The Current State of Flux

In the current state of technological flux and the relative naivety of archaeological manipulation of available technologies it is impossible to guess where such processes will lead, but one must feel generally optimistic. Despite this, it is also worth considering some potential developments following from this which may not be so welcome. There is a danger in any digital environment that the medium may become the message. The dangers of dubious, misleading or downright inaccurate data cascading through the discipline is clearly present as data becomes transferable. This, however, has always been a potential problem; it merely becomes more likely within a digital environment because the data moves so freely. More significant is the fact that these problems may emerge in newer and more insidious forms. Immersive technologies such as virtual reality are a case in point. Mark Gillings (forthcoming) has discussed this danger in respect of Baudrillard’s (1983) procession of simulacra and his analysis of the emergence of hyperrealities in modern life. These images, with their alluring and beguiling verisimilitude, can become more real-than-real forming opinion, belief, action and therefore reality in a negative manner. Here we should beware; whatever their virtual appearance, such works are always as partial as their predecessors, and we must always be aware of the programmer, the agenda and commission behind any archaeological, or other, digital data model (Pickles 1995).

A second point which may, in the end, be even more fundamental relates to the pervasiveness and access to the new technologies beyond archaeology itself. Most archaeologists would welcome any development that projected the discipline beyond its largely academic confines. However, they may be more uncomfortable with that which will result from free and unfettered access to archaeology in a digital and virtual world. The truth is that dissemination/publication or synthesis was previously a closely controlled area. Archaeology may never have had a single agenda, but in a pre-digital world where synthesis has been the goal of data dissemination, publication was essentially restrictive, and restricted to a relatively small number of people (even within the discipline). The word synthesis carries an implicit suggestion of control of access to data, partial interpretation of information and a potential for the projection of normative or totalising views. Here we are not simply talking about the dangers of the use of archaeology for nationalist or other unwelcome agendas. These dangers are largely appreciated. Rather this refers to the familiar projection of a single past, generally a reassuringly Anglo-Saxon and male world, embedded within the edifice of archaeology. Alternative interpretations or approaches, whether represented by populist movements associated with "pyramidiots" or desperate appeals for re-appropriations or "othering" of archaeological data by different genders, classes or ethnic groups, have rarely represented real challenges to the archaeological consensus.

Where the status quo has been confronted, and the publication on Stonehenge by Barbara Bender (1998) is a good example of a confrontation in print, such challenges have in themselves hardly been unfettered. Whatever their value, such works have generally been perceived as the worthy product of cliques of academics projected in the most inefficient of manners. It is doubtful whether the archaeological establishment has ever felt threatened. Despite this, the current proprietary approach to the past is unlikely to survive the development of a truly accessible digital environment. A glance across the newsgroups, or a short time surfing the net, emphasises this. Archaeology is just another data source used and abused by a host of competing ideologies, individuals or beliefs, ranging from the quaintly amusing to the deeply disturbing. More to the point, in the current digital world, archaeology competes for hearts and minds on an equal footing for the first time. Anyone and everyone has the chance to possess and project a perspective on the past. No matter how informed or welcome such views are to the archaeological community, there is frequently little to discriminate between any of this. All have a chance to be heard. Within this new world archaeology will not be able to retreat behind the barriers of the all-embracing (and protective) synthesis, nor will it be able to pull back access to data – unless we really do intend to become data cops vetting requests for information on the grounds of their archaeological suitability.


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Last updated: Tue March 9 1999