All posts by Bill Caraher

The Keymaster and the Gatekeeper

If the physical media of the Atari cartridge or gaming system forms a key component to the history of our digital world, there are few things more mechanical than the key. Some time about a month ago, the authorities changed the key and lock mechanism on the “teaching station” in the University of North Dakota’s new snazzy Scale-Up classroom. The email was simple and routine. The lock had been changed and new keys would presumably circulate. I have to admit that I half paid attention to the announcement, figuring that it was a room that relied heavily on digital technology and the new keys would be circulated as a matter of course.

This was wrong, and after classes were cancelled all day because of snow, I found the teaching station was locked for my night class. Without a key, I called classroom technology services and they announced that they did not have a key. Fortunately I had a ringer in my class who had a key, but I still did not.

The simple mechanical movement of lock marks a key divide between my access to the digital world and being trapped, helpless (almost) in an analogue realm. The culminating scenes in Ghostbusters immediately come to mind, as the transformed Louis Tully (Rick Moranis) lurched around New York City asking anyone he met if they were Gatekeeper. He was the Vinz, Vinz Clortho, Keymaster of Gozer, Volguus Zildrohar, Lord of the Sebuillia, and he desperately needed the Gatekeeper. At one point he declares to a horse in Central Park “Wait for the sign. Then our prisoners will be released!”.

As the 2014 Day of Digital Humanities winds down across the world, I am struck by the continued value of the analogue.  Only the Keymaster can fulfill the needs of the Gatekeeper.

On days like this is valuable that we ask ourselves, are we the Gatekeepers or the Keymasters?

The Afterlife of Old Media

I’ve managed to carve an hour of a my busy day to read something. So I pulled one of these strange dead tree things out of my bag and started to leaf through it. Today it was Raiford Guin’s new book Game After which chronicles and analyzes the afterlife of video game consoles and media as artifacts (). The chapter that caught my attention was dedicated to the afterlife of millions of copies of the game E.T. supposedly buried in the New Mexico desert near Alamogordo. The games was one of the worst ever produced and it was hurriedly buried when it failed to sell over the 1982-1983 holiday season, or at least that is how the history of this game typically runs.

Apparently Atari moved 9-12 semi-trailer loads from their manufacturing site in El Paso to Alamogordo for burial. Since this time, Atari fanatics, scholars, and documentary film teams have fetishized this cultural artifact and the narrative of its discard and combed the web, newspapers, and local informants for information on the dump. A few copies of E.T. leaked out of the landfill as it was covered and since then, no evidence for these games (and whatever else was buried at the nadir of the U.S. console gaming industry).

It would be fascinating to excavate this deposit as an example of the archaeology of late capitalism. Guin uses M. Thompson’s Rubbish Theory to consider how these objects of desire can become valueless rubbish and then re-emerge as fetishized artifacts of cultural significance when they are no longer physically available. As archaeologists, this transformation of rubbish and discarded objects from worthless flotsam to objects of cultural significance happens on almost every dig as broken bits of pottery discarded with manure in fields gain interpretative meaning.

It’s been useful to think how this might happen with digital artifacts that are summarily moved to the trash basket on our desktops once they’ve served their purpose.

It would be even more cool to excavate those games.

Digitally Mediated Learning

So I’ve spent the last three hours on our course management system looking at collaborative essays written by students in my Western Civilization I class on a series of wikis. The goal is for the students in the class to produce a Western Civ textbook drawing on some podcast lectures of mine, sources on the interweb, cheap, used textbooks for reference, and the library.

The class is about 150 students and is held in a Scale-Up style, active learning classroom. The room is divided into 16, 9-student tables and each table produces 3 parts of 9 textbook chapters over the course of the class. Today I was reading the component parts of chapters dedicated to the Roman Republic, The Roman Empire, and the Late Roman World. For each of these periods, one table writes on the one specific topic: military, political, cultural, social, and economic history. Each section of the chapter takes about 3 weeks to write and runs to around 3000 words.

To do the writing, the tables use a wiki that allows me and their fellow classmates to watch the table, articulate a thesis, organize their arguments, and present their evidence over the course of 3 weeks. This transparency in work has parallels with the growing transparency of our own digital world where we both celebrate the immediacy of blogging cutting edge research and respond with skepticism (and sometime horror) at our lack of privacy on the web. It has always reminded me of Foucault’s reading of Bentham’s panopticon in which he argues that the future of Late Capitalism involves a society where observation creates the docile bodies enslaved for consumption and production.

As we create digital spaces for our students to work in groups, to learn in visible ways, and to produce collaborative documents we are inculcating them to work in world characterized by a transparent interest in process.

A Digital Morning

As per usual in the digital humanities, I am up early wrangling my blog into shape. I find that blogs are the most tender and tasty when they are harvested early in the morning before fatigue and cynicism set it.

My post this morning will be on my current writing project which is titled “Blogs to Books” and reflects on the interplay between blogging and the next generation of academic publishing in my field of archaeology. It’s being co-authored by my friend and visionary publishing guru, Andrew Reinhard, who is the director of publications for the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

Yesterday, I posted an awkward little summary of my thoughts on the intersection of blogging and community. I have this idea that bloggers function as a community of practice defined by the interaction of habits, medium, and genre of blogging. The community of archaeological bloggers define themselves by linking to one another’s work, contributing to scholarly discussions of blogging

Today, I’ve been playing with the idea of speed in the context of blogging in archaeology. Traditionally, academic archaeologists have moved rather slowly to publish their findings. The reasons for this are complex. Some of this comes from the expense and complexity of graphically involved archaeological publications. Some of this comes from the slow pace of collecting data in the field and the limited time allowed for this process. Reducing friction and costs from publication has begun to change expectations for how archaeological projects communicate the knowledge that they produce.

I am arguing that the lack of both institutional and technological friction in the publishing of blogs has allowed archaeologists to publish directly from “the trowel’s edge”, present ongoing research to an audience in an exploratory mode, and to circulate pre-publication manuscripts to the community. These changes in practice have begun to the place and pace of scholarly communication in our field, but have also produced well-know challenges. Academic institutions are still unsure what to do with digital products some of which are the process of research as much as the product. Host countries have likewise struggled to balance control over their cultural property in digital media and the need to publish archaeological finds promptly and efficiently.

So despite a decade and a half of blogging archaeologists, certain challenges remain and the potential of the platform and the medium remains unfulfilled.