Telepresence, Cyborg Archaeology and the Molecular Age

km14_come_around_lost_or_found
Come Around, Lost Or Found, by Kendal Murray

Perhaps the greatest gift of my postdoc has been the crash introduction to the Molecular Age. As a digital archaeologist, I have been immersed in all things technoscience, but it was still a revelation to understand the incredible, diverse detail archaeologists can glean from a single tooth. Finding the interfaces between molecular bioarchaeology and digital methods is incredibly exciting, especially as it allows me to articulate a cyborg archaeology–drawing from Donna Haraway, Elizabeth Grosz and N. Katherine Hayles to understand archaeology, artifacts and bodies.

Found, Hound, Common Ground by Kendal Murray
Found, Hound, Common Ground by Kendal Murray

A theme running throughout my research over the years is telepresence, where you are when you are talking on the phone–not with the person you are speaking to, but not quite in the room you are standing in either.  Telepresence is an incredibly productive metaphor for research on the past, not entirely where you are, not in the past, but somewhere in the middle. These themes within archaeology and science came up in the recent Then Dig themed issue: The Senses and Aesthetics of Archaeological Science.

Telepresence is deeply implicated within the Molecular Age; archaeology must now telescope between vastly divergent scales of analysis, from the traces of aDNA to network analyses of regional and temporal change. Digital technology is the connective tissue, our telephone call to the past. But, it turns out, so is art.

km14_discreet_sweet_deceit
Discreet, Sweet Deceit by Kendal Murray

Kendal Murray’s artwork immediately struck me–her playfulness of scale, in the artifacts containing lifeworlds, microcosms that surround the artifact forever implicated in the artifact. Growing trees from pollen grains found on shoes. With molecular analyses we can hint at those lost lifeworlds, and with augmented reality we can reanimate those lifeworlds, and tie them to the artifacts.

So, yeah. Welcome to my research.

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Telepresence/Teleabsence

brbxoxo
From brbxoxo, empty webcam rooms.

Virtual reality, while often presented as a fully-immersive goggles-and-gloves experience, actually falls along a spectrum. Obviously there are the Neuromancer-esque full simulations that are not currently achievable on one end of the spectrum, and Rudy Rucker’s “where you are when you’re talking on the phone” which Pat Gunkel calls “telepresence.” When you are on the phone you are not entirely in the room you are standing in–some part of you is with the person you are talking to. You are in-between.

I find the telepresence end of the spectrum much more relatable–I even find it a handy metaphor for archaeological practice. Where are you when you are “doing” archaeology? I’d argue (contra Michael Shanks and folks who think that it’s all modern performance) that you are telepresent–not entirely in the present day, but not wholly in the past. In-between, an interstitial space.

I’ve been thinking about this for a few years now, a parallel between virtual reality and experiencing the past (or, actually, any kind of deep research) as entering an interstitial space. More recently I’ve been thinking about teleabsence. When you are virtually there, but not really there. Let me explain.

Brbxoxo is a website that shows webcam feeds of empty rooms. Rooms that usually have a performer (these are often sex cams) but, for one reason or another, are not currently occupied. Live, but absent.

Another example is live chat with Facebook and Skype. If you have either installed as an app on your iPhone, you appear to always be online. I have gotten untold grief for “ignoring” people because I appear to be present, when I am actually absent.

Or, if you are particularly social-media-savvy, you can be present-absent; if you use Hootsweet or another post scheduler, it can appear that you are posting live to WordPress, Twitter and Facebook, when it is really automated. But do you schedule a post to go live during your official working hours, when it might be misinterpreted as inattention to your official duties?

I wonder, as the absent/present divide becomes increasingly ambiguous online, if it will change the value of present-presence: being in-person, offline, and entirely with the person that you are with. Or will cellphones just become completely integrated as an extension of self?