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5.1… and trying to see through the storm

Media historian Brian Winston has suggested that 'the storm of progress blows so hard as to obscure our vision of what is really happening' (1998, 1). Indeed, it is hard to see what is happening with the Web.

The awkwardness of analysing a phenomenon of which one is a part is a well-known difficulty in the social sciences. It doesn't help when there are multiple filters to look through — the filters of the academy, of Windows, etc. — and when the details of the scene are moving at unprecedented speed.

But the attempt is essential for, as many have argued, technologies shape our consciousness. They justify themselves, and constrain us as much as they enable (Franklin 1990). And one of the few people with the long-term perspective necessary to grasp what is happening with hypermedia has judged that 'Electronic literature, after decades of little progress, has recently developed fast, but badly' (Nelson 1999).

There are a multitude of concerns. Here is just one.

In 1995, Tim Berners-Lee summed up the evolution of concepts of the link:
'Link — confusion… Link — coolness… Link — readership… Link — $'

The next stage, our current one, might well be represented as 'Link — $$$$$$$'.

The recent growth of giant media corporations has been astonishing (Jupiter Media Metrix 2001) and has consequences for emerging standards in website design, and thus for how Web users read online. As one observer put it,

'As of June 2001, four web properties control more than 50% of all the time spent online by U.S. surfers. This means that you can throw away your usability guidelines and follow these companies. They spend millions on usability testing and they are driving standards by sheer market force. You have no choice but to follow their lead' (Rhodes 2001).

Just as fast-food conglomerates do not necessarily create menus with a population's arterial health as a prime consideration, it seems distinctly possible that the Web design conventions adopted by major corporations are not entirely about encouraging emancipatory cognitive habits in users. One has to wonder if the principles of information structure at work are suitable for much other than consumption. Does this in turn mean that Web readers will develop reading habits that are also unsuitable for much other than consumption? And does this in turn mean that Web designers will have to cater to those reading habits in order to keep their audience from clicking off to another site?

Whatever turns out to be the case, realistically assessing the development of the WWW means recognising that conventions of information design are subject to forces far stronger than hopeful archaeologists, and that those forces are charting courses for us that we might not have chosen. However, we can maintain a critical awareness of them and the habits of cognition that they encourage, and keep all of this in mind as we refine our use of the WWW to share archaeology with a general audience.

In that endeavour to maintain a critical awareness, philosophy and history of technology are surely our allies. Archaeologists, of all people, know things about technology and society, yet have not been quick to avail themselves about the remarkable body of philosophy about this very problem, as Marcia-Anne Dobres (2000) has recently discussed at length. Surely this is particularly important for online archaeologists. We might also look to the history of technology, especially if we hope even a little for some kind of social progress or liberation through it. Wariness seems wise, as underscored by Winston's dismal assessment: that the hyperbole of the information revolution veils the historical reality, that the only real revolution is 'the constant revolutionizing of production, [with] uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation' (1998, 382).

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