I Link? or Ink? Therefore I Am: More Ruminations about Electronic Publishing and Archaeology.

by Kathryn Denning.

Fourteen months have passed since I last ruminated in these pages about electronic publishing and archaeology. It feels like longer, especially because in the worlds of the Internet, archaeology, and assemblage, nothing stands still -- least of all my limited grasp of all of the above -- and there are forever new places to visit where these three meet. So here are some digressive electro-marginalia, virtual napkin-scribbles about sites seen and words screened.

The last time I wrote in this space, I was simply trying to encourage archaeologists to actively make use of the Internet, for reasons both practical and political. It seemed to me then that archaeologists and their audiences could benefit substantially from the rapid, easy, inexpensive and accessible publication of data and research in interactive and heavily visual formats. It also seemed that the Internet was too good an opportunity to be squandered and that everyone with an interest should do their part to influence its development and evolution. I still believe all this is true and am immensely gratified, after another year of browsing, to now know about more professional archaeology sites like The Archaeology Data Service Consortium (discussed by Paul Miller), and promising educational sites ranging from The TLTP Archaeology Consortium to the big budget and utterly fabulous sites of MayaQuest [the link should work even if it says it won't -- ed.] and The Perseus Project. (Do have a peek if you haven't yet.) I've also learned about some other kinds of pioneering work in electrifying archaeology, which seem auspicious. However, my comments here don't stem from any of these efforts. Instead, they derive from my wider wanderings on the Web and elsewhere, on three topics broadly related to electronic media and archaeology: potential for revolutionising academic publishing through the Internet, possibilities for completely rethinking archaeological communication and the likelihood that the changes wrought by new information technology will not be merely superficial.

Potential for Radical Change in Academic Publishing?

In September 1997, with Judith Winters (fellow former-assemblage-editor-in-recovery), I participated in a conference at the University of Toronto, on Electronic Publishing in the Scholarly Environment. (Our contribution, about the heady amusements of starting up an electronic journal when one knows diddly-squat about such things, will eventually be posted to the conference site, as will the full texts of the other papers). It was fascinating and the experience consolidated in my mind a few things about the practicalities of e-publishing, on which ecologist Shealagh Pope and astronomer Peter Boyce gave great papers, and about the potential of electronic media to transform scholarship itself, which Shakespeare scholar Ian Lancashire vividly illustrated. But perhaps most importantly, the conference was also about e-publishing's potential for radically restructuring academic communication. True, it's difficult to discuss such matters without first carefully assessing the changing nature of the university and university-based scholarship and even harder for people to arrive at any kind of conclusion about the best way of handling publishing without sharing a basic vision of what they want the university to become. But putting that detail aside, at least until I finally get that phone call inviting my benign dictatorship of the Western Hemisphere, let's think about this information, shared by Stevan Harnad in the conference's keynote address.

In 1991, high energy physicists started to share 'preprints' -- papers awaiting refereeing -- of their work electronically at XXX, The Los Alamos Physics Eprint Archive. Six years later, this electronic archive includes reprints of refereed works too and contains over half of the current academic physics literature. What does this mean? Faster, more efficient access to published works for all wired physicists the world over. It also means the possibility of cutting paper out completely. Why is this good? Because it also makes it possible to cut out a substantial portion of the academic publishing infrastructure (which was, after all, designed for paper) -- and markedly reduce the cost of scholarly publishing, while simultaneously increasing the effectiveness of distribution. (OK, translation: you know those really expensive journals that you and your library just can't afford? Ever wondered, since academics don't get paid for their writing or refereeing, where all that money goes? Only part of it is for essential editing and administration. Publishing companies are not renowned for their disinterested philanthropy.)

So maybe it's about time the rest of us got wise too. At least, so says Harnad, based on his many years of experience in e-publishing; it is his hope that, if appropriate steps are taken by all academics, "the learned serial literature will be available everywhere, for everyone, for free, forever, as it always would have been, but for the tyranny of print on paper in the Gutenberg Era." It's a good dream. I would not presume to summarise his detailed and thoughtful argument further, but strongly suggest that you visit Harnad's conference text for yourself and follow the links at the end.

Other arguments concerning academic communication which are well worth considering (full texts to be posted soon) included those of Jean-Claude Guedon, founder of the e-journal Surfaces and Barbara Kirsop and Vanderlei Canhos, founders of Bioline Publications. Guedon, like Harnad, vigorously entreated scholars and academic librarians to collaborate in regaining control of our own means of communication. The Web, he pointed out, has changed the rules of the game and so it is now possible for us to change the way we play it. For example, Guedon asked, what if just 10% of library journal subscription budgets went directly to producing electronic journals as part of a scholarly distribution network, instead of buying them from a commercial publisher? Academic publishing could be transformed, one step at a time. Kirsop and Canhos are also engaged in levelling the playing field, by using online publication to increase the flow of scientific information between researchers in developing countries and those in other parts of the world, a goal which has hitherto been thwarted by high-cost hard-copy publishing.

Go on, off you go! But do come back eventually if you want to hear about:

Possible New Ways to Write, Think and Share Archaeology?

Hypertext and hypermedia have been used in archaeological presentations for quite some time now. I remember seeing a Hypercard presentation in the early 1990s which moved seamlessly from site maps to sections to photos of excavated artefacts with an ease which visibly titillated the nerds present. (Personally, I looked at it with the serene blankness of a hamster confronting a Tyrannosaur, for it was so utterly beyond my comprehension as to be almost unremarkable. Only later did I come to be impressed). However, what that project, and many since like it, offered was only an innovative presentation of archaeological data and interpretation; it was fun to use, very valuable as an educational resource and most definitely nothing to sniff at... but hypermedia/hypertext can be so much more to archaeology if we approach it from another angle.

What if, instead of asking "how can we present our data differently?" and turning to hypermedia technology for solutions, we ask "how can we find new ways of writing, thinking and expressing archaeology?" and look to people who actually specialise in the subjects of writing, thinking and expressing? In the case of hypertextual possibilities, there are the hypertext theorists who draw from semiotics and critical theory, etc., as well as the fiction writers, the software developers, and those who combine all three specialities -- and then, of course, those who provide pop-culture commentary on all of the above. Some of this just might be of interest for forward-looking archaeologists. Following are a few suggested beginning points for exploration.

For the LitCritically inclined: George P. Landow's Hypertext Hypertext and Jay David Bolter's Degrees of Freedom are two of the best easily accessible introductions to matters of hypertheory. (I'd provide an overview of their main ideas here, were it not for the fact that the actual texts are only a click away). Landow's courses at Brown University include Cyberspace/Hypertext/Critical Theory and the site provides some ripping good reading lists and links, as does the Hypertext and Hypermedia Bibliography site. In the category of more commentative rather than exploratory sites on related topics, Postmodern Culture can be a good read, and Mediamatic, Ctheory and Wired are also relevant much-visited locations.

The above material can be a good theoretical introduction to the history and potential of hypertext, but what of the practice of its use??

Like everything on the WWW, hypertext fiction is variable; some is pretentious, some is just plain goofy, but some is thought-provoking and some is terrific. You'll find the whole gamut at Hyperizons, a well-designed site with many links and some commentary. But primarily into the latter two categories of thought-provoking and terrific, I figure, falls the material available at Eastgate Systems. Alas, this is a commercial site -- hyperfiction authors need to eat, too -- and so there is only a catalogue, but for those unfamiliar with the hyperfiction genre (including, for example, classics like Michael Joyce's 1987 afternoon, a story), even this provides intriguing surfing. The site also gives a brief introduction to Storyspace, which is hypertext authoring software developed by authors for authors. Storyspace focuses on the word rather than multimedia and provides the reader with a host of ways to navigate, as well as the ability to add margin notes and save individual readings of the text. This seems to be a good alternative for archaeologists keen to explore new ways of writing; it goes far beyond basic HTML, yet is apparently not too difficult to use. It certainly provides a very different reading experience, as I found when reading the full version of afternoon, a story. (I look forward to Joyce's forthcoming Sister Stories, notably written in collaboration with archaeologist Rosemary Joyce).

It may also be rewarding for the fiction-hunter to visit enterzone and Stuart Moulthrop's work, as well as other features on the University of Baltimore's School of Communications Design site. (By the way, their Web design resource pages are good). For rather more pop-culture, avant-garde, occasionally dark, slightly sordid and amusingly illustrated explorations of WWW hypertext fiction, art, theory and narrative environments, stop by Alt-X, especially Mark Amerika's columns, the Grammatron Project and the Hyper-X space.

But putting all that aside for a moment... in my travels around 'serious hypertext' sites, the one which held my archaeological imagination most firmly was Deena Larsen's Marble Springs. (Only a demo is available on the Web, but it's worth a thorough wander, bearing in mind that the full Hypercard version is more impressive). It's a gorgeous concept, a fictional history of 19th century women at the American frontier, told through a collection of poems, maps, historical records, drawings and gravestone transcriptions from the ghost town of Marble Springs, Colorado. What is to my mind the most extraordinary element, however, is the author's open invitation to readers to contribute their own poems detailing the lives of the historical characters, for inclusion in a subsequent version of the work. It's simply wonderful and in its flexibility is hard to surpass as a model for historical archaeological writing with an open mind. There is still room in this model for traditional archaeological and historical scholarship, but simultaneously the opportunity for much more.

Hypertext is often said to have the potential to revolutionise the relationship between author and reader, negating authority and definitive meanings through the nonlinearity and changeability of the lexia. Looking at Marble Springs, I think this is true. (It will be fascinating to look back in 40 years and see what has happened to this Gutenberg Galaxy of ours). But maybe hypertext's great potential is ironic; it may actually be a profoundly conservative way of writing, in the sense that it can more closely represent the way most people really think than the traditional linear report does. Maybe for the first time since symbols were carved into a stone tablet or inked upon the bark of a tree, people truly can work with the word instead of against it.

Potential for a Whole New Way of Learning, Thinking and Communicating About the Cosmos and Absolutely Everything In It?

Yeah, I know. Hypertext hyperbole. But what about the N-Generation? ('Y' used to come after 'X', but not any more.) Who the heck are they? When asked, Don Tapscott, author of several pithy Future-Shocky-type books with a business slant, including Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation, answers:

"There are in Canada and the United States 88 million children who, in the year 1999, will be between the ages of 2 and 22. But what makes this generation truly different is not just its demographic muscle. Computers, the Net, video games and other digital technologies are everywhere. And for the first time in human history, children are an authority on a topic of critical importance to society. They are becoming a massive force for the transformation of every institution in society."

The tendency of some commentators, when looking at the inequalities caused by new information technology, has been to focus on the discrepancies between nations and the sociopolitical results. I would not wish to detract from this emphasis, but do find it worthwhile to consider the additional question: what does "growing up digital" mean for the traditional gap in communication across generations? Is this gap about to achieve not only unprecedented width, but take on a whole new nature? Have we entered a period where emergent means of communication and styles of logic will recreate the ancient divide of literate/illiterate, with all its social consequences, on a scale much larger and in ways much stranger, than we currently appreciate? Any applied linguists/prophets out there with an answer?

I have yet to pitch my pen or burn my bubblejet. But I wonder sometimes if the ink might be running out in both.

K. Denning, November 1997


Note, on "assemblage": check out what George P. Landow, hyperguru, has to say about the word assemblage. Ooooh. Begone, "deceptive transparencies". Maybe Derrida's version ought to be added to the journal's masthead too, beneath "the act or an instance of fitting together". return to text

Note, on pioneering work in electrifying archaeology: as well as Tarzia and Warren's first explorations of new ways of writing archaeology for the WWW in assemblage 2, there are, for example, Ruth Tringham's Chimera Web (demo only, might be very hard to load), and Cornelius Holtorf's imminent Monumental Past. And no doubt there's much more out there, of which I am unaware! return to text

Reference for Don Tapscott, quoted in Meet the N-Generation, Beppi Crosariol and Don Tapscott, Globe and Mail Report on Business, p. 142, Toronto, Canada, November 1997. return to text

P.S. On second thought, maybe we should hang onto those pens and paper after all, if only so we can waste time by playing hangman and passing questionable folded-up notes to our colleagues, rather than playing games (never!), watching our screensavers and sending email of negligible archaeological value. Those of you surfing on 'company time' (er, I mean on your lunch hour, obviously) may be interested in the recent launch of Com.Policy, shockingly inexpensive surveillance software which network administrators can use, undetected, to take randomly-timed screen captures of all the computers operating on that network. Said administrators may then, at their leisure, browse through the resulting record of one's day at the computer. Terribly useful for minimizing inappropriate computer use, they say. Hackers Unite, I say.

About the Author

Kathryn Denning is getting closer to the end of her PhD at Sheffield. It's about archaeological discoursy things and a hermeneutic approach to alterity. (Aren't you glad this article wasn't about that?) She now lives in Ontario and has developed an unhealthy relationship with her computer.

© Kathryn Denning 1997

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© assemblage 1997