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...Excavating Posts

Gordon Fletcher
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 Interpretations

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 significance.

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 1995, 22)

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 Kahle’s 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 defendant’s creation of inward web linkages on to the plantiff’s 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 this space:

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: 32)

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 (Baudrillard 1994:1-2).

For Kahle and the Internet Archive project this dissolution of the 'charm of abstraction' is intimately tied to the difficulties of extraction.

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 it.

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 sense-making interpretation.

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 investigation.

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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