Philip K. Dick, Memory, and Managing Utopian Data in Archaeology

With some kind of winter superstorm barreling up the I95 corridor, I’m skeptical that I’ll make to the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in Boston to present a paper at 8 am on Friday in a panel on “Probing, Publishing, and Promoting the Use of Digital Archaeological Data.” (Here’s the program, but there’s no way to link to the specific panel.)

I’ve been tasked with speaking to the “ways and means of managing digital data in archaeology” and I think I have something to say about that, but only a weird, Philip K. Dick kind of way. For more on my interest in Philip K. Dick and archaeology go here and do check out Andrew Reinhard’s more comprehensive consideration of the most recent Blade Runner.

So here’s the short, 5-minute paper that it seems unlikely that I will deliver on Friday: 

Last week I saw the sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner which, as you know, was based on a Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Both Scott’s film (and the reboot directed by a less subtle Denis Villeneuve) and Dick’s novel, played with the ideas of memory, materiality, and reality in a dystopian future. These are common themes in Dick’s works which, as a number of commentators have recently observed, have an explicitly archaeological character to them that anticipated the current fascination with the so-called “new materialisms.” He is also interested in memories and the challenge (and impossibility) of parsing false memories from the real.

(And here the Villeneuve’s version of Dick differs from Scott’s. In Villeneuve’s film, the replicant Blade Runner knows that his memories are fake implants but acts on them because they represent someone else’s authentic reality, whereas Scott’s Deckard is never really sure and acts on the memories because they are nevertheless HIS irrespective of their broader place within a shared reality.)

In some ways, managing digital archaeological data is like managing memories. Without trivializing a century worth of archaeological theorizing and epistemology (and here I’ll tip my hat to Adam Rabinowitz and Sarah and Eric Kansas who have written with more perspective on these topics), I think most archaeologists realize that digital data is not (and never will be) the same as archaeological objects, excavation, field survey or landscapes. Instead, they offer us a way to reconstruct a practical and useful memory of the field work that forms the basis for archaeological interpretation. Looking hard at data especially in anticipation of analysis and publication, however, almost always reveals the shortcomings of data as ubiquitous “total recall.” In fact, even the most granular, tidy, and even realistic digital data offers us a view of archaeology through “a scanner darkly.”   

In other words, the hard scrutiny associated with producing “slow data” (to use Eric Kansa’s phase) opens up a dystopian, or perhaps better heterotopian, world where the archaeologist is constantly sensing a glitch between the nature of our data and its utility for the kind of analysis and interpretation that we want to perform (or in a more Dickian turn, the reality that we want to create). This sense of glitching is rarely more clear than in the horrors of running finds and excavation data from our work at Pyla-Koutsopetria on Cyprus through Google’s open refine and finding all sort of un-normalized and even un-normalizable fields to recognizing the limits of our data when attempting to analysis the Medieval period from a field survey over 30 sq. km of the Western Argolid and recorded by nearly 20 different field teams over 3 years. Reading notebooks from the 1980s and 1990s excavations at Polis-Chrysochous on Cyprus and converting this unstructured information in queryable and generalizable field and tables compounds the feeling of glitching further.

This experience is, as Dick captures so vividly, as uncomfortable as it is uncanny. While neat tables, graphs, maps, and statistics offer one way to suppress the feeling of discontinuity, those of us cross over from the field, into the lab, and, then, in our offices managing this data are rarely spared this relief for long. I’ll leave it to other people on this panel to speculate on whether this uncanniness and discomfort contributes to the reluctance of some archaeologists to publish their data or whether it aligns in neat parallel with the unease that many of us feel when we move from our data – our codified memories of the field – to analysis in an effort to bridge the so-called “broken tradition” between the present and the past.

Of course, the presentation of archaeological evidence – even in its most conventional forms – has always required a willingness to construct memories of the field and filter the rough and ready documentation from notebooks, photographs, plans and drawings and forms into the elegant refinement of published catalogues and descriptions. I wonder, though, whether the ability to collect digital data at the edge of the trowel or transect and the growing expectation that this data will be published generates an additional burden for those of us tasked with mediating between the collective experience of archaeological fieldwork and the end-user, consumer, or fellow scholar, who may expect to enter into that space for themselves and transcend the uncanniness to “remember it wholesale.”

Dick’s dystopian fantasies are hardly a reassuring lens through which to view our archaeological future, but I wonder whether they do speak to some of our anxieties about digital data recording (note my slow archaeology in Averett, Gordon, and Count’s Mobilizing the Past), digital data management, data publishing, 3D reconstructions, and the endless panels on digital approaches, strategies, and best practices. As America becomes increasingly anxious about the specter of “fake news” and systematic campaigns of mis- and disinformation, perhaps it’s worth considering whether some of this anxiety comes not from our fear of being tricked or misinformed, but our own gnawing insecurity when faced with the task of navigating the glitchy experience of managing the data of our own memories.

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