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in M. Brittain and T. Clack (eds) Archaeology and Media, Walnut Creek, Left Coast Press, 2007

based on a talk originally given at TAG 2004 Glasgow


This paper argues that new digital media are precipitating a rethinking of how media work, and discusses how archaeologists are presented with an opportunity to reassess fundamental practices of collection/database design, authorship, and even ontology and epistemology.

Media are often understood simply as supplement to real archaeology, to do with presentation and the dissemination of findings and theories following excavation and data processing, for example. It has, however, also long been recognized that publication is one of the foundations of any archaeological knowledge. I argue that a new understanding of media as the work of mediation, and a reevaluation of some issues of information science in relation to archaeology puts media at the heart of our discipline. This includes both conventional analogue media as well as new digital media - digital media are not a radical break with analogue, but they are helping to precipitate reevaluation of media as a whole. Further rethinking is being prompted by work on inscription, imaging and representation in the likes of science studies. There is also the familiar background of reflexive and critical thinking in the humanities and social sciences.

I consider specific implications for publication, archives, primary research and interpretation, pedagogy, and interpretation for non-archaeologists. Archaeologists are presented with an opportunity to effect breakthroughs in the collaborative authoring of dynamic collections of information, genuinely pluralist construction of knowledge involving open forms of narrative that nevertheless makes robust claims to knowledge and conspicuously avoids criticisms of relativism that so often accompany models of pluralist, multivocal and situated knowledge.

The paper presents its argument through my work on the archaeology of the early Greek state, experiments in the Metamedia Lab at Stanford with new classes of authoring and databasing software, including the Three Landscapes Project and the Traumwerk Project.

To summarize: I suggest that archaeologists attend to three key points about media and their relationship to the design of information.

Two topics concerning the character of archaeology and two philosophies of (information) design

Two topics that have long been the focus of my archaeological interest are the context for this essay. Both topics are about the intimate connections, often unrecognized, between media and information design and management.

The first topic is about archaeological method, how we move from the collection of data through to description, explanation and interpretation. My argument is that our orthodox archaeological methods, traditional, processual and post-processual, have a tendency to predetermine the past, what we notice, gather and say; they may even actually obscure the past.

The second topic is about the very way we think of archaeology. I argue that archaeologists work on what is left of the past. We don't discover the past. We set up relationships with what remains.

I am going to explore these topics in connection with two different philosophies of information, ways of classifying and organizing data. I will draw on some recent research and thinking in science and technology studies, the sociology of information, to associate information, categories and standardized infrastructures with media, through considering the design practices that work on data to produce information. This entails a rethinking of the way media are commonly conceived. Media, such as text, image and video, are often understood simply as supplement to real archaeology, to do with communication, presentation and the dissemination of findings and theories following excavation and data processing, for example. It has, however, also long been recognized that publication is one of the foundations of any archaeological knowledge, much more important than simply reporting work. Nevertheless, it is commonplace to discuss the representation of archaeology in the media, such as popular trade publication and TV, and in so doing to separate the communication of findings from the substantive content of those findings and the work in the field, lab or library that generated them. Instead of connecting media with publication and representations of archaeology, I argue that we should understand media as the work of mediation and as modes of engagement with the past. I propose a reevaluation of some issues of information science in relation to archaeology, putting media(tion) at the heart of our discipline and requiring us to reject this distinction of primary research and secondary dissemination.

So I will set up a contrast between a top-down approach to the design of information and one that uses agile and adaptive rapid prototyping. While this contrast is overdrawn for illustrative and rhetorical purposes, it is rooted in direct ethnographic research into information design in the IT industry of Silicon Valley, the home environment of my Metamedia Lab in Stanford University's Archaeology Center.

I suggest that the contrast prompts archaeologists to rethink the political economy of our archaeological media, the mode of production of information and knowledge - the very way we go about doing archaeology.

It will be clear from this short introduction that this is quite a broad and interdisciplinary field. To argue my points closely with full apparatus of scholarship would make for a long and unwieldy contribution that could not fit into a collection such as this. But I believe the issues are vital to a critical understanding of archaeology and media and so I have adopted a looser style suitable to an engagement with ideas rather than with detailed research. There will be no problems for anyone wishing to explore this field of ideas further: they should simply perform a standard internet search on keywords.

Let me begin with two anecdotes about the way we design archaeological information.

Anecdote – a large archaeological project in the Mediterranean — what to do with too much information

Last year I spent an afternoon talking to some members of a large archaeological project in the Mediterranean. They face a quandary of how to organize and make available the things they are finding. It is a typical problem faced by many projects.

Use of current recording media and IT in the field has allowed the capture of considerable amounts of data of and about the excavations. Large storage devices enable the use of rich media like digital imagery, sound and video. And the project is aiming to make all this as accessible as possible to any interest anywhere through a web portal. The project's guiding mission is one of open and plural voices of comment, critique, interpretation and debate.

But the project is drowning in data: millions of digital images, hundreds of hours of video, vast and detailed databases. The task is how to make available relatively unprocessed data, not just the summaries, explanations and interpretations of the excavators. While an overall goal of multivocality is assumed as given, there is some confusion over the role of local, folk, popular and ethnic categories and interests in organizing and accessing data about the excavations. There is a proliferation of possible categories to be applied to the data in a quest to hold on to the rich texture of what is being found at the site.

The project has taken the decision to farm out the design of a web-accessed database to a well-established professional archaeology unit, and also to a smaller outfit that was investigating possible data standards in archaeology. The brief was to design and implement an industry-strength database that would be relatively future-proofed, stable, accessible. The task is quite colossal. It is to follow, formulate and anticipate data standards, to use those standards to code the data that are to be organized in such a way that as many different possible and unanticipated inquiries may be made of the excavation findings, with meaningful results delivered. The choice had been made to go with a well-established hardware and software platform that offers apparent reliability because it is the infrastructure of many corporations and institutions large and small. But it was looking like the task of coding all the data was unfeasible if the data were not to be too closely defined, so limiting the richness of the interactions with these remains of a fascinating prehistoric community.

Anecdote – the digital future of the humanities — supergrids and metadata standards

At Stanford Humanities Lab ( we are investigating the future of the digital humanities. HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory:, of which we are a founding member, is one of many of the collective organizations in the US that is promoting discussion of how information technologies should affect research and teaching in the arts and humanities.

The growth of IT and the prospect of building ever more networked linkage and processing capacity across academic and research institutions is a powerful rhetoric for achieving the old enlightenment dream of encyclopaedic scope in academic practice: great collections of sources and resources made instantly accessible. Organizations like Google have made a commitment to digitizing multiple library and media collections. Supergrid infrastructures offer wide bandwidth access. The task, as it is so-often interpreted by academic institutions (though not so much by Google, it has to be noted), is to take centuries of cataloging effort, literally the filing cards in library catalogs, rework them into standardized metadata format and attach them to the digitized resources with a means of inquiry and delivery. As in my first anecdote, the task is one of structuring data efficiently so that meaningful inquiries may be made. And again the task is daunting, in spite of the claims of information technologists to be able to do whatever is required of them, given current data storage and processing power. Even simply agreeing on metadata standards is intractably slow, because any agreement on standards will prejudice everything that may desirable or possible in the future. If you are going to catalog all of humanity's creativity to date you need to make sure you will be able to research what really matters. But how do you know until you have completed that catalog? Is a pilot, or even multiple pilots enough? And while scanning text according to a standard format such as PDF may be reasonably justified, what about the vast collections of artifacts in museums? How should they be documented? Is it at all feasible?

Top-down design — the art of anticipation

These anecdoted experiences are about a particular philosophy, a particular political economy of data and information. It exhibits:

This expert-based design has to excel as an art of anticipation — anticipating needs, questions, distribution, the function of data and information. So our archaeological information design anticipates the structure of the data world we expect to encounter (finds, features and all the rest), the kind of dissemination of information that will occur (different kinds of publication and access), as well as the kind of inquiries we and others unknown to us might want to make (how many, where, with what).

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with such a design process. It has been immensely successful and is central to most engineering projects. Its success is closely connected with the degree of control that is possible over materials, processes and aims. In designing a bridge, it is possible to restrict the field of reference to the physics and properties of materials and a precisely specified purpose to span a particular gap and carry a particular weight, and within a particular budget. We know exactly what kind of world such a project is building. There is a clear hierarchy of designers, contractors and clients - and you wouldn't want an inexpert client public designing building a suspension bridge.

It is not so straight forward with the design of information, for one reason just mentioned: top-down information design has to anticipate what the structure is meant to find and explore. Then in archaeology there are all the uncertainties of data preservation. Data structures are incomplete; at the least, archaeological formation processes are an essential contributing factor to data structures. This is also the relevance of notions such as the hermeneutic spiral in archaeological method (Hodder 1992: 188-193), a four-fold hermeneutic, as Tilley and I outlined (Shanks and Tilley 1987: 107-108) . There is not space to go into this issue here. Suffice it to say that there are several non-trivial mediating factors in dealing with archaeological data.

There are also several other much more fundamental aspects of this particular political economy of data, apart from the hermeneutic problems of entropy and mediated access. They are to do with the materiality and politics of the process of information design.

I argue that a top-down approach to information design is rooted in the old enlightenment dream of encyclopaedic scope and control of the world in great systems of categorization and description. The spectacular success of such a vision in the sciences since the eighteenth century is arguably not matched by similar success in the social sciences and humanities. Most notably there has been considerable reaction against universal systems of understanding that are not sensitive to local cultural difference; this, most recently in archaeology, is the post-processual adenda, closely connected with progressive cultural politics in social and cultural anthropology, of effacing ethnocentrism and embracing multivocality. A more general point is exemplified in the classic Foucauldian thesis (notably Foucault 1973 and 1982) that particular and extensive categorization and classification projects are deeply embedded in modernist discourse.

Ironically, for a discipline of materiality, archaeology has not paid much attention to the materiality of these deeply embedded classification systems and projects. Information structure is not simply an abstract system of ordering, of algorithms for sorting out what we find. Data are not simply abstract qualities and qualities, however defined. That any project of building an information system has to take into account the feasibility of physically coding, recording, logging data is one of the main concerns in both the anecdotes I have just described. This tacit and often hidden work (Bowker and Star 1999) of establishing and building an information system is often forgotten once it is done, or when it is sequestered as infrastructure "maintenance" or "support", or because it is not the high profile work of design that attracts intellectual kudos. Information cannot exist in the abstract. It exists in material artifacts - filing cards, cabinets, store rooms and archives, computer hard drives. It is embedded in the things it organizes. And information, in these material forms, requires work for it to endure. Information is a verb.

That I have termed this a political economy of information points to the politics of any such managed work. There are essential relationships of dominance and subordinance between designers, funding and sponsoring agencies, operatives who carry out the drudgery (rarely anything else), the alienated labor of coding, and different kinds of client user.

I will also argue below that media are essential components in the design of information. Just think of systems of recording and dissemination, the images, the graphic and textual forms, the modes of dissemination. Think of the instruments: cameras, pens, styli, forms, cards, computer keyboards, screens ... . For me this prompts a rethink of just how we understand media. Below I discuss a reorientation around a more pragmatic understanding, in accordance with this focus on the design work that constitutes information, one that would have us conceive of media as modes of engagement.

To get us to this let me introduce another anecdote. This one opens up the issue of the contingency and materiality of information structures. It is about the rapid changes that characterize the IT industry.

Anecdote – NASA shops at eBay

From the New York Times 12 May 2002.

"NASA needs parts no one makes anymore.

So to keep the shuttles flying, the space agency has begun trolling the Internet — including Yahoo and eBay — to find replacement parts for electronic gear that would strike a home computer user as primitive.

Officials say the agency recently bought a load of outdated medical equipment so it could scavenge Intel 8086 chips — a variant of those chips powered I.B.M.'s first personal computer, in 1981.

When the first shuttle roared into space that year, the 8086 played a critical role, at the heart of diagnostic equipment that made sure the shuttle's twin booster rockets were safe for blastoff."

(William J. Broad 2002

This point is now commonplace, yet surprisingly little theorized. NASA played an instrumental role in building the computer chip industry in the 1960s. With all its resources and military-style strategic planning, the agency has had to resort to scavenging (NASA's word) to maintain what were only recently (arguably still are) state of the art space ships. What chance do we, mere mortal individuals, have of keeping track of data and media formats. Of shifting the floppy disk contents to CD or hard drive, of VHS to DVD (with even DVD destined for only ten more years of ubiquity and industry support). Never mind the problems I would now face of rerunning the principal components analyses I applied back in 1979 to the bones from prehistoric monuments. The program and data were written and formatted in FortranIV on an IBM mainframe. I would have to do it all again from scratch, literally starting with the old pen marks on paper.

The 8086 chips were chosen for reliability. They do still work. But the support they originally received has gone. There is, of course, a distinctive temporal cycle to artifact design - from emergence through popularity to the decline and disappearance of an artifact form. It is one of the premises of archaeological understanding. Here there is also a commonly found mismatch between the design cycles of integrated technologies: information processing and space flight, one fast, the other spread over decades.

Factors in this anecdote are the maintenance of material artifacts: physical media and machines to read and run them. But also consistency of standards: what future for .doc files, for .pdf, for .wav, for DVD-R?

The overall point: instrumentalities matter in the world of information and media. And information is a verb. Information requires maintenance.

What has information to do with media?

The following definition establishes the link between information and medium.

A medium is a formalized method for dealing in data and conveying processed data - structured information - to some participants (known or unknown). The manner in which this happens is subject to control and negotiation. Usually there has to be some agreement over encoding and decryption.

A key point in this definition is that structured information requires infrastructures and standards. A medium requires infrastructures that are:

(Star and Rohleder 1996).

Historically, the notion of medium has been intimately associated with material and technology, e.g. paint, paper, photography etc. And also certain institutional forms that control the technology – as in the notion of the mass media of TV and publishing. The definition of medium just given above takes us beyond this narrow, though quite legitimate, conception of medium because it incorporates more explicitly the points I have been making about the materiality of media and the work of design, manufacture and maintenance of information systems.

Another way to think of this reorientation is to consider what has happened with digital media over the last twenty years. The increasing digital nature of communication is prompting a rethink of the notion of medium. More and more worldly data and information is becoming fungible and so amenable to computational processing and translation. Therefore media forms are proliferating. I can take the same image and embed it in a phone conversation, IM (instant message), blog, wiki, web page, Powerpoint presentation, DVD slide show, poster on a wall, conventional printed book. Indeed more and more parts of society and culture are becoming available to digital computation and therefore can be considered as media — as acts and forms of mediation. This is all due to a series of new standards that were established in their first form in the 18th century (Bowker and Star 1999: 17-26).

So I propose that it is better to think of a medium as process of manipulation and translation, of mediation and interaction — as mode of engagement. What is now foregrounded in our experience of IT and digital media is what was always essential to analogue media, but is obscured in conventional understanding that emphasizes material and institutional form (oil paint and Hollywood). Medium conceived as mode of engagement emphasizes the dynamic aspects of mediation. Reading magazines on the subway, listening to iBooks in the car commute, sharing photos at home and with friends, watching a movie on a large screen in a dark room with strangers: all are modes of engagement. And all encapsulate the dynamic, material and embedded aspects of information systems that I have been introducing: classification and category systems, standards, infrastructures, material instrumentalities, mediated networks of people and things.

Before I return to archaeology I want to introduce another kind of design of information structures.

An alternative — iterative agile design

This is another political economy of the design of media.

Let me move to Silicon Valley and its developer community, an extraordinarily creative pool, whatever is thought of the contemporary IT industry. In the late 1990s came a reaction against top-down design of software. Here is the "Manifesto for Agile Software development", produced by the Agile Alliance of software developers.

"We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it.

Through this work we have come to value:

•	individuals and interactions		over processes and tools;
•	working software				over comprehensive documentation;
•	customer collaboration			over contract negotiation;
•	responding to change			over following a plan.

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more."


Top down software design is very familiar to anyone who has any experience of software. It involves large corporations with teams of designers building expensive and often now massive multi-feature tools for all purposes, anticipating what anyone might conceivably want to do in writing a report or making a movie. Design and scripting take precedence over close attention to local needs and people's particular desires. Such software production is expensive and often unwieldy.

Agile design is an iterative process based upon rapid prototyping (Larman 2003, Highsmith 2004). Do your ethnography and research into what people want and need, but don't anticipate too much. Get something out there and see what people do with it. Then adapt and try again.

This is an entirely different mode of design, though it is by no means a new one. Robert Austin of the Harvard Business School and theater director Lee Devin have used performance rehearsal and improvisation to understand this way of designing work (Austin and Devin 2003). And it does imply a different political economy of media design, not least because it works best in self-organizing teams with a networked rather than hierarchical structure and operating predominantly through real-time interaction.

This mode of design recognizes the importance of the world of the user - their semantic field and the inevitable lack of fit between the categories of the designer and the user, the ubiquity and incongruity of more or less integrated systems of classification and standardization, the real-world pragmatics of media use, the resistances to systems of classification, the essential and constitutive relationship between signal and noise that constitutes any medium (Bowker and Star 1999: Chapter One).

Archaeological forms to fill in

Let me return to archaeology.

In the anecdote of the archaeological project with which I began, and in most archaeology, you begin with ideas of data and information, collect bits of the past according to these, then interpret and explain. Archaeologists design forms and fill them in. While the view of archaeology presented in the discipline's textbooks is dominated by fieldwork and specialized techniques focused upon data recovery and analysis, I would argue that such method is work upon data that have predominantly been predefined. Fine pottery, lithics, features and structures, faunal remains, small finds, and all the other standard categories have been thoroughly defined prior to any contemporary excavation or other research project, defined by the weight of preceding experience and orthodoxy of method. This is a top-down approach to the design of information structure, as I have just defined it. The forms archaeologists fill in with field and lab observation have to anticipate the structure of data.

This is not necessarily bad, because we have lots of experience of what works well to guide our "art of anticipation". But there is an appropriate suspicion that we mostly find what we are looking for (see Shanks and Tilley 1987: Chapter Two). When did you last come across an archaeological narrative that really surprised you? Not just surprise at a new find found somewhere unexpected, but a challenge to the very narrative structures we employ in understanding human history, in explaining the shape of social change.

There are ways of cleansing data, of ensuring high quality. Attention to procedure of controlled observation and recovery is important. Random sampling of some sort is very useful in this regard: it makes us look where we might not otherwise. But we also need to tackle the issue of the structure, not just the quality, of information. The argument for a bottom-up agile approach to information design is simply that we should be sensitive to alternate ways of classifying and categorizing , sensitive to alternative takes on that reality, and that this sensitivity should be rooted in a close attention to the empirical character of what it is we are studying. This is the argument for a methodology that arises from the object itself, from engagement with what it is we are studying. There is a long line of argument along these lines in critical theory; in our book ReConstructing Archaeology, Tilley and I followed the sociologists Adorno and Horkheimer (Shanks and Tilley 1987: page 78-80).

How might we do it differently?

What, in archaeology, does an agile approach to designing information structure look like? Here are three personal examples.

The art of the ancient Greek state — the question "where do I begin?"

For ten years between 1988 and 1998 I explored themes of society, art and design in ancient Greece and the Mediterranean - a study of rather exquisite perfume jars made in Corinth in the eighth and seventh century BC, when the city was first being built (research reported in Shanks 1996 and Shanks 1999).

My primary archaeological focus was upon ceramics conventionally termed protocorinthian - a style associated with the key period of social change in the city of Corinth. The ubiquity of the protocorinthian perfume jar (aryballos) makes it a type fossil and chronological index for much of the Mediterranean in the mid first millennium BC.

My data sample was of 2000 pots found in over 90 locations. I first began with familiar notions of pottery industry, distribution and consumption. But immediately my work found the fine chronologies suspect because of the lack of independent stratigraphical substantiation. The phasing of the pottery is entirely dependent upon an art historical and a priori notion of stylistic development (early, mature, late). That is, it depends upon a narrow iconology that relates shape and imagery to largely internalist stylistic categories (restricted to art style rather than referring outwardly to social and cultural context and meaning) and a model of art workshops commonly associated with post renaissance art history (workshops centered upon creative individuals expressing themselves through their works). While the categories applied to the pottery are arguably real and open to study and verification, I felt the very way of organizing the data, of categorizing ceramic design was prescriptive in a debilitating way. It would give no route to a social archaeology. This is the conventional critique of the likes of Classical Archaeology. I felt justified therefore in adopting a contextual treatment that looked at all issues relevant to the design, manufacture, distribution and consumption of the whole sample. Outwardly this took the form of a study of an artifact lifecycle.

I found the traditional categories of rank, resource, trade, state formation, urbanization, manufacture closely connected with long standing tendencies to emplot archaeological material in standardized metanarratives (here of the expansion of the city state as a component of ancient imperialisms). Such interpretive and analytical categories are quite blunt and prefigure, I came to argue, the components of conventional narratives (economy, trade, colonization, acculturation, stylistic expression of ethnic and political identities). So while I built a narrative of the early state (expansion of the polity), while I presented a systemic model of design in the early state (motivations related to class culture), I also developed what I have come to call an heretical empirics (Shanks 2003). I began again with a single artifact, rather than an information structure, and adopted an agglomerative and iterative strategy (Shanks 1999: Chapter Three). I started again not with a system of classification, categories of data and attrubutes to be observed, forms to be filled in, but with an encounter, an empirical engagement – with a single perfume jar. I then tracked a spiral of associations – empirical, spatial, conceptual, metaphorical - through the material and its contexts. I was led into a very different category structure of faces, animals, corporeality, potters wheels and brushes, physical and imagined mobility, flowers, food and consumption, sovereignty, gender, ships, clothing. For me this led to a different message about the ancient Greek state in these times. That message is not so important here as the point I am making about method (outlined in Shanks 1999: Chapter Two).

Close attention to the richness of the data led me to find the orthodox paradigms of design and socio-cultural archaeology and ancient history inappropriate and confusing. The project has forced me to consider radical alternatives to the conventions of writing and representing the archaeological past. One of these is what we have called theatre/archaeology.

Theater/archaeology— collaborative improvisation and different modes of engagement

My collaboration from 1992 with the performance company Brith Gof, (Artistic Directors Mike Pearson and Cliff McLucas, Dorian Llywelyn and other members of the company) was, among other things, an exploration of well-developed techniques of collaborative improvisation (as a form of agile design) directed at interdisciplinary research (McLucas and Pearson 1999). This mode of working creatively is familiar to many of the studio arts and is embedded in the pedagogy of the modern western art school. The collaboration led to many live works, several articles, the book Theatre/Archaeology (Pearson and Shanks 2001) and the Three Landscape Project at Stanford (McLucas, Llywelyn and Shanks forthcoming;

What I simply want to mention here are modes of engagement (as just defined) with archaeological sites and materials that are quite different from what are normally encountered in the discipline and yet which are equally grounded in empirical research. They include:

Social software

Another medium or mode of engagement is the collaboratory, a collaborative authoring environment embodied in a new genre of media – social software.

What is social software?


"What if a group of people could work together to gather, present and explore information and experiences in a genuinely collaborative way (without anyone being in control), with the order in the information they share emergent, growing interactively and organically (rather than being pre-organized), with everyone able to explore and react to everything others are doing as they are doing it, with their authoring medium providing quick and intuitive text, image, graphics and sound based input and navigation, with the medium itself suggesting ways that the growing body of shared information might be conceived and organized? And if this was all a richly-textured and rewarding experience? This is a description of a wiki - an authoring space built upon a flexible database infrastructure. This genre of social software is all about content management - the collaborative process of structuring data and information. For three years my lab at Stanford has been building and experimenting with blogs, wikis, personal content management systems, knowledge management systems and the like. Because they offer a way of exploring the agile design of information. (

We have run many quick and unpolished trials. They have culminated in two major research projects exploring, in addition to primary substantive research aims, the implications for research of these collaborative software environments. One is with DaimlerChrysler: a six month collaborative research project in material culture studies modeling media design and use in car interiors. The other is "Performing Presence: From the Live to the Simulated", an interdisciplinary study of forms and documents of presence (a project managed between Exeter University, University College London, Stanford University and fourteen performance artists (

The primary principle is to reverse the direction of design effort. Instead of designing a structure of information which may then be applied to the real world to generate tightly structured data, social software and collaborative authoring environments use the high processing power and raw storage capacity of contemporary information technology to structure relatively loosely defined and more comprehensively captured data dynamically, on the fly. The emphasis is on smart searching tools and algorithms that find structure after data capture. Pattern emerges from interaction with data. And from interaction with others in the collaborative effort of making sense of an encounter with data. So significant design effort goes into making membership work creatively, into the ecology (human, machine, data) of a collaborative research project. This is a contextualized design of information.

Now this philosophy of iterative and agile design of information leads to experiences — modes of engagement — that can be very disconcerting. Impermanence, and the incomplete and chaotic are the background to nodes of clarity, narrative and control. But these media are genuinely collaborative and subversive of clichés, easy answers and corporate control (for some issues see Rheingold 2002, ) They are genuinely pluralist in the absence of hierarchical control and through the frictionless technology (quick to learn and fast to use). Their architecture is one of free-form databases, entirely compatible with all forms of archaeological data. But they add the potential of dynamic data feeds and debate around such changing data. This makes their epistemology far more robust than conventional static data matrices standing alone. threatened a major upset in early stages of the last US elections. Blogs (2004 was the UK Guardian's "Year of the Blog") are a serious alternative to corporate journalism, with blog journalism blocked in many parts of the world because it promises grass-roots mobilization and freedom of information. Online and virtual communities and games are thriving. The WWW itself is sometimes seen as threatening and dangerous because no corporate entity has designed and controlled it (for broad issues see Lessig 2001 and 2004).

These media are interesting for archaeology because they allow us to rethink our relationship with our data and information design. They are about data management and information creation, but from the bottom up, a group bootstrapping its way to insight, understanding, explanation, letting data define information structures and forms.

The fundamentals in a pressing argument

The examples I have given are just way of explaining how I have responded to what I consider to be a powerful argument for changing the way we do archaeology. To summarize: I suggest that archaeologists attend to three key points about media and their relationship to the design of information.

This is a pressing argument because of the scale of data collection and loss. Because decisions about data archives will shut down future options in research if they are not kept open. And because the cult of expert design and the efforts being made to classify, categorize, standardize and apply notions of corporate intellectual property to everything are challenging a human right to communicate and create (Lessig 2004). This is that crucial point about information and media in archaeology: that we do not so much discover the past as mediate; we work creatively on what remains.


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Shanks, M. (2004) Three rooms: archaeology and performance. Journal of Social Archaeology, 4, 147-180.

Shanks, M. and Tilley, C. Y. (1987) Re-constructing archaeology : theory and practice, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; New York.

Star, S. L. and Ruhleder, K. (1996) Information Systems Research, 7, 111-134.

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