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7.2 Using information

Most commentators seem to agree that we now live in a post-industrial information age, an observation which is itself laden with technological determinism. The period is defined in terms of increasing access to ever-expanding multiple flows of information, resulting in major culture change in terms of values, attitudes, beliefs and methodologies. On the face of it, archaeology is no exception to this, with ever-larger quantities of information becoming rapidly available online. The Archaeology Data Service, for example, currently holds over 455,967 records, but even this number disguises the real picture since the catalogue is far from comprehensive as yet and there are many other data providers within the UK alone. More information is being generated each day, and apparently we want access to even more of it (Condron et al. 1999). Anthony Wilhelm has wryly commented:

'In these early years of Internet browsers, we are in a sense drinking from a firehose, unable to sort and absorb the volume of information available online. Unlike traditional media, such as television or newspapers, which pre-package and digest information, the disintermediation wrought by the Internet means that there is an onus on the part of individuals to control and manage the flow of information.'

Even so, there is still a sense in which access to vast and growing sources of information is usually perceived as a positive benefit, but increasingly it is becoming apparent that the information age is in danger of becoming a victim of its own growth. Koski (2001), for example, refers to an 'infoglut' — an oversupply of information that is left to the individual to sort out, leading to stress and fatigue and the impairment of knowledge productivity. Similarly, Burgelman (2000) observes that: 'The search to transcend time and space led to a surplus of information and communication, which resulted in the intellectual and social incapacity to deal with it.'

For example, according to Naisbitt (1982), between 6,000 and 7,000 scientific articles were written each day; scientific and technical information increased 13% per year, doubling every 5.5 years. However, he argued that the rate of increase would soon be around 40% per year because of new, more powerful information systems and an increasing population of scientists, hence data doubling every 20 months. As a result, he claimed:

'We are drowning in information but starved for knowledge. This level of information is clearly impossible to be handled by present means. Uncontrolled and unorganised information is no longer a resource in an information society, instead it becomes the enemy.'
(Naisbitt 1982, 17).

Another example of the same process of exponential growth is the Internet Archive — this has grown from 14 terabytes in March 2000 to 43+ terabytes in March 2001 to 100 terabytes in March 2002, and is now growing at 12 terabytes per month. In the context of the thousands of mostly small-scale archaeological interventions undertaken in the name of Cultural Resource Management, Fowler has estimated that in attempting to write a work of archaeological synthesis, he was able to take account of less than five per cent of the information gained over the past 20 years — 'it is frustrating in the extreme to know that lots of relevant information has been gained, but in a very real sense is not available.' (Fowler 2001, 607).

We become overloaded by information and have increasing difficulty in both discovering and separating out the important, relevant information from the rest. In the process, a kind of paralysis results. Understanding the context of the information can also be problematic: for example, not only are the records and observations that archaeologists collect theory-laden, they may also be purpose-laden as well, collected not so much with research in mind but resource-management, for example.

As a result, Postman has argued that information itself has become a form of garbage:

'… the tie between information and human purpose has been severed, i.e., information appears indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume and at high speeds, and disconnected from theory, meaning, or purpose.'
(Postman 1993, 70).

Alarmist though this might sound, the inexorable drive towards more and more access often seems to pay little attention to the (re)use-value of the data (although the Archaeology Data Service, for one, places great emphasis on this). Even so, the data that arrive onscreen may well have been recorded by different people, originally for different purposes, and separated in time and space. The largely unstated, implicit assumptions about how archaeological data are selected and collected, coupled with firehose-like delivery of that data, all of it at least once removed from its original context, is potentially a recipe for confusion at best. Even where data are contextualised (for example, in associated metadata), observation suggests that people often pay little attention to it and consequently risk using the information inappropriately. While blame for this can hardly be placed at the doorstep of the delivery technology, nevertheless, technology is implicated in the problem.

However, given the nature of archaeology, it would seem ridiculous to try to argue that we have too much information — most of us are only too painfully aware that the record made of the destructive excavation of the past is a poor reflection of what was in the ground (let alone what used to be there). More detailed information gathering is always possible, given time and resources. Emphasis has turned to means to handle the information flows better. Metadata — data about data — is seen as one such means (even if this generates even more data!). Metadata as currently constituted is primarily a management tool, not specifically a research tool. For example, Wise and Miller (1997) define the information about information communicated through metadata as consisting of the nature of the information, the location of the information, and the existence of similar information. The metadata actually employed by the Archaeology Data Service for data discovery focuses on issues of authorship, rights, sources, as well as limited descriptive information — more detailed contextual information is held with the archived data themselves. A distinction is drawn between discovery and re-use, and mapped onto metadata and documentation respectively (for example, Gillings and Wise 1999, 42). This separation, made for very practical reasons, nevertheless restricts the value of the resource — the flow from the tap is reduced, but the individual is still left to browse amongst a mass of often irrelevant data to find the information they are looking for. The metadata explicitly structures the search for information and hence the data that are retrieved, a situation only exacerbated by the patchy coverage of the catalogue. What this underlines is the difficulty in delivering information, as well as receiving it. The danger, of course, is in over-refining the delivery of information — after all, there is an argument for the value of data redundancy in that it opens the possibility of serendipity and unanticipated connections. Paradoxically, therefore, there is too much information, yet not enough of it; we are overloaded by information, yet therein lies the possibility of innovative encounters.

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