Industrial Archaeology and Student Resistance

Fridays are good days for me at the Western Argolid Regional Project. I don’t go into the field allowing my aging body to recover and spend the morning processing a week’s worth of data from the project, producing maps for the local archaeological authorities, and doing some more complex queries that’ll help guide our field work.

It’s great to see our progress over the week (at present writing we’ve walked over 1300 units and over 4000 individual walker swaths). Because we’re consciously old school and “paperful,” we collect data in the field on paper forms that are then keyed by our students in the afternoons. I’ve argued elsewhere that the process of breaking the flow of data from the field to the digital form is part of a practice that I call “slow archaeology.” We keep things analogue in the field to encourage care.

At the end of the day, though, we have to go digital eventually, and the point of contact with the digital realm is when the students key the paper forms into the project databases. Copies of the database are circulated each week on a USB drive and these drives are collected on Fridays when I merge the data. This is an inelegant, but generally reliable process. Because our permit limits us to 3 years of field work, we have shied away from investing too much energy into a digital infrastructure. We do not have a data server, iPads data entry, or any bespoke technology in our workflow.

(Before people get spooled up telling me how easy it is to create a more elegant process for collecting data, I’d like to assure them (everyone really) that WE KNOW. I’ve been managing archaeological datasets for over a decade and recognize that there are better, more reliable, and more efficient ways to move data from the survey unit to the database. I KNOW, but this is the best solution for our project because it balances our investment of energy into data infrastructure with the interpretative and analytical requirements of a three-year field project.)

The amazing thing about data entry duty is that our well-meaning, generally well-educated, and interested students never fail to mess it up. The kinds of mistakes they make in data entry are really quite staggering. One team managed to make an entire field vanish from their database. Another team keyed into a database labeled DONOTUSE which they found buried on some hard drive. Another team decided to add random numbers to their unit numbers. Another managed to break the database by repeatedly trying to key in a unit that had already been keyed causing the LAPTOP (the hardware, mind you, not the software or the database) to finally just reset in an desperate act to protect all involved from such a relentless, unmistakably human assault on common sense.

Why do students do this? Data entry is not difficult, nor particularly time consuming. Each member of the team does it for about 2 or 3 hours a week. The database appears to be straightforward and is fronted by a simple form that more or less follows the paper form. Our hope, of course, is that by asking our students to key the data they become more familiar with the units they’ve walked during the week in much the same way that Medieval monks became more familiar with devotional texts, scriptures, and theology by copying these texts in monastic scriptoria.

The results, however, suggest otherwise. Students take this opportunity to resist data entry as a basal assault on their humanity. Their actions argue against reducing the work of archaeologists, past humans, and the complexities of nature to a set of limited data is profoundly dehumanizing. Our students are committed to demolishing the straight forward data entry process by entering nonsense data. They take pleasure in robbing the computer, database, and even data structure of agency by showing the powerlessness of these tools in the face of human ingenuity. They remind the rest of the project to slow down and appreciate the gentle sounds of olive trees in the wind, the rich taste of Greek coffee, and the crunch of plowed fields beneath our feet.

So, I wanted to take this blog post to thank our students for showing us that no matter how efficient, well-designed, carefully-constructed, and time-tested archaeological data structures are, they will always fail in the face of student ingenuity. Humans will never be data.

All the fears that our education system is turning our students into cogs fit only to power the dehumanizing machine of industrial capitalism may well be overstated. There is something in the human condition that persists into the early college years that we cannot break even by subjecting students to the most mundane tasks designed to wear down their resistance to tedium. The will to resist continues and manifests itself in simple, every day forms that we are only too quick to read as sloppiness, laziness, or incompetence. To misappropriate slightly a quote from the great James C. Scott:

“One day you will be called upon to break a big law in the name of justice and rationality. Everything will depend on it. You have to be ready. How are you going to prepare for that day when it really matters? You have to stay “in shape” so that when the big day comes you will be ready. What you need is “anarchist calisthenics.” Every day or so break some trivial law that makes no sense, even if it’s only jaywalking. Use your own head to judge whether a law is just or reasonable. That way, you’ll keep trim; and when the big day comes, you’ll be ready.”

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