Truth and Beauty Bombs: Response 2

Published on 21 September 2017 05:27 PM
By Eric Kansa
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In her keynote “Truth and Beauty Bombs”, Colleen Morgan looked at the social media landscape in archaeology and saw despair. Anger, ugliness, and endless tweets of political outrage over Brexit and Trump all dominated conversation topics in much of Anglophone archaeology.

The title she chose, “Truth and Beauty Bombs” succinctly encapsulates these themes. The “truth” and “bomb” part of her title starkly highlights current dangers. Social media platforms have been weaponized to subvert democracies and weirdly globalize local nationalisms. Bots and “Big Data” powered analytics, aided by the profit-driven complicity of Facebook and Twitter, now target millions with individually tailored lies and disinformation. Archaeology’s voices on social media must contest a territory swept up in a storm of memetic and psychological warfare waged by nation-states and international networks of oligarchs. As the meme would have it, "This is fine".

Morgan calls us to rise above the rage and put more beauty into the online world. She speaks with authority with a deep history of research and thoughtful engagement with social media (much more than my background, as I focus on the digital communication of structured data in archaeology). She also also has a much great command of the theoretical frameworks and scholarship needed to approach an understanding of social media.

So my comments come from my research background that does not closely align with Morgan’s area of expertise despite the fact that we can both be classified as “digital archaeologists”. Though I recognize I’m well out of my depth intellectually in this area, her keynote provoked me to greater introspection on my own use of social media, particularly over the past year, where I have expressed a stream of outrage over the ongoing assaults on democratic and civil society. I gave a public viewing to my anger, bitterness, and sleep-deprived anxiety over unfolding political catastrophes. I think many of us tried to use social media as a means to resist and “do something” to fight back against the forces of illiberalism.

Of course, this means, proportionally speaking, I tweeted far less about archaeology, open access, open data, and my other areas of research. So, I’m definitely guilty of not contributing much to our profession calling via social media. Was my online outrage “weaponized” in a way that harmed archaeology’s budding online community? I know this has put a strain on my own relationships, and I think Morgan rightly points out how social media’s monetized outrage has frayed some of the “fictive kinship” (as she put it) of our entire online community.

I’m struck by the emphasis on aesthetics in Morgan’s keynote, and the title “Truth and Beauty Bombs”, sets the stage for that. She wants us to fight back with beauty. I find myself struggling more with this point, as the aesthetics she chose to highlight did not resonate with me. I lacked the background to understand or appreciate the particular aesthetic Morgan chose as exemplars. And in some ways, I wonder, if this highlights a deeper issue. Archaeology is a highly niche area of concern. It has its own aesthetics and styles of prose that take years of dedication to appreciate and master (I wish I could…). I think there are even emerging sub-genres of digital archaeology, perhaps epitomized by Epoiesen, with their own (dare I say “hipster”) aesthetics.

So, I’m left wondering how do we use beauty to confront evil in a way that goes beyond self-referential connoisseurship? We face urgent challenges. Archaeology, at least in any positive form, requires and should help sustain democratic society. Yet, the language and style of archaeology seems so far removed, so “academic” (in a pejorative sense), and so inaccessible. Will many non-archaeologists recognize our efforts to counter ugliness with bombs of beauty?

Again, my point in this response is not to criticize Colleen Morgan’s points. I’m in debt to her for provoking me in more introspection and thoughtfulness about how to engage in social media as a responsible “public intellectual” (not to sound all high-and-mighty, but if you engage intellectual topics online, you’re a public intellectual).

Cover Image "Image taken from page 48 of 'When Life is Young: a collection of verse for boys and girls'" British Library

Masthead Image "Shrapnel" A Softer World