Matt Ratto seminar

I am very pleased to announce next week’s seminar with Matt Ratto, The Virtual Knowledge Studio for the Humanities and Social Sciences, The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

I met Matt at the Cyberinstrastructure Summer Institute at UC San Diego in July, and I was very impressed with his work and his intellectual investment in the humanities and information technology.

On Tuesday this coming week – Dec 12, 1.15 pm CET – he will talk about

Already False, Potentially True: epistemic commitments, virtual reality, and archaeological representation

The (long) abstract follows below. Everyone welcome! The talk will be streamed live and archived. We will also provide a chat room for live interaction. 

In this paper I try to answer the question of why few classical archaeologists are embracing 3D computer modeling and simulation when adjacent disciplines and interests (such as scientific archaeology, museums and cultural heritage organizations) have been so engaged and interested in adopting such technologies. In doing so I return to the broader question of the differences between arts, humanities, and social and natural science disciplines, and what Knorr-Cetina calls “epistemic cultures.” To add detail to this notion, I specifically focus in on what I term the epistemic commitments performed by individual scientists and scholars. I use a particular notion of commitment, borrowed from Howard Becker, to address the ways epistemics, or ways of creating, representing, and defending knowledge, can be seen as part of the means by which alignments are made between academic disciplines, the fields of enquiry that they represent, and shared notions about what constitutes valid research. These commitments rely on specific configurations of analytic, representational, and communicative tools, and include both functional and aesthetic choices. I claim that epistemic cultures are constructed and maintained through the epistemic commitments of participating scientists, including their choices of both material and conceptual tools. Further, a focus on the epistemic commitments of scholars and scientists provides the means for linking individual action and larger knowledge traditions and provides a way to denaturalize particular traditions as authoritative.

To illustrate the relationship between technologies and epistemics, I start with a story about a classical archaeologist at the University of Amsterdam. A terracotteri, or specialist in terra cotta materials from the pre-roman period, Dr. Lulof wanted to change how others in her field thought about fascia materials on a particular form of pre-roman temple. Traditionally these materials, which depicted classical mythological scenes, were thought to represent an early form of political propaganda. Non-elites in the society walking by the temple would identify them with elite temple goers and thereby reinforce the power of both the temple and the specific elite in question. However, Dr. Lulof’s opinion was that the scenes on these fascia tiles were not visible from beyond the sacred space that surrounded pre-roman temples of this vintage. Therefore, they could not be seen by individuals who were not elites (who were not allowed to enter the sacred space,) and thus they could not act as propaganda. However, she felt she had no way of testing whether or not the fascia were visible at the requisite distance except by building a one-to-one model of the temple. Hearing of her problem, researchers at SARA, a computer center in Amsterdam that provided computational and visualization resources to academics in the Netherlands, agreed to help her. Using her drawings, the programmers at SARA proceeded to build a virtual version of the temple, complete with fascia, for display within SARA’s CAVE, an immersive 3D environment. Upon completion, Dr. Lulof (with some of her peers,) entered the CAVE, walked to the correct distance, and noted that the fascia images were not recognisable. Before fully writing up her project and findings, Dr. Lulof solicited comments from three distinct groups of archaeology-related scholars and scientists; her peers, including terrcotterie as well as other classical archaeologists; more technically oriented archaeologists, and computer programmers and scientists who specialize in cultural heritage representation. Perhaps surprisingly, all three of these groups rejected her project, albeit for very different reasons.

This paper takes the multiple rejections as indicative of the different epistemic commitments by the various groups involved. While of varying types, these commitments help to trace out the various research objects, modes of representation (aesthetics,) and forms of evidence particular research communities see as valid and necessary to good research. Acknowledging these commitments can help us develop appropriate technologies that help rather than hinder existing research practice, add a layer of reflexivity to researchers’ choices and decisions, and ultimately, facilitate productive cross-disciplinary collaboration.