As a participant in a recent Hackathon, I also became a participant in an academic study of the role and format of social networks in the creative process by a graduate student from Rutgers University. As we ‘hacked and yakked’ about web archives, data mining and visualisation, and historical research, in the background, our interactions, methods and progression were being recorded and analysed.

As an anthropologist, I’m far from inexperienced with the prospects and procedures for recording and studying people and their behaviours, but it also made me hyperaware of what I was doing, who I was talking to and what impact that was having (and how an outsider might see it all). Since then, I have been ruminating on the creative process in digital archaeology.

Visualising the digital creativity process.

Visualising the digital creativity process (mindmeister).

We were warned in August that we would come away from Michigan with a great deal of motivation, excitement, and creative ideas, and that as we went through the process, and problems arose or time constraints became more apparent, all that energy would wane a bit. That’s one of the reasons we’ve been assigned these blogs – to motivate us to incrementally get things done. In a lot of ways, this process and experience parallels the progression of most research projects. It’s why we have deadlines (real or imagined), and it’s why we often miss deadlines or at least face deadline-induced panic near the end. It’s usually viewed as part of the creative process.

What I have been wondering is: has the digital world altered the creative process for archaeologists (and more generally)? When it comes to digital archaeology, what is the impact of technology on the way we do things?

There have been a number of recent publications concerned with the adoption of and adaptation to technological innovations in archaeology, being critiqued both as providing a social platform for new approaches to archaeology and an anti-social barrier to creative and responsible archaeological practice for the past two decades. Perry and Beale (2015) have underlined that, “the social web… entangles archaeology in relations of production, consumption and world-making that have deep repercussions not only for what we know about the past, but for who we are as people in the present and in times ahead” but that complex relationship is not one we have critically engaged with. Walker (2014) pushes this concern further, arguing that despite a sense of techno-utopianism there are a range of barriers to equality, authority and collaboration.

Moreover, when one looks at discussions of creativity and suggestions for improving creativity and innovation, one often finds the overarching theme to be unplugging. Writing and drawing in a notebook. Sitting in a coffee shop. Going for a walk.

I will be forthright in confessing that my relationship with computers has been a bit dodgy, and this surely has coloured my perception of the creative process involving my digital counterparts, however I do apply digital data management, visualisation and dissemination on a regular basis. I also have a growing awareness of changes and incompatibilities in my practice as an archaeologist. My notes for my MSU DAI project continue to be analog rather than digital, and the digital applications that I have been researching and learning how to implement somehow seem less appealing now than they did in the summer.

Analog notes for what to create digitally.

Analog notes for what to create digitally.

This might be typical mid-research disillusionment, but how do I know when I have achieved a virtual task, and how do I judge its value? Given the immediacy of web-based communications, why is it that we often seem to communicate less with mentors or colleagues? And perhaps more importantly, do I really understand my data better with a computer calculating and analysing it for me? In creating a digital repository for monumental archives, is it really making it any more accessible or will individuals continue to repeat the recording of cemeteries over and over again until they no longer exist in the physical world?

This is far from a coherent discussion about creativity in the digital world, and these experiences are entirely my own rather than the result of systematic study, but given the recent blog posts by my fellow DAI-ers, there seems to be some underlining uncomfortableness with the process, so I would be interested in other perspectives. Perhaps my concerns are more symptomatic of the fact that I haven’t learned enough about these tools to fully understand them and use them effectively, or perhaps the creative process that I have been relying on in past projects needs to adapt to new frameworks and platforms.

Having said this, I have spent the past four weeks building the web-platform for the Monumental Archive Project, using Bootstrap and GitHub, as well as ruminating on how best to create and communicate controlled vocabularies. For my next blog, I hope to write more about creating and implementing controlled vocabularies for a less abstract (and slightly angsty) post.

Dominic Walker (2014). Antisocial media in archaeology?. Archaeological Dialogues, 21, pp 217-235 doi:10.1017/S1380203814000221

Perry, S. and N. Beale (2015). The Social Web and Archaeology’s Restructuring: Impact, Exploitation, Disciplinary Change. Open Archaeology 1: 153-165. DOI 10.1515/opar-2015-0009