Time and COVID (again)

Last Thursday, I posted a short “two things Thursday” where I mentioned that I had been thinking about time “in the time of COVID.” This is an extension of my interest in slow archaeology, in particular, and the role of both digital and modern (or better industrial)  processes in shaping our experiences of time and space in archaeological practices.

It occurs to me that the COVID pandemic has produced a prolonged meditation on time in contemporary society (whatever other tragic impacts it has had on us personally and our worlds). As an archaeologist, I have a professional interest in time and its materiality and if I had time (heh, heh) and the kind of sophisticated necessary to negotiate its theoretical and conceptual situation, I would write an article on time and COVID. Since that seems just too hard these days, I’ll write a blog post.

Time, Place, and Work 

In my daily life, I’m one of the annoying early risers who is often on my way to my on campus office by around 6 am. Today, I’m sitting in my home office and writing these words at 5:54 am. It’s early, but I have coffee that I made in the kitchen and have had a light breakfast which I pulled from a box in our pantry. I feel like my work day has started and I’m writing this blog. 

As an academic, it’s not too unusual for me to work from home. During my sabbatical year, for example, my routine was almost identical to what I do these days. But most of the time, I spend more than half my work week in my on campus offices. My day is punctuated by my short commute, where I listen to music, organize my thoughts, and either compress for work or decompress on my way home. I rarely work at home in the evenings.

Under COVID, I do go onto campus, but only to teach on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. I don’t spend time in my campus offices which are largely reduced to storerooms for research material. I prep my courses at home, grade at home, do what passes as research and service at home, and write at home.

The slow archaeologist in me recognizes that this is not just a spatial shift, but also a temporal one. By working from home, my day is not punctuated by the industrial/post-industrial habit of going to work and its accompanying commute. As a result, work is just a bit closer to life, both physically and temporally. In this way, the COVIDs have shaken the division between work and private life that became such a benchmark for participants in the industrialized economies. I’ve found that it has also encouraged me to reflect on what parts of my work world bring joy to my personal life and draw me back to doing work that might otherwise be defined by a separate spatial and temporal rhythm.

To be clear, I recognize that this is a particularly male (and privileged) way of understanding the work/life divide and that many of my colleagues have long blurred the line between work time and private time as they juggled personal responsibilities and their jobs. I have the luxury of an office on campus, a relatively uncomplicated private life (without children or elder care and with a supportive partner), and a job that lends itself to fairly conventional rhythms (I only teach one night per week, for example). At the same time, I do think that my privileged position is both representative of a particular set of social expectations (judging mostly from the portrayal of working routines in the media) and not that uncommon among my colleagues.

The elimination of the buffer between work and private life is both spatial and temporal.    

Time and Travel

This week, I’m to attend a conference in the U.K. Of course, I won’t be traveling there in person and like most of the participants, will attend via zoom from my home office. The conference will start early in the morning and on the first day will begin before 6 am in my local CST. This minor inconvenience, however, pales in comparison to the disruptions that would have occurred had I need to travel to UK to present my paper. The trip alone would have been at least 12 hours through airports and on flights and then an additional 2 or 3 in the UK via trains, shuttles, and taxis. It would be possible, of course, for me to work on the flight, but since most flights to Europe from my part of the world are overnight, it’s not particularly likely that I would get anything substantive accomplished.  More than that, jet lag would have caused me to lose hours on my return to the US (not to mention my impaired performance at the conference itself). The three day conference would have effectively disrupted a week of teaching and research time. 

By attending via Zoom, I will certainly “lose” a few mornings this week to attend the conference, but this is a comparatively minor disruption (and undoubtedly a productive one as I’m sure that I’ll gain more than I lose from attending the conference!). 

On the one hand, it is tempting to imagine that the Zoom conference could be the way of the future for academic meetings. Saving in time (not to mention money) would open these meetings to individuals whose responsibilities make it impossible to take a week off to attend a meeting. They also offer a simple and more public way to make more visible the workings academic knowledge making.  

The Zoom format would also temper the social and professional anxieties associated with face-to-face conference and the tedium of stilted small talk, but also mitigate the dead time between papers, before and after sessions, between the hotel and venue, and necessary to find a restroom on an unfamiliar campus, to secure a meal in an unfamiliar city, and to demonstrate socially appropriate interest in a new or different place. While this dead time can be part of the fun of academic meeting, it is also part of the temporal disruption that marks professional travel. Even the most efficient traveler encounters this dead time that feels to me to be particularly resistant to being reclaimed for a professional or personal purpose.

Part of me has speculated that the temporal disruptions and dead time associated with academic meetings and professional travel is the way in which space pushed back against the relentless pressure of time to compress its dimensions. You can travel thousands of miles in a matter of hours now, but you can’t avoid the delays with finding a bathroom in an unfamiliar place or the disruptions associated with ordering coffee in a foreign language, locating the appropriate adapter for an electrical outlet, or entertaining the questions from a well meaning host about the weather “in Dakota.”

Time and the Site

As an archaeologist who works regularly in Greece and Cyprus, I have produced a nice set of well-trod paths that allow me to reduce a certain amount of the dead time associated with travel. More than that, over the last two decades, I have collected a massive quantity of “raw” data from the field much of which still requires analysis and interpretation. As a result, I have the luxury (and the privilege) to stay home and do archaeological work without actually visiting the sites themselves. More than that, I don’t anticipate getting back into the field until the summer of 2022, at soonest.

This luxury is the product of our increasingly digital world, of course, where field work involves recording our encounters with artifacts, our experiences in the trench or survey unit, and our impressions of the landscape and place in digital media that are easily transported and accessed from nearly anywhere in the world with a power supply and internet connection. 

In this situation, our distance from our sites may not necessarily disrupt our ability to produce new knowledge, but I do wonder whether the character of the knowledge that we produce changes when our work is displaced from our sites and landscapes for a prolonged period of time. Does our data expire not because it is no longer readable or understandable, but because it becomes less meaningful with time outside of its local context.

I also wonder whether the speed of our analysis will compromise our experience of the landscape, the trench, the site, or the artifact. How much does our memory of how a piece of data came to exist shape what it means? How much of our data is less a surrogate and more of a mnemonic for an experience or encounter that will fade with time?

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