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6.3 Distance

The defeat of distance has become a major theme of information technology. Information technology has been characterised as moving from computation to communication (for example, Winograd 1997, 150), and this change is explicitly recognised in the shift in terminology over the past few years from 'information technology' (IT) to 'information and communication technology' (ICT or C&IT). However, technological means of communication over distances are hardly new — the telegraph pre-dated the Internet by some 150 years, for example (Standage 1998). What is different about information and communication technology is the ease, the speed, the richness and depth, and the scale — from narrowcasting to individuals through to broadcasting to communities — of interpersonal exchanges.

The idea that computer-based communications compress time and space has become something of a technological truism. Communication can be effectively face-to-face, but at a distance and with an element of time-shifting possible (unlike the basic telephone, for instance), or it can be much more impersonal and passive — simply making an online resource generally available, for example. But what effect might such aspects have on archaeology? A key aspect here is the importance of communication for the maintenance and support of (archaeological) communities and the social impact of enabling technologies. For example, there is a range of paradoxical or contradictory effects arising from information and communication technologies: at one and the same time, globalisation and localisation, centralisation and decentralisation, standardisation and diversification:

'Whether they are simultaneous, reciprocal bipolar opposites, paradoxical complementarities, or different forces acting at different logical levels needs further investigation.'
(Stevenson 1998, 190).

These set up tensions within and between communities which we can already start to see within archaeology in relation to access to information, for example. Stevenson proposes four eventual social scenarios based on developments in communication technologies (1998, 194-7):

Without labouring the point, it is clear that elements of each can already be seen in the archaeological world today. While Stevenson questions whether we yet live in a sufficiently communicative society for a publicly discussed agenda to be developed, such a discussion seems likely to be much more feasible for a smaller, more mindful community such as archaeology.

Another of these paradoxical or contradictory effects of ICT and distance is the way in which it has the potential to bring people and communities closer, but at the same time it can increase distance and enhance separation and isolation. At one level, such a contradiction can be demonstrated through the operation of the archaeological discussion list, Britarch, for example, which serves a valuable purpose in bringing a wide range of people interested in British archaeology together (currently over 1600). However, the ease of communication which this brings has also led to numerous misunderstandings, cultural faux-pas, lack of irony and failure of humour, many of which would arguably not have occurred had these been face-to-face encounters (but then, the encounters themselves would not otherwise have occurred).

For example, Introna (2002) argues that through electronic mediation, reality becomes a form of Baudrillardian hyperreality. Viewing the world through a computer screen brings distant objects closer, but also adds a sense of remove, in much the same way as watching events unfold on television news — '… hyperreal events and representations … come before us, but do not involve us' (Introna 2002, 80).

What effects might this 'archaeology on the screen' (after Turkle 1997a) have on archaeology itself? In such an archaeological hyperreality, data may be wrenched from context, argument separated from evidence, interpretations transformed into 'facts', explicit knowledge separated from tacit. Roberts (2000) discusses the role of ICT in knowledge transfer, and shows how, while they can be very effective in facilitating knowledge transfer through the exchange of data, the problems of communicating the 'know-how' associated with such data are acute. Making monument-related data that were never originally intended for public use accessible online is just one example of this in action. Distance can be, at least, a double-edged sword.

Distance may also operate in terms of our relationship with the technology. For example, Chesher (2002) argues that digital computers have now become "invocational media", supporting a range of cultural practices (reading, writing, viewing, playing, conversing, controlling etc.). He points to the distance this introduces between the user and the invocational device — it is increasingly impractical to understand the low-level mysteries of computers and software, resulting in the users themselves being used:

'Software features … allow users to perform second order invocations … Although they are never quite right for the job at hand, they are usually adequate. When users invoke something, it is not the "original" expression of the intention of the users. Instead, invocations are always articulated through many layers of pre-formed, programmed avocations. Where computers always promised to empower the sovereign user subject, the relationship between users and invocational media is more ambiguous.'
(Chesher 2002).

This change in emphasis from 'computer' to 'invocator' is very similar to Turkle's characterisation of computer development from the mainframe to the Macintosh (1997b). In the 1970s and early 1980s computers were apparently transparent, with users interacting directly with the devices through machine instructions, perhaps mediated through a programming language. In contrast, the development of graphical user interfaces hid the bare machine from the user, who now interacted via a surface simulation. As Turkle points out, the concept of 'transparency' changed its meaning — 'In a culture of simulation, when people say that something is transparent, they mean they can see how to make it work, not that they know how it works.' (Turkle 1997b).

She goes on to talk about the seduction of simulation — the way in which simulations enable us to think about complex phenomena in a dynamic manner, but also the way in which we become accustomed to manipulating a system whose core assumptions we do not understand and hence leading to the abdication of authority to the simulation. Increasing distance by inserting layers of opacity between the user and the way the tools operate, and between the user and the underlying information in the system has significant implications for archaeology — not least in the reappearance of the black boxes referred to above, albeit in a subtly different form.

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