5.1 Electronic dissemination: creativity and reuse

A critical issue is the assumption that someone else might actually want to work with these aerial images and our interpretations of them. Electronic dissemination has the potential to change radically both what we publish conventionally, but perhaps much more importantly, how what we disseminate can be reused by others. It is fundamentally NOT about doing the same things we always did through conventional publication:

'Rather than "electronic publishing", which connotes a rather straightforward cloning of the paper methodology to the electronic network, many researchers would prefer to see the new technology lead to some form of global "knowledge network", and sooner rather than later' (Ginsparg 2000).

It is about liberating our narratives to explore ideas and interpretations, and, crucially, enabling others to do the same: to explore, rearrange and reinterpret. It should change the way we work, developing processes of debate and dialogue, over definitive conclusions.

The physicist Paul Ginsparg has been at the forefront of such considerations for some time. In an interview with Scientific American in 1994 he outlined a vision of a new form of research community:

'software running on geographically dispersed computers will be able to link together an entire research corpus, from electronic-mail notification of first results to the actual peer-reviewed article to any commentary that follows. As this phenomenon emerges, the definition of scientific collaboration may change. Commentators on articles virtually become members of research teams. The network even opens the possibility of broader participation in experimental activity itself. Investigators from throughout a discipline can witness an experiment as it takes place – and register their comments for future perusal by other workers' (Stix 1994, 107).

Thirteen years on, this vision of a more collaborative and iterative research community, one that shares information at every stage in the research process – during the formulation of ideas and theories, not just at some point on paper – has made major progress in many academic disciplines (Butterworth 1998), but it certainly has not yet been achieved by the archaeological discipline. Some important steps have been taken, but there have been reservations and problems (see Richards 2006 for a useful review of the issues).

The nature of debate and the use of material can (and will) change:

'Concept-oriented archaeological data integration will enable the use of existing data to answer compelling new questions and permit syntheses of archaeological data that rely not on other investigators' conclusions but on analyses of meaningfully integrated new and legacy data sets' (Kintigh 2006, 567).

The idea of reuse, of changing ideas, of the impact of new theory on existing material, of hermeneutic spirals of re-evaluation, is an exciting prospect and surely one that we, as archaeologists, have long been moving towards (e.g. Rajala 2004). We can move away from the reliance on cumbersome presentation through printed media, perhaps especially from the need to produce information as printed catalogues in a single structured order: for example, material culture by material type, or by function, or by assemblage, or by chronology. Moving away from simplistic narratives and all-encompassing stories towards changing debates with the opportunity to explore ideas across material collected and explored by others. Encouraging others to use our material, to re-work it, to develop it along new lines of enquiry, with new ideas, to take it places we did not have the time, energy or background to take it to.

'Instead of a hierarchically organized world, it unfolds a world of lateral connections, of crossings and networkings, as well as rhizomatic proliferations and transformations. Changeability dominates in place of stability, surface instead of depth, possibility instead of actuality' (Welsch 1997, 176).

While echoing the ideas of networking and reuse, I would disagree with Welsch that this needs to lead to 'surface instead of depth': indeed the whole point for me is to be able to get into the depth of archaeological data; it is its very complexity, the interaction of material culture, environmental data and stratigraphy, the richly textured understandings of space and society, that make it a worthwhile pursuit. It is unleashing this complexity, allowing others to assimilate the assumptions and structuring of the material rapidly and thus turn it towards their own research goals, that provides such an attractive option.

'The new media of digital inscription have a stake in the current state of thinking within archaeology. These digital media provide a space for easy cut and paste operations of ideas and data. Thoughts, once inscribed, are readymade in various files (a remediated technology) and instantaneously available to be redeposited in new narratives. The ease and plasticity of these operations leaves little space for the comprehensive reiteration of ideas through the activity of writing' (Symmetrical Archaeology 2007).

Indeed, the re-combining of material into new narratives is an exciting prospect for collaborative work and developing debate. However, a note of caution here: this is certainly not about stopping writing – it is about confronting ideas and data, and being able to re-assimilate these rapidly, and represent them in new interpretative archaeologies. The act of writing is, I feel, vital here:

'Working on the past makes us who we are. This is a dynamic process because there is no resolution; it just keeps on going. The process is iterative. And there is thus a profound connection with design and making, with material culture studies. In this dynamic and mutual self-constitution of past and present, human and artifact, making things makes people' (Shanks 2006).

The process of writing (and drawing, and photographing, and recording oral accounts) is vital to us as archaeologists. As Michael Shanks rightly emphasises, this is closely bound up with notions of creativity: 'archaeologists do not discover the past, but treat the remains as a resource in their own creative (re)production or representation' (loc. cit.).

We do not want to lose the opportunity to develop narratives, yet we want to promote debate about these, and not only at the end of a peer-review process, but also as part of developing the narrative in the first place. We also want others to return to the 'data', in this case the aerial images, the different levels of transcription and digitisation, perhaps inspired or motivated to do so by our initial narrative ideas, and be able to reuse the material effectively. To do this we need not only to provide information about its structuring and organisation, but also its underlying assumptions and theory.


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Last updated: Mon Sept 29 2008