venues for discussion about our field.

Nostalgic, Personal, Neglected, Treasured, Rejected: The Other Photography in Archaeology

Fort Ross, Hipstamatic
This is my abstract for Heather Law’s TAG 2011 session, Open Dialogs in Archaeological Photography. I’m hoping that the photos I take will be worth the billing!

Our view of the past is hazy, inaccurate, hard to discern, never quite all there. Yet our record of such uncertainty is becoming dazzlingly clear; professional-quality digital SLR cameras producing high-dynamic range imaging are becoming the norm on archaeological projects and our photographic archives, once highly-curated collections of “scientific,” carefully set-up shots have exploded in size and diversified in content accordingly. Along with this extraordinary, high-tech verisimilitude runs a counter-narrative–photography on sites performed by students, workmen, professionals, and tourists using their cellphones.  These images are too casual, personal, low-rez, and are often unavailable to the official project. They find another life online, emailed to friends and posted on Flickr and Facebook, living beyond the archive and often becoming a much more visible public face than the more official photographs released by the project. 

Inspired by this tension between the personal and the formal and Damon Winter’s recent New York Times iPhone photo essay of soldiers in Afghanistan, I shed my cumbersome and conspicuous DSLR to explore the affective, casual, and nostalgic qualities of archaeological photography with my cellphone and on-board photo-editing applications. In a session focused on exploring the work that archaeological photography does, I will investigate the hazy, inaccurate, personal, and extra-archival qualities of the archaeological snapshot.

Wikileaks, Radical Transparency, and Archaeology

As the news cycled through the latest Wikileaks surprise–250,000 US Embassy Diplomatic Cables–my students were giving their final presentations in class. Ruth and I (with much technical assistance from Michael Ashley) taught a class on Archaeology and New Media this semester, culminating in a fairly open-ended final group project about some aspect of archaeology in the Bay Area.

The projects tended to be a mix of media that the students had produced themselves such as videos and photographs, along with historical materials that they gleaned from archives. Mixing their own microhistories with the historical archive results in more interesting, innovative, and intellectually robust interpretations of the past and emphasizes participatory culture and history-making.

Sadly, their eagerness to interact with these past materials is often met with serious resistance from the local archives. While the individual archivists may be sympathetic, the archive often has stipulations that the materials cannot be shared. At all. This mystifies and frustrates the students, and this makes me both sympathetic (I have been through this constantly during my tenure at UC Berkeley) and grimly determined.

I truly believe that institutions that house collections need to make these collections available to the public that pays for them. Period. The students can sense this and it leads to a process of negotiation in the classroom. The students have taken photos that they aren’t sure they can use. They have gathered quotes from interviews that the archive refuses to publish. I try to make the students fully understand copyright law, their place in the educational system and their rights, and the consequences of violating copyright. But I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth–I tell them to share, and, as much as they are able, to free information from obsolete or tyrannical bureaucracy. They are already learning to negotiate and operate within radical transparency. Facebook, Google and the government are omnipresent–collecting information at every turn–and the students are learning from this example and turning it back onto the companies that control content, rejecting the right to keep any information under lock and key.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? The Getty museum is talking about destroying their collection of 100,000 study slides. Why? Because when they decided to digitize them several years ago, they discovered that the original vendors who sold them the slides made the Getty promise to never scan them. They don’t have slide projectors anymore and the last time a slide was checked out was a year ago. The only thing they can do is trash them. They will probably do it.

These collections are dying, strangled by ridiculous restrictions, outdated copyright law, and protectionist garbage. If my students commandeer and share archival material is it stealing media or is it liberating information? Many educators are horrified that students no longer read or reference books or journal articles that are not available online. I’m wondering if we shouldn’t actually encourage this behavior and boycott offline research. If something is not available, make it available. If you do not make your research widely available, then perhaps it is rightfully ignored.

Digitize and share your archive, by hook or crook. You might just be saving its life.

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