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8. Of webs and labyrinths

Burgelman (2000) employs the metaphor of a labyrinth to describe the amount of information that is available from which it is increasingly difficult to abstract. He bases this on the analysis by Jacques Attali (1999), who argues that modern society employs a positivist, linear form of thought, but the labyrinthine complexity of the world makes linear thought increasingly ineffective. Instead, he argues for a return to a non-linear, pre-modern mode of thought, in which we escape from the labyrinth not by blindly forging on but by considering the range of pathways available. Attali makes the obvious connection between his labyrinth and the World Wide Web (1999, 63-5), pointing, amongst other things, to the way in which the notion of 'information superhighway' is a linear metaphor displaying a fundamental misapprehension of the labyrinthine web that forms the Internet. There is resonance here for archaeology — Attali's labyrinth is, in many respects, not unlike Hodder's desire for fluidity and multivocality in the archaeological record (1997), for example.

This is also underlined by Holtorf (this volume), whose labyrinthine multimedia presentation is amply illustrated by his diagram of connections. Like Attali, Holtorf emphasises the need for a change in modes of thought and reading — in both cases, however, whether hypertext as currently implemented in HTML is an appropriate model remains undemonstrated. As argued elsewhere (Huggett 2000, 18), hypertext only gives the illusion of allowing the reader to construct their own narrative: ultimately the author retains control of the narrative options by creating the links in the first place. An 'open' hypermedia system (for instance, see Davis et al. 1992; 1993; Rahtz et al. 1992, 378ff; Wolle 2002) in which, for example, users can define their own links and in which generic links can be set up and propagated throughout the system (resulting in the possibility of real serendipity), is much closer to Ted Nelson's view of hypermedia than the HTML hyperlink but does not yet appear to exist in the wild of the Internet. Furthermore, as reflected in some of the critiques of Holtorf's work (most recently by Fagan 2002), not all would agree with the enthusiastic embrace of multi-linear writing (for instance, see Denning, this volume). For example, Shenk (1997) warns:

'In our restless technological optimism, we tend to look down on old technologies as inferior, but we need to resist this … Traditional narrative offers the reader a journey with a built-in purpose. The progression of thought is specifically designed so that the reader may learn something, not just from the parts of the story, but also from the story as a whole. For all of its advantages, hypertext has no whole. As the Web becomes integrated into the fabric of our lives, mostly to our great benefit, we should employ hyperlinking as a useful tool, but be careful not to let it govern the way we think.'

Making sense of the sea of information, handling the multiple possible interpretations, writing the archaeologies, may well require us to move away from positivism and linearity in our use of information technology just as much as in our theoretical standpoints. However, through understanding how that technology operates on us, as well as for us, we may take control of it and ensure that it not only serves us better in what we as archaeologists already do, but also helps us initiate new and innovative ways of thinking about the past.

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