Faculty of Arts, Griffith University
Paper presented to "WIP-ping post" conference,
University of Queensland, July 1997.
Internet Archaeology has generally focussed on the Internet
as a research and communicative tool for furthering the discipline
of archaeology. This paper, however, considers the role of archaeology
as an interpretative approach for the critical analysis of the
cultural phenomena of Cyberspace and the Internet. In particular,
the Internet Archive project is presented as a contribution to
a digital stratigraphy. The Archive and the Internet, in general,
are claimed to be both a spatial and an artefactual phenomena.
Within these phenomena, however, there is an emphasis upon the
'sense' of the artefact rather than particular physical qualities.
This prompts the suggestion that the significant qualities of
the 'virtual' artefact differ from those of more conventional
material culture studies. The paper argues that while Cyberspace
and the Internet are significant and new cultural phenomenon this
does not necessarily imply that they are divorced from the various
machinations of the contemporary culture of 'real life'.
Keywords: Internet, Cyberspace, Material Culture, Critical
Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we
know where we can find information upon it.
(Johnson in Boswell 1976:627)
The contemporary development of the Internet within post-industrial
society has generated a variety of popular and academic claims.
Of these, the most persistent, and celebratory, seeks to construct
the Internet as a 'new' phenomena, conveniently disentangled from
any pre-existent social or cultural constructions (Negroponte
1996). This paper, however, takes the contraposition to claim
that many of the conceptual devices of archaeology and other social
sciences can be usefully applied to this social and spatial phenomena.
Those fields of archaeology described as interpretative and postprocessual
are particularly useful for these purposes (Shanks & Hodder
1997:5). The work of Brewster Kahle and others to construct the
Internet Archive is discussed within this framework as a contribution
to the processes of strata-making - albeit a digital strata. In
focussing upon one site, the jargon for both the Web and archaeology,
this paper also suggests that the Internet, while physically immaterial,
can be considered as a space in which artefacts are contained,
produced and consumed. This is a claim which would shift the Internet
Archive from being 'just another', somewhat dull, web site to
being the 'visible' aspect of an extremely large site of archaeological
These claims stand in contrast with other conceptualisations
and models of the Internet that consider it as an abnormal media
institution (Buick & Jevtic 1995:8), an anarchistic and anachronistic
offshoot of various sixties movements (Rushkoff 1994:18-19) or
a knowable and comprehensible information system (Rheingold 1995:44-47).
Each of these perspectives to varying degrees, and as a reflection
of the Internet itself, are self-referential and interdependent
visions of the same space. This 'real-life' depth of complexity
has seen Kahle, too, struggle for an adequate comparison in his
publicity claims for the Internet Archive. He has variously described
it in press releases and interviews as a library, a museum, a
time capsule and a clearinghouse (Internet Archive 1997). Although
he is yet to do so, it would probably surprise no one if the comparison
went further to present the Archive as the reflection of a shopping
mall, filing cabinet, architectural snapshot or city suburb. All
of these suggestions emphasise particularities of the project
while never quite encapsulating the whole conceptualisation and
implementation of the Internet Archive within a single 'neat'
analogy. This difficulty in mapping the virtual to 'real-life'
with appropriate comparisons indicates, at one level, that the
'thing' Kahle is literally trying to put in a box is not just
a digital analogue of a previous form but a cultural phenomenon
in its own right. This distinctiveness is derived from the particular
spatial and artefactual form that positions it within a network
of social. The 'new-ness' of this phenomena is found in the particular
range of shifting relationships that the space holds to its 'users'.
While the Internet contains many 'bytes' of textual information
it can also define the space that surrounds both the 'text' and
'user's' presence. Kahle's project is not just to collect the
abstractions of human activity found in 'written text' but also
the fixtures, the 'space' in between and the map that explains
how each are related to the other. This depth of spatial and artefactual
presence is, however, not homogeneously defined or articulated
throughout cyberspace. From the subjective position of individual
users, some, even many, spaces in cyberspace directly reflect
and draw upon their accumulated experience of media institutions
and print reproduction technologies. In these spaces, the analogy
is a direct one with the book, newspaper, magazine or library.
The difference between Kahle's task and that of traditional archivists
is also revealed in the processes that produce Kahle's artefacts.
This further contributes to the distinctiveness of the Internet
Archive as a particular culture formation. Interment within the
Internet Archive represents the isolation of reproductions of
publicly accessible artefacts of the Internet in order to make
these stand as evidence of the contemporaneous social and cultural
activities that surrounded and passed through the 'original' artefacts.
Baudrillard's observation regarding the Lascaux caves identifies
similar processes of duplication:
...an exact replica was constructed five hundred meters [sic]
from it, so that everyone could see them (one glances through
a peephole at the authentic cave, and then one visits the reconstituted
whole). It is possible that the memory of the original grottoes
is itself stamped in the minds of future generations, but from
now on there is no longer any difference: the duplication suffices
to render both atificial (Baudrillard 1994:9).
Despite Baudrillard's claim to the contrary, the two Lascaux caves
can be distinguished by the different meanings each has ascribed
to it, although these can never be the original meaning - if one
ever existed. The presence of duplicates presents the possibility
that the stratigraphy of the Internet found within the Internet
Archive could 'be' simultaneously in another place with divergent
significance and meanings. These issues emphasis the meaning that
is found in the interface between the 'virtual' stratigraphy of
cyberspace and the physical location of the tools which access
these artefacts (cf. Gottdiener 1995, 21-2). It is also within
this between space of meaning that relationships of
power are generated and reproduced.
The Artefact in Cyberspace
Interpreting the Internet as both spatial and artefactual necessitates
a critical and interpretative position regarding the artefact
itself, both in cyberspace and in 'real-life'. The immateriality
of the Internet emphasises artefacts, including those with a 'virtual'
provenance, as culturally significant for the manner in which
collected combinations of shared, sometimes abstract and complex,
meanings can be encapsulated and interpreted in a single phenomena
- a single thing (Shanks & Hodder 1997:8). This claim is distinct
from more textually orientated interpretations. Gottdiener claims:
...the issue is not the relationship between the everyday meanings
and social practice, but of articulating a philosophy of consciousness
independent of social context. Such a position, although challenging
to philosophy and the sciences that depend on textual interpretation,
has limited value in the analysis of material culture (Gottdiener
Materiality is one of the qualities particularly ascribed to the
artefact, and is sometimes insisted upon as the most significant
quality of an artefact (Miller 1994:3; Buchli 1997:189). This
conflation of the artefact to a particular set of physical qualities
can be questioned in the light of a usable and accessible cyberspace
which extends beyond the capabilities of unmediated, immediate
and personal exchange. The 'virtual' artefact also breaks down
the apparent logic for the binarism and separation of symbolism
and materiality (Buchli 1997:186). This, in turn, presents the
possibility that the perspective of the 'artefact as text' can
be discarded for a position in which the artefact is considered
in a direct relationship to human agency (Thomas 1997:211). Such
a development is, however, ironic given the heavily 'textual'
basis for much of the present Internet. In contrast to this position,
insistence upon the need for a confirmed and personally affirmed
physical reality leads, potentially, to the argument that an artefact
must be visible (Criado 1997:198), or touched, to be interpreted.
What is being touched, however, is a particular set of qualities
associated with the artefact which is, in turn, bound to wider
systems of meaning and power in various, and sometimes fleeting,
ways (Richardson 1989:186; Hirschman 1996:168). This series of
socially, or at least mutually, ascribed qualities mediates the
experience of the physical object. This contrasts with the automatic
conflation of material qualities with a certain meaning (Buchli
1997:191). The construction of cyberspace, instead, reveals that
the sense of the artefact and its spatial relationships are among
the other significant qualities which are interpeted from an artefact.
The presence of cyberspace as a space of contemporary culture
emphasises, even stresses, the importance for gaining a 'sense'
of an artefact rather than experiencing a particular physical
reality. This sense of artefacts - what could be described as
artefactuality - differentiates the experience of cyberspace from
that of a printed text or electronic media. Similarly, a 'real-life'
provenance imbues artefacts with a 'reality' - an admittedly complex
quality. However, the apparent lack of physical qualities in the
artefacts of cyberspace may only be a temporary condition. Various
systems already exist which permit us to 'feel' the texture and
shape of an object in cyberspace. Other technology permits us
to view artefacts in cyberspace in three dimensions. These qualities
of texture, volume and visibility have generally been associated
with the physical 'real' world. Artefactuality, then, is a quality
of cyberspace, and other social spaces, which contribute to the
construction of the subject's experienced world. Artefactuality
is not unique to cyberspace. However, the artefactual qualities
that are emphasised within this space distinguish it from other
social spaces. Artefactuality does not necessarily impart coherent
meaning but, rather, a polysemic, and potentially contradictory,
range of meanings formed through the impact and relationship of
other spaces, other artefacts and other cultural meanings (Hirschman
1996:167). This complexity ensures that there is never, and can
never be, a 'raw' articulation or clean sense of specific artefactuality
but rather a conceptual and experiential cloud filled with tendencies,
possibilities and oppositions. As an extension to this perspective,
artefacts and the sense of an artefact found in cyberspace do
not necessarily require reference to similar artefacts that are
materially understood, and increasingly less so with the introduction
of the Internet within the dominant cultures of post-industrial
societies. The difficulty for the materially de-referenced or
non-material artefact is the absence of a meaningul artefactuality
which can be socially understood. As Hirschman (1996:163) suggests,
and echoing Gadamer, without a fusion of horizons there can be
no communication between parties. For the user, and interpreter
of the artefacts fully immersed in the spaces of the Internet,
the lack of materiality is irrelevant, as the artefacts and the
sense of these artefacts are an intergral aspect of this space.
The contradictions between material and non-material artefacts
are a consequence of the conflict between the social spaces of
the Internet and those of 'real-life' which continually intrude
and intersect. Driven initially, and at one level, by the visions
of artefactuality contained in the science fiction of William
Gibson and currently by visions of the Internet, cyberspace is
increasingly filled with artefacts and artefactuality.
The Internet Archive
The initial task of the Internet Archive was to collect 'snapshots'
of the Internet, primarily the Web, and to store it in one place
on a single computer which can access an extremely large storage
capacity of removable media. The contents of this Archive will
then eventually become part of the US National Archives in Washington
D.C. (Internet Archive 1997). This 'black box' will be made accessible
in order to provide a response to Internet searches for material
which is no longer 'currently' available. What is 'currently'
available on-line becomes an increasingly difficult concept when,
and if, this system is itself placed online within the infrastructure
of the Web. The notions of what constructs an artefact as 'historical'
becomes a less certain classification when this 'excavation' of
older sites can be conducted in a transparent and contemporary
manner. The result of making the Archive accessible may be to
make the Internet an increasingly ahistorical space rather than
emphasising the temporal differences found at individual sites.
Despite this, Kahle claims that: "There's a real value in
our early Internet history, which is being created now. Nobody
has taken this idea very seriously until now, but we need to preserve
our digital heritage." (Kahle in Chandrasekaran 1996:1) The
hypertextual qualities of the Web, with Kahles archive in
place, would make it possible to seamlessly achieve contextual
jumps into the relative pasts or futures of a single website.
The technical capability to undertake a project of this scale
or complexity is not doubted by the media. Much of the media attention
regarding this project has, instead, focussed upon the ethics,
copyright and cost of such a project (Chandrasekaran 1996:2).
Kahle has addressed these concerns, which similarly dominate cultural
heritage discussions, in the short term, by stating that only
already publicly available material will be archived and that
this will not be made accessible from the Archive until these
issues are resolved. An example of the concerns raised by the
accessibility of recent 'laid down' artefacts is the suggestion
that specific pieces of information that may be sensitive or embarrassing
will be readily revealed. These might include old political campaigns,
odes to former lovers and previous lifestyles and each is an excellent
example of why government documents and academic research can
be embargoed for decades. However, the project, which has garnered
both commercial and US government support which that financial
concerns will be a relatively minor concern and that the 'solution'
to this range of intellectual property issues, whatever they are
determined to be, will fall upon receptive ears.
These difficult questions of cultural heritage management warn
of the dangers involved in 'collecting' any form of cultural material.
This suggestion, however, also confuses the processes of stratification
with the retrieval of artefacts from strata - a confusion which
is further blurred by the effects of artefactual duplication which
is creating the Archive. While it would be naïve to identify
strata as solely a 'natural' process achieved without human intervention,
Kahle's project relies entirely upon human agency.
The distinctiveness of the phenomena of the Internet Archive,
specifically, and the Internet, generally, does not however separate
the production and reproduction of their meaning and power from
the wider conventional networks of relationships that define
experiences of the social world (Pfaffenberger 1988: 41). The
artefactual qualities of cyberspace are reproduced within these
networks and present an interpretable artefact. These processes
reflect, just as with the reproduction of the artefact in 'real
life', prevailing regimes of power. The early preference for 'text-laden'
pages in the nascent periods of the World Wide Web reflected,
not only, technological limitations but also its association with
educational institutions. The present situation reveals the increasing
speed of development driven by commerical interests which has
generated an emphasis upon particular styles - an historically
and culturally particular notion of 'coolness' - for the World
Wide Web and, at the same time, increasingly presented the 'Internet',
the 'World Wide Web' and even 'Cyberspace' as synonymously the
same space. The increasing number of court cases which centre
upon the defendants creation of inward web linkages on to
the plantiffs commercial web site is one translation of
economic power into virtual spaces. This susceptibility to litigation
reveals the similarities, rather than differences, with other
social spaces. The accusations of unfair trading practices which
have been levelled at Microsoft for embedding the Internet Explorer
into the Windows operating system, also, shows the power that
resides in, or is claimed to reside in, the interface between
the virtual and the real. In this atmosphere, social
relations beyond economic exchange, that construct any social
space are beginning to reveal that technology and commerical interests
are not the only determinants that shape cyberspace. A brief article
titled, "Where Push Fails, It Irks", suggests that 'webcasting'
which was simultaneously heralded as the 'next big thing' for
the Internet and its first commerically initiated development,
does little to address the needs or desires of 'users' navigating
The buzz surrounding push technology has quieted down in recent
months as increasing numbers of disenchanted users and harassed
network managers are wiping the software from their hard drives.
Citing annoyance with user interfaces and unhappiness with ineffective
content filters, many users are reverting to full-time browsing
within weeks after downloading a push client (ZD Internet 1997:
Just as Weber (1930) identified the Protestant ethic as a significant
precondition for the formation of post-Reformation capitalism,
so too might the heritage of the Internet and the ethics of its users (themselves founded upon
antecedent philosophies) be contributing to the form and formation
of post-industrial and 'virtual' capitalisms.
What is being laid down by the Internet Archive project
is described in analogies to comparable 'real-life' situations.
Kahle and the Archive have opted for the comparison with a library
possibly to emphasise the most innocuous and least intrusive model
(Boyle 1997:4). In claiming the Internet as a social and artefactual
space, the Archive's mission and working parameters represents
a contribution to a digital stratigraphy. However, the creation
of such a stratigraphy is not confined to the Archive. A widely
publicised site in 1996 from MIT was built around the publication
of 'City of Bits'. On the links section to that site the author,
William Mitchell, stresses that:
Sites in cyberspace do not, live forever, so this list will eventually
become - like the traces of a city that is no longer inhabited
- a piece of digital archaeology. Link rot will gradually set
in; many of the listed addresses will cease to exist, and much
of the online material will be deleted or lost (Mitchell 1995:209).
These examples are akin to the message-in-a-bottle time capsule
in their conscious efforts to preserve the present for the future
rather than the less conscious contributions to a digital stratigraphy
which can be readily found across any average University server.
As a consequence of the conscious efforts that are producing
this stratigraphy it is producing a thicker deposit than more
casual or unintentional efforts. However, this not necessarily
providing a 'better' site for the excavations of future digital
archaeologists. As can be evidenced from the search result of
a major Web index, there is a lot of detritus integrated in this
stratigraphy. As with conventional stratigraphy, the Internet
Archive does not preserve the Internet in toto. Archaeologists,
as the experts in these matters infer the presence of absent artefacts
from surrounding objects, and spatial relationships. The
conventional archaeological record, too, only returns a selection
of objects through a consequence of time and provenance and as
a reflection of the relationships of social power in that and
subsequent periods of time. The curiosity and impact of the Internet
Archive over other parts of the brief archaeological record of
the Internet is, in part, a result of the processes of strata-making
and excavation being so closely bound together. This provides
denser strata but it is still one that can only be partially representative
of the prevailing social and cultural relations found in social
space of the Internet. The on-line journal Slate summarises
the representational nature of the Internet by claiming that "to
archive the Internet with absolute fidelity would require cloning
not only every computer on the Internet, but also every person
using every computer" (Barnes 1997:2). Baudrillard's more
general observations regarding simulation extends this point:
The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive
it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory...today
it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent
of the map...But it is no longer a question of either maps or
territories. Something has disappeared, the sovereign difference,
between one and the other, that constituted the charm of abstraction
For Kahle and the Internet Archive project this dissolution of
the 'charm of abstraction' is intimately tied to the difficulties
The Implications of an Artefactual Cyberspace
Interpreting the Internet and cyberspace as an artefactual space
bound to conventional aspects of contemporary culture produces
a variety of consequences for policy making, interpretation and
application. The frustration for policy makers in producing workable
approaches to the Internet may be found, in part, in the vision
and relationship of cyberspace that is being applied. Considered
as a media institution, the power that artefacts and space contain
and reflect are largely ignored. Similarly, to claim the Internet
and the conceptualisation of cyberspace as new and detached phenomena
produces it own difficulties by distancing the object of the policy
makers interest from workable comparisons or models. The argument
that cyberspace is technology, unconvincingly, discards
the direct relationship that artefactual and spatial phenomena
hold to social relations while its reification places cyberspace
in a form of cultural vacuum.
The source of difficulty centres largely on how to define and
treat the Internet. This determines the models that might be employed
and the particular elements of the Internet that are eventually
emphasised in application. An artefactual cyberspace is a different
environment to one that is simply textual, or one reduced to being
a particular communications technology.
One of the most, apparently, obvious sites for utilising cyberspace
and the Internet in a daily context is the presentation of tertiary
education. The creation of flexible and open learning delivery
units in universities appeared to be the harbinger for a shift
in education practice. However, in drawing together issues of
economics, gender and technology into the education environment,
cyberspace becomes a difficult terrain to satisfactorily negotiate.
While the on-line delivery of courses appears to be an appealing
and cost-effective environment to exploit for finance officers
and adminstrators, the issue of how to conceptualise and utilise
the web is an acute issue for the educational designers and educators
(Muffoletto 1997: 53).
Early success stories in the online delivery of courses have
either reapplied the printed models found with older forms of
external studies or become unwieldy and rambling sites of conflicting
and out-of-date material that reflects the increasingly ahistorical
form of the Internet. The criticisms of learners regarding these
experiements also has an impact upon how online courses are managed,
presented and, sometimes, discarded. They are confronted by an
additional jargon, must acquire sufficient cultural knowledges
to successfully navigate the space provided for them and, in some
cases, face the prospect of never seeing their tutor. For some,
none of these issues present a barrier to gaining their degrees
but for others they require the equivalent of being able to 'read-a-book-in-bed'
in their courses.
Artefactual interpretations of the Internet realign the emphasis
that has currently been presented to both designers and learners.
The Internet becomes, within this perspective, a space for navigation
and experience, as with any other. This 'normalising' of the space
of the Internet shifts it from being a source of fascination for
academics and educational designers and, instead, provides the
opportunity for greater critical comparison and, perhaps, an increased
awareness of what is possible and the social and cultural limitations
of any particular space or the artefacts that are found within
Interpretative Accounts of Cyberspace and the Internet
The Internet Archive provides a starting point for developing
interpretative accounts of the Internet. The claim that this work
has stratigraphic consequences is closely bound to the possibility
that what is being created is derived from a spatial, social and
artefactual Internet. In contrast to this position, Kahle's claim
that he is conducting librarianship needs also to be considered.
It could be observed that the range of possible claims emphasises
the way in which the Internet and the increasing articulation
of theories of cyberspace forces an examination of the manner
in which apparently 'solid' concepts such as 'artefact', 'reality'
and even 'library' are socially and mutually understood (particularly
considering the various institutional restructurings of libraries,
teaching and other university facilities we are all experiencing).
The Internet Archive is a conscious and modernist effort to extract
everything from the Internet in the hope that this will produce
information and knowledge which has social, historical and commercial
relevance in the future. Within a space that is entirely artefactual,
in the sense that it is a consequence of human action and devoid
of 'nature', the Internet Archive project is the substitute for
geological processes operating in web-time - which is claimed
to work at a similar rate to that of dog years.
The gathering aspects of the project that are currently being
undertaken do not represent library work. The material is gathered
automatically by a web robot which makes no judgment beyond a
series of programmed parameters regarding what is retrieved. The
result of this collecting is an artefactual asemiosis, if such
a state is possible, which reflects the complex and social range
of a particular space. The difference between the unmediated processes
of gathering and accumulation can be contrasted with the particular,
although sometimes obscure contextual responses produced by any
of the web-based search engines. These search engines similarly
utilise particular stratigraphic aspects of the Web. The collection
of pointers that are returned in response to a search are the
result of particular algorithms which reflect the economic and
other social priorities of their creators and operators. Computer
journalists, still however, find great amusement in the variety
of apparently incoherent responses that Altavista or other
search engines return as a result of the combination of this specific
algorithm with their often vague and definitely ambiguous queries.
The navigation selections that are personally chosen from the
amorphous range presented in response to a query, however, are
akin to the archaeologist's application of an individualised and
The space duplicated by the Internet Archive is indefinitely
vast and covers a diversity of activities that renders it incomprehensible
in totality within emic methodologies and only partially understandable
within a techno-economic but etic frameworks (Bukatman 1995:1).
This situation, however, is similarly found in conventional stratigraphy.
Disentangling the workings of the Internet Archive's gathering
robot misrepresents how bound together the tasks of gathering,
re-presenting and interpretation have become in the development
of this project. How significant artefacts subsequently found
in the Archive will be understood is largely determined by the
manner in which the Archive will be accessed and respond to critical
The task of presenting interpretations of conventional stratigraphy
is what the archaeologist does once they have left the field.
Archaeology, as with any critical and interpretative discipline,
does not simply return the raw artefact or data in response to
a research question. The archaeologist is the subjective interface
between contemporary formulations and understandings of the world
and previous perspectives and social worlds that are suggested
by objects which have persisted in the archaeological record.
Glyn Daniel's Origins and Growth of Archaelogy provides
guidance on how the eventual applications and excavations of the
Internet Archive might be considered.
From time to time the question arises: shall stress be laid upon
horizontal or upon vertical excavation?...The two procedures are
of course complementary, not antagonistic, and the excavator may
be expected to attempt, if rarely achieve, both methods of approach.
But in a great majority of instances, a priority has to be determined,
having regard to the state of current knowledge and the resources
available... (Daniel 1967:257)
The development of critical interpretations of Cyberspace, and
the Internet, can benefit from many of the perspectives, theoretical
positions and even methods that archaeology and material culture
studies have developed and refined. Many of the 'hard questions'
that are now being asked in relations to the Internet and Cyberspace
are questions that already been given lengthy consideration within
these fields of study. The perspective that is informed from these
positions is one that appropriately places technology in a social
context and seeks to regard spatial and artefactual phenomena
within a framework that looks beyond the 'virtual' for interpretation.
Similarly, these interpretations of cyberspace can offer archaeology
a 'test bed' for the consideration of the relationship, and meanings,
of concepts such as 'reality', 'artefact' and, in light of the
current discussion, the formation of strata.
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