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4.1 Archaeological theory and hypertext theory: A match too good to be true?

In recent years, some sectors of archaeological theory have been preoccupied with subverting authority, increasing multivocality, practicing reflexivity, enhancing awareness of both the social world and of the individual agent, reconfiguring the relationship of archaeology with descendant communities and other stakeholders, providing access to trains of thought and making interpretations transparent, acknowledging impermanence of ideas… etc. (e.g. see papers in Hodder (ed.) 2001).

"...if archaeologists understood more about how people receive what we transmit, and how they form their own interpretations about the past, then our teaching, public outreach, and research endeavours would likely benefit"

These general themes — coincidentally or not7 — are also at the core of many often-cited works about hypertext, for example the works of George Landow (1997), Jay David Bolter (1991) and Michael Joyce (1995).

Interestingly, continuing the parallel, in both archaeology and in hypertext research, there is another, generally less-cited, camp which says, 'Yes, that would be nice to do, but how will it work?' It is not necessarily that the questioners do not sympathise with the theoretical vision in question; often, they would indeed like to see it work in practice. But actually attempting to implement it often introduces ugly empirical facts into the lovely theoretical picture.

For example, it has been widely supposed that hypertext undermines linear, authoritative arguments, and allows/requires readers to build their own associations between pieces of information, resulting in readers who participate more meaningfully in the process of interpretation, and are thus empowered. This notion of hypertextual liberation appeals both to postmodernists and, of course, to archaeologists who prefer to avoid singular statements about 'what really happened'. I too have waxed lyrical about this on occasion.

But is this how hypertext actually works in practice? Is the reader necessarily empowered by such an interaction?

Not really.

Perhaps some of us manage to continue to believe that it works that way because of a little quirk in academic discourse.

Because hypermedia as we now know it has progenitors in multiple fields, ranging from hardware and software design to literature, hypermedia research is similarly divided up into discourse communities who don't necessarily interact or cross-cite much. (Oh, the irony!) There are those whose interest is primarily writerly or literary (e.g. Landow and M. Joyce), but there are also those whose interest is driven by the capabilities of the technology, as well as educational psychologists, cognitive scientists and human factors specialists, whose main interest is in how people read and understand hypertext (e.g. Rouet et al. 1996, 4).

It appears that archaeologists discussing hypertext theory sometimes cite Landow, M. Joyce, and Bolter, but have not yet drawn much upon the work of the latter group of cognitive specialists. This is not surprising; as always, interdisciplinary borrowing means a certain degree of risk and omission. Just as it was difficult for archaeologists in the early 1970s to have the opportunity to study enough philosophy to realise that Hempelian positivism was not necessarily the answer to all their disciplinary ills (Wylie 2000 ), it is difficult for us now to see the big picture of hypertext research. But it is, I think, important to note what these different groups of hypertext researchers have to say, because their different expertise can meaningfully contribute to different kinds of archaeological practice.

For example, several years ago, in their book Hypertext and Cognition, Jean-François Rouet and colleagues addressed user-centred questions like 'What is hypertext good for?', and 'Who is hypertext good for?' noting that 'the analysis of tasks and activities for which hypertext may be relevant and useful has to date been surprisingly shallow' (1996, 6). The book related a host of theory and data about hypertext usability but, nonetheless, they specified that they hadn't tackled everything yet:

'In particular, very little is known regarding the consequences of hypertext usage in terms of information processing skills. Can hypertext transform the way people interact with information sources? Can it be used to develop efficient strategies in students? The studies presented here leave these two questions unanswered. Another unanswered question concerns the limits of hypertext usage. Are there any application domains or types of activity where hypertext should never be employed? Is it incompatible with the organisation of some information sources or some tasks?' (Rouet et al. 1996, 7).

Of course, major progress has been made in the years since Rouet et al. identified these questions, but the answers have not yet been definitively established. While the jury is out, surely we should remain cautious.

We should also be aware that, on the basis of empirical study, there have been substantive challenges to some of the central dogmas of hypertext theory. Andrew Dillon, for example, identified, critiqued, and dismissed several key tenets of the general hypertext literature:

Myth 1: Associative Linking of Information is Natural in That It Mimics the Workings of the Human Mind…
Myth 2: Paper is a Linear and Therefore a Constraining Medium…
Myth 3: Rapid Access to a Large Manipulable Mass of Information Will Lead to Better Use and Learning…
Myth 4: Future Technologies Will Solve All Current Problems
(Dillon 1996, 28-32)

In each case, contended Dillon, actual data are either unavailable, or do not generally support these common claims.

Another frequently recurring point of contention is navigation within hypertexts. Some, like Landow, see this as a non-problem because disorientation can actually add to a literary experience (Landow 1997, 116), whereas others noted years ago that, aesthetic considerations aside, cognitive research with users shows that poor hypertext navigability significantly impairs reader comprehension and recall (Rouet and Levonen 1996, 17).

At present, archaeology's main connection with questions of cognition is the attempt to determine how past people thought (e.g. Mithen 2001; Renfrew 2001). This might be usefully extended to a greater concern with how people process information today. Of course, this is primarily the domain of other research specialities, but if archaeologists understood more about how people receive what we transmit, and how they form their own interpretations about the past, then our teaching, public outreach, and research endeavours would likely benefit — especially in cases where the situation is politically volatile, or the subjects addressed are sensitive.

Hypertext simply does not lead inexorably to reader empowerment. Of course it has potential, but above all, as Rouet and Levonen put it, 'we have to acknowledge that the study of the potential of hypertext for learning and instruction is still in its infancy' (1996, 20). Because of this gap in our knowledge, we should be wary of supposing that this new medium offers us a simple way to achieve the objectives our archaeological theory demands of us.

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