Is it ethical to use social media for teaching archaeology?

Taken in 2009.

In 2008 I wrote a fairly shiny, wide-eyed treatment of the use of Facebook in the classroom, arguing that it provided an opportunity to discuss online privacy and a unique way to engage with archaeology. I gave the option for students to create a fake profile for a 19th century resident Zeta Psi fraternity house, a subject of research for one of the classes, when one could still do such a thing. To wit:

A critical pedagogical engagement in archaeology offers the potential to serve as an emancipatory practice, in that dominant political and historical narratives are challenged with the material record, providing a way for students to examine these narratives within their specific historical context and provide their own interpretations (Conkey and Tringham 1996; Hamilakis 2004).

Social media was a great way to get students to translate taught material and research into a sphere that they are more familiar with and use it to query the historical and archaeological record. Great, fabulous…I wrote the short piece for a teaching prize, which I didn’t get. Oh well, add it to my failure CV ala Shawn Graham.

Fast-forward a decade and I receive a notification specifically calling for examples of innovative use of social media within the classroom. Always too early. Oh well. Anyway, I’ve used social media ever since to disseminate archaeological information in various ways, to an almost tedious extent. This autumn I taught a course called Communicating Archaeology wherein the students used blogs as a platform to host archaeological media that they created themselves. I don’t consider this to be radical in any way, just a convenient way to cohesively host content.

….except. Except that I’ve asked them to use WordPress. I quite like WordPress, perhaps obviously, but my (and my students’) content creation provides their bottom line. I can justify this to a certain extent with my own work in that it is a bit like (wince) academic publishing. Would I feel the same if WordPress was funded by adverts and posts actively helping to undermine elections, ala Facebook? Do I know that they are not?

Would I feel comfortable asking my students to perform their content on Facebook or Twitter these days? I’m not entirely sure. There has been some discussion regarding the ethics of use of social media amongst archaeologists, several of which are linked from my department’s webpage, but none of it engages with the fact that we are assigning students to create monetized content on for-profit platforms, OR that by making our students engage with these platforms they are getting their personal information harvested and re-sold. Never mind that, during an untold mental health crisis amongst our students, we are encouraging them to engage with media that actively makes users feel worse about themselves.

During my last lecture of Communicating Archaeology I emphasized to the students that on social media, the product is YOU. If you choose to engage with social media you may as well try to use it in a way that will benefit you, as those companies are profiting from your participation. For now the pedagogical balance may fall on a structured, critical engagement with social media, but any use in the classroom needs to fully consider the monetization of content and personal information provided.

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The Lessons of Pokémon Go for Heritage

Pokémon Go at Stonehenge (re: Stu Eve)
Pokémon Go at Stonehenge (re: Stu Eve)

I have to admit, I was mostly ignoring the emergence of Pokémon Go, as I have probably the most gorgeous baby girl in the world to attend to these days. But after my favorite co-conspirator Stu Eve wrote a rather grumpy piece about augmented reality and Pokémon Go, I couldn’t resist.

Stu and I are basically the Statler and Waldorf of digital archaeology.
Stu and I are basically the Statler and Waldorf of digital archaeology. Especially if you don’t cite us.

Stu implores people to go outside, to use augmented reality to enhance and enchant heritage sites or even to ditch technology altogether and preserve and observe the wildlife that is already there instead of cartoon creatures. Stu then goes on to demonstrate that Pokémon Go distracts from heritage, citing a girl on Twitter catching a Pokémon at Stonehenge.

I contend that people playing Pokémon Go at heritage sites are simply extending their performance of identity on social media. It is not enough now to have an Instgram-filtered photo of you and your bestie at Stonehenge. There is a rather interesting one-upmanship in the attempt to capture unique content in the digital visual morass. When everyone has a photograph of Stonehenge, how can yours be the most unique, the most quirky or authentic performance of self in respect to the backdrop?

Stonehenge, Wiltshire, UK
Stonehenge, Wiltshire, UK

An interesting example–in the Volte Face series of photographs, Oliver Curtis deliberately turns away from the heritage focal point to capture the reverse view. This is provocative and compelling in its simplicity; the photographs reveal a blind side, a kind of back-stage for heritage at the same time as anthropomorphizing the heritage site–this is what the heritage “sees.”

Adding a Pokémon Go overlay adds a new element of interest, an unexpected juxtaposition of cartoon characters in a solemn (potentially boring) place. I, for one, welcome the Charizard on top of the Vatican–though I certainly share Stu’s concern for the complete monetization of experience.

The first lesson from Pokémon Go for archaeologists and heritage managers is that people are looking for novel, collective ways to experience and perform heritage. I think it is particularly important to note that Pokémon Go is obviously not a bespoke heritage application. It corresponds with my digital archaeological practice in that instead of attempting to build wholly new heritage-based applications and such, I try to use what people are already using as a form of interventionism, or even, at a stretch, détournement.

Memory maps at the San Francisco Presidio, 2008.
Flickr memory maps for geolocative interpretation at the San Francisco Presidio, 2008.

It is a hacky approach and everything breaks all the time–though bespoke heritage applications might actually have a worse track record–but surprising people by putting archaeology where they are not expecting it is its own reward. Be reactive, try to place archaeology in unexpected places, and don’t be too surprised when it blows up or it is ignored and it slowly fades away.

Perhaps the second lesson from Pokémon Go is that there is a corresponding retreat from digital media in archaeology from some of the most forward thinking digital archaeologists. It may be that the next challenge is to create interpretation so compelling, or so self-actualized that they put aside their phones and completely immerse themselves in experiencing heritage sites. Right? Devil’s advocate though–even if we managed such a monumental post-digital interpretive experience, we’d have to take photos of people engaged with it for the eventual publication. After all, pics or it didn’t happen.

 

 

Heritage Jam 2015!

The University of York Archaeology Department is hosting the Heritage Jam on 25 September at the King’s Manor. Last year we hacked cemeteries, and this year it will be Museums & Collections.

You can see why I’m usually behind the camera. Tara & Paul did a great job with it, but I can’t actually watch this whole video without running screaming out the room.

Photo by Dun Deagh
Photo of a doorway at King’s Manor by Dun Deagh

BONUS: If you participate in the Heritage Jam, you have the option of sleeping over at the King’s Manor, a fantastic Grade I listed building.

There’s a huge amount of information available on the website, sign up before it is too late:

http://www.heritagejam.org/

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Palmyra: A Lamentation

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I could write about the strange aesthetics of annihilation, iconoclasm, nationalism, symbolism, weaponized cultural heritage and the murder of people, a place, an archaeologist. I am supposed to be an expert in this, after all. Intimate of the ancient.

Or, on a more personal level–how Palmyra blushed toward the blue desert sky. How I was ragged sick so I didn’t take very many photos, but dragged around the site anyway, sitting in the shade of columns. Picking out details. Petting the friendly cats in the ruins. Now every time I hear about something else being destroyed I go back over the same photos. How it was the same when I found out about the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo, the Al-Madina Souq, Crac de Chevalier, Bosra, the Dead Cities–a UNESCO listing is a death sentence. These are only the big, well-known sites, there is extensive looting, destroying sites beyond all recovery.

It is easy to be glib (oh, now we can get to everything underneath! they were recorded anyway!) or post-modern (it’s only my white, western, colonialist/orientalist thinking that makes me care about old stacked stones), or relativistic (concrete houses & Greco-roman art, it’s all the same) and I’ve struggled through and re-written these scant 267 words. Yes, I care about people, I care about places, I care about things.

But I’m supposed to be an expert in caring about heritage and I still can’t find any fucking words. (though these help tremendously)

So I have my photos. And I give what I can when I can. And wait to study the new ruins caused by murderous men.

The Happy Accidents of Archaeological Drone Photography

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Admittedly, 80% of the 227 photos are of grass. Blurry, impressionistic, green. The camera was set to time lapse, taking a photo every five seconds, and most people in the Heritage & Play group had a turn. A new person at the controls, and the angry-bee-buzz of the small white drone would signal lift-off.

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We all stood around it, watching it aloft, buzz around, then land. We were amateurs–this is not an effective group shot, but it’s lovely. It’s late autumn in England, the sun hangs low in the sky, prolonging the golden hour and lighting up the still-green fields.

DCIM100GOPRO But who is the author of the photo? It was a time lapse, so was it Neil, who set the camera? Or the “pilot” of the drone? The wind played havoc with the camera gimbal, so the drone propellers show up in some of these photos, like fingers left too close to the lens.

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These are the rejected shots, the extra-archival material that I’m always interested in, the visual archaeological marginalia. Drones, tied to vicious, out-of-the-blue attacks on non-combatants by the United States, are tools of surveillance, of state-crafted terror, and take lovely photos of archaeology in the English countryside. We were happy the rain lifted so we could take better photos; in Pakistan a little boy lamented the death of his 67-year-old grandmother who was killed by a drone strike while picking vegetables, “I no longer love blue skies…In fact, I now prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray.”

Even unarmed, the drones are used for “weaponized photography“–there are a host of rules about where and when and why you can fly drones in the UK. Perhaps that’s why I find delight in these marginal, miscellaneous photos–they are goofy, non-standard and non-threatening, revealing an imperfect technological surrogacy. They’re accidentally lovely.

Three Functions

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“The aesthetic function of public art is to codify social distinctions as natural ones.”

(newspaper rock in Canyonland, Utah, by Molas)

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“The economic function of public art is to increase the value of private property.”

(Outside Cheapo Records, Austin, TX)

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“The social function of public art is to subject us to civic behaviour.”

(Angkor Wat, by David Willmot)

From the Three Functions by Hewitt and Jordan.