Web 2.0, Archaeology, and Me

From time to time I do still have ideas that relate to my old research. If the idea of an Archaeology/Web 2.0 post isn’t for you, please feel free to skip this post, but I think you will be missing out on stuff. And yes, it is long – I’m going to post the whole thing here on the blog, but I can supply other (more portable) formats on request.


If you were to ask people to pick three things to describe me, I expect most of them would say the following:

  1. An incorrigible flirt
  2. You’ll be lucky to get an email from her inside of three weeks
  3. NEVER on instant messenger

Well, I’m working on 2 and 3 and once or twice lately I have even been logged into MSN *gasp* During one of these momentous occasions I had the opportunity to catch up with an old friend/colleague and we got to chatting about how we were spending our days. He seems to be spending the majority of it watching 3D models render. I also seem to be spending inhuman amounts of time at the computer so I thought we would have lots to talk about. Um, no. It turns out he “doesn’t have time for all this web stuff”.

It was a comment which, understandably, got me thinking some. Is he missing something, or am I?

My life, for better or worse, is highly integrated with the Internet. Even the fact I am using a word such as ‘integrate’ to describe my relationship with a technology is a sure sign it’s having an impact on my productive vocabulary if nothing else. I don’t see my life as being poorer for it. I enjoy the communities I am part of, the people I have met, the friendships I have made. I love writing and cherish the feedback I get from my readers (I love that I have readers!) It makes my life ‘easier’ that my photos are online so I can show them and share them anywhere with an Internet connection. I’ve had opportunities I probably would never have had if I didn’t participate in the ‘Web’ as much as I do.

On a daily basis, I get my news from the Internet (I can’t remember the last time I sat down and watched the Six O’Clock News); I catch up on my friends lives; I watch movie trailers; I participate in interesting discussions; I manage my bank account; I pay my bills; I occasionally use the Internet to make money; I buy things; I do research, and I get new ideas over the ‘net. Very little of my life is not touched, in some way, by the Internet.

My friend doesn’t do this stuff. Or if he does, he doesn’t do it to the degree I do. Yes he checks email, uses IM, probably does some online banking and buys things from Amazon, but he doesn’t spend time in the community/participation side of the web as I do.

If Web 2.0 is all about the community and participation, he is still firmly Web 1.0.

So who is better off?

At times it seems like my entire life is tied up with computers. I spend my work life at a computer in the traditional Microsoft Office model whilst my relaxation and personal time is almost entirely spent online. The keyboard and mouse govern a good 80% of my time and this frequently causes me literal pain – I have permanent nerve damage that is directly attributable to the time I spend at the computer. I’ve experienced a few instances of computer ‘burn-out’ where just the thought of turning my computer on has made me go all wiggy inside. Yet when I DON’T turn my computer on, check my emails, or catch up on RSS feeds for more than a day, I also get all wiggy inside.

Not healthy.

But at the same time I wouldn’t trade it. Can you say ‘addiction’ with me?

Which brings me in a roundabout way to my next point. This friend is also an archaeologist (more of an archaeologist than me in fact as he’s actually still active in the field) and he is still doing research and fun things in his speciality. Yet he has this gaping hole in his knowledge where I *know* exciting things are happening and that hole is the Web. He doesn’t pay attention to the new ideas appearing in the field so doesn’t know of how these emerging technologies could be used in Archaeology. Which is fair enough – no one can be on top of all the new developments, there just isn’t time – but I can’t help feeling he’s, well, missing something vital.

It’s pretty much accepted that the Internet is changing our lives and how we do things. Every where you look technology is driving us toward more integration and things I class in my mind as “shiny, fun stuff!” We’re approaching the sci-fi dream/nightmare scenarios of Dick, Gibson, Orwell, Stephenson, Hamilton et al where we live our lives online and are subject to an all encompassing ‘Net’.

Into that mix you have to throw the knowledge that I have, for the past eight years, been approaching life from an archaeologists stand point. Archaeologists have long had a slightly odd relationship with technology. Who better than archaeologists to be aware of how the invention of a given technology impacted on society X, Y centuries ago? At the same time, we are notoriously bad when it comes to accepting new technologies ourselves. Perhaps this is because we are all too aware of how one seemingly trivial piece of technology can completely revolutionize the way we live our lives. More likely it is because we are all stubborn grumpy so-and-so’s who have issues dealing with anything that happened after the Romans had a few problems back home and left us Brits to make it up as we went along.

Whatever the reason, there is a massive weight of inertia and legacy problems in Archaeology (as the rest of life), and archaeologists hate to do something a new way when the old way has served them well for decades. Even when the new way is proven to be demonstrably better, we’ll argue that black is white for a little longer, then grudgingly admit that OK, maybe, this new way is worth giving a go. Problem is, by the time we’ve fully embraced something to our collective bosom, the rest of the world has long since moved on and there’s something else new we have to come to terms with.

As is the way with many things in life, I never planned to be researching how Archaeology and the Internet could learn to play together a bit more nicely, but over the past two years that is what I found has happened.

In that time, I, along with many of my peers, have developed a love/hate relationship with the phrase ‘Web 2.0’. Web 2.0 is a term that sets my teeth on edge. I’m not going to even try and define it – others are doing a much better job. The problems I have with it are legion, not just because it’s faddy, has no meaning, and is just plain wrong.

The accepted progression seems to be as follows:
Web 1.0 = the browsable web
Web 2.0 = the read/write web
Web 3.0 = the active web (dare I say it, the semantic web)

It could also be argued that:
Web 1.0 = big corporations etc trying to sell us stuff through the web
Web 2.0 = everybody trying to sell things through the web, but developing ‘communities’ of people in the process (Tara’s Boutique Era?)
Web 3.0 = god alone knows. Snow Crash or something.

The problem is that those definitions seem very absolute. Web 1.0/Web 2.0 isn’t a binary state. It isn’t an absolute truth. It is something that is tentatively and pragmatically true, not a statement about objective reality.

All that being said, Web 2.0 (and please, as you read this, imagine me doing air quotes and wincing every time I use the phrase) is a very useful term. It gives a handle to ideas which are, at best, nebulous and hard to grasp for the average person. It sets things aside, makes them new and exciting, and helps to generate interest. Still, this time last year I would have put money on one group of people who would never succumb to this whole “new era of the Internet” deal. I trusted archaeologists would retain their traditional healthy level of skepticism…

Er, no.

It turns out that terms like “wiki”, “blog”, and “Web 2.0” have been popping up with monotonous regularity recently in chats down the pub. It’s gotten so that even the Brainy Snail has asked me “what’s a wiki then?” At first I thought she was asking because she had seen it noticed on the blog and was just curious. No. Web 2.0 has breeched the hallowed halls of her learning establishment (and her halls are about as Establishment as you can get).

People I respect, trust, and even have little crushes on are actually DOING things in established archaeological units that I talked about in my thesis. One of them even has Moo cards and a Flickr account for pete’s sake – how more Web 2.0 do you want to get?! At the same time, I have to ask myself how integrated (that word again) the idea of community driven work, shared ideas, and the whole online ethos is to these units? On the face of it these are ideas we as ‘heritage specialists’ tend to be shouting from the rooftops already, but the kicker is moving it all online… My gut reaction is that, at the moment, the relationship is a forced and strained one, driven by a few mavericks. Given time I am sure it will filter down to become the norm, but for now? Let’s just say they are experiments I’m watching with great interest.

I had a moment at ArchCamp last week where the top of my head felt like it had been ripped off and a few thousand volts of electricity had been zapped through my gray matter. My ideas for how a wiki should be used met with someone else’s dream for how his website might be used. He had a dream but didn’t know if it was possible or feasible. I was able to tell him it was both.

I’ve had a year off from Archaeology now and in that time I’ve learnt lots of new things. My ideas have developed – if I could write my thesis again I would! I thought I was done with the whole Archaeology thing. It’s been eight years of my life, time for something new. Then Neko drags me back and… Gar. It’s like I was never away. Why do I keep coming back to Archaeology as a discipline? Why do the conversations I have with archaeologists make the most sense to me? I’m not sure. To be honest my involvement with Archaeology/Computing has always been more on the theoretical side. I much prefer taking new technologies and thinking how they might be twisted to fit Archaeological praxis than I do actually getting my fingernails dirty with the digging. But regardless of my approach, it’s still archaeology that pushes my buttons. Not history or any other study. Archaeology. I’m completely obsessed with how we as mankind have come to be where we are today. It seems silly written down like that and doesn’t really explain what I mean, but it’s the closest I can come to it. If you understand where you’ve come from, it makes it easier to see where we might be going – does that make sense?

Either way, me and Archaeology clearly aren’t done with each other yet. And I don’t think that Archaeology and Web 2.0 are done with each other either. Clearly the term is doing what is was supposed to do, reaching the wider public consciousness, so is now really the time to turn our backs on it?

I’ve got to end with a quote from my thesis – the only time I actually used the words ‘Web 2.0’ in the entire 35,000 words (whilst talking about wikis to boot, not bad going):

The graphical Web is, at the time I write, barely a decade old, and in the process of shifting from a passive read-only state to “Web 2.0”, a dynamic, user-driven collaboration state.

It does make the head spin, but the Internet really is only a decade old. I can remember a time when there was no Internet. I can remember a time (just) when we didn’t all have personal computers. To think we can straight off work out if ‘Web 2.0’ is really something new and not an aberration, if it is something that is going to last, is something that is going to fit into our fields of study is pure stupidity. I reckon all we can do is play around with it some more. See where it takes us. Sometimes I say this and people look at me funny, but when I say “have fun with it” I’m being serious. There’s a reason kids play with things the first time they come across them. Play is how you establish boundaries. Play is how you work out what things can do.

So, come play with me in the Web 2.0/Archaeology sandbox? I’m starting to think it could be a lot of fun…

8 thoughts on “Web 2.0, Archaeology, and Me

  1. To take a random, wild stab at thin air, I think that what you are saying can be applied to anything. For me, reading is your archaeology. That may sound silly to anyone else, because reading is something you can do on the internet. After all, Web 2.0 is a read/write internet, isn’t it?

    Not exactly. I partially blame my loss of love for reading to the internet. My addiction (it’s hard to admit it) to websites like Flickr and Digg tore me away from my original love of book reading. Back in the day, which isn’t very long ago considering I am just a teenager, the internet was not an ‘integral’ part of my life. I’d much quicker pick up a novel or how-to book than log on to the computer. What made this change in me? What made me so addicted to the computer, and what am I really accomplishing through these services? These are all obviously questions I have to ask myself, but I do know one thing: I want books back the same way that you feel the need for archaeology. So it’s not just you.

    I have actively made the choice to transition to a life of Web 2.0 and books. Ironically, one of my methods of doing this is to launch a book blog. It’s help me read some more books, but when I reread that it looks like I’m doing circles around myself.

  2. Pingback: Bright Meadow » Comment Woes (again)

  3. Pierre,

    Firstly, my thanks for your views – I think I know what you mean when you say starting a book blog has made you read more. Getting a pro Flickr account has actually made me take more photographs (of admittedly dubious quality, but that’s my lack of skill, not Web 2.0’s fault!) It’s all about getting the balance right.

    And secondly, welcome to Bright Meadow 🙂 I’m sorry it’s taken me a little while to respond to you – there have been a few problems with commenting the last couple of days!

  4. I think it’s partly an issue of time- not time to participate even, just time and mental energy needed to keep up with what is going on. It takes almost all of my time to keep up with GIS and geophysics, let alone European prehistory (which I’m trying to get to a base level of up to date knowledge on at the moment)- learning all this web stuff as well is kinda hard.

    I have a blog but I only use the wysiwyg interface (I know, bad Neko!) ’cause I don’t have time to learn the CSS and html etc I’d need to modify things.

    As Homer (S) said- help! Everytime I learn something new it pushes the old stuff out!

    So in short, I want to play, but only if I don’t have to learn much to be able to join in….

  5. I can’t check at work, but I have a sneaking suspicion that you’ve just stolen one of the items I’d kept for the Sunday Roast 😛

  6. This post was a very interesting read. I’ve just written a long comment but I arrived back at the point I began, so I deleted it. It was good therapy writing it though 😉

    Your gut reaction is correct. A look at the update frequency of archaeological unit websites vs. the amount of project work they’re doing (read: loads) can tell you a lot. But things are changing. The children of the people in charge are all on MySpace, Bebo, Flickr, Faceparty, YouYube, etc, and spending less time in front of the TV. They’re engaging with others online, and engaging with content. Radio 4’s Today regularly reminds people about their podcast. Them In Charge are beginning to Understand.

    It’s the archaeology that keeps me interested in computer applications too.

    The internet has been around for more than a decade though! I was using it 11 years ago… The graphical web being the advent of the Mosaic web browser in 1993? 😛

    I agree – let’s play with the web and see where it takes us. Hopefully we’ll all have some fun along the way too, and hopefully even help some people learn about their past!

  7. As the archaeologist who doesn’t do the web, I have a bit of a confession to make. I do really. I have got a MySpace account and a Second Life (For teaching purposes, but I still have one). I do have to admit, I am a bit of an archaeological traditionalist when it comes to the web. I think this is more because of what I have been told to think rather than truly believe. I was there at beginning of ‘home internet’ with my modem you put the phone onto and my 386 (Wow that makes me sound really old now, It was still only the late 80s, early 90s). But I am yet to make my contribution to Web 2.0. This is soon to change watch this space (Coming Summer 2007).

    The Archaeologist

    Deus ex machina

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