Focal Things and Digital Enframing. Archaeology’s Webwork as Archaeolog Reaches 100 Posts

‘A book in a room’ – Three Landscapes
Philosophers of Technology are not a well established bunch. While they form even less of a ‘tradition’ of study in Europe, they do take their earliest progenitor to be the Continental thinker Martin Heidegger (Achterhuis 2001; Ihde 1983, 2005). It seems strange that thinking carefully about what stake technologies have in society should not have found earlier impetus. After all, tool-making has up until recently been synonymous with being human (classic summary in Mumford 1967). And as early as Plato, technological devices figured prominently in lessons on the ‘good life’, involving the role of techne (esp. in the Republic VII). The major reason appears to be that philosophy, no less than science, has on the whole been swept up with the instrumentalist rendering of technology; as the application side of scientific R and D (Scharff and Dusek 2003:3-6). The predominance of an analytic tradition in the UK and North America meant that technology fell through the cracks between epistemology and ethics, between how knowledge is obtained and how it should be used. Even the Continental tradition remained cast in Comte’s persuasive model of technology as applied science; though many had turned sour on Comte’s optimistic technoutopianism (Comte 1988).
This is why, in his characteristic irreverence, Heidegger bypasses well worn metaphysical trails and goes straight for the essence of technology (Harman 2007). (Well, ‘straight’ is definitely a matter of opinion given Heidegger’s abstruse writing.) He prompted us with the question of what is it to be in the midst of all of our technological doings (Heidegger 1977). Similar to Marx putting technology at center stage, yet developing neither a strong technological determinism nor a societal determination of technology, Heidegger’s character of technology is ambivalent. There is a mix of optimism and pessimism. There is the contrast between craftwork and modern, technologically assisted labour. In this romantic view, ‘traditional’ crafts gather together humans and nonhumans into meaningful activities. Borgman (1984:196) aptly terms these ‘events’ of craftwork focal things. Heidegger’s early discussion in Being and Time doesn’t, however, give us much to extrapolate from to our own modern, technologically immersed environments; who even has a jug laying about? When he expands his consideration of technological things in his later, famous essay, he does provide more contemporary examples of how modern technology turns everything to stone, so to speak (1977). Technology serves a cultural way of being that wills humans and things to be ‘standing reserves’, or causes, for manipulable ends (Feenberg 1999:183-4). This is technology as enframing, and contrary to craftwork this type of being with technology closes-down our insight into, or awareness of, the world around us. We will degenerate through this relation with technology into narcissistic controllers, hung up on the power of our subjectivity. I think there are interesting implications in Heidegger’s pessimistic depiction of technology which could usefully be expanded to the reign of ‘social’ constructivism in the academy (Webmoor and Witmore 2008), as well as to pressing environmental and economic problems (these latter courses have, in fact, been suggestively pursued by ‘Deep Ecologists’ and ‘Buddhist Economists’; Naess 1973, Schumacher 1989).
I want to keep with thinking about technology, though, in view of our own dealings with new technology, and, specifically, the emergent role of new media for archaeologists. In fact, in view of what’s before your ‘window’ right now. Archaeolog has reached the milestone post of 100 contributions. This seems to be a most opportune time to reflect a bit on what sort of technology archaeolog is as a form of e-publication. Like Heidegger’s successors in the Philosophy of Technology, emergent digital media in archaeology is a relatively new phenomenon; its practitioners and ideas concerning its roles unconsolidated. It is an exciting time. Yet it is important to anticipate where mediǟrchaeology will go. We certainly have valuable signposts from both Heideggerian and reflexive archaeologists to encourage trailblazing these questions. So, do the mantras of ‘user generated’ and ‘user customization’ associated with new media really limn the narcissistic degeneration and auto-absorption that Heidegger pessimistically ascribed to modern technologies? Does it enframe in ‘Microsoft windows’ our relations with each other?; will we be left with virtual ‘de-worlds’? Or should we look to Heidegger’s later thought (1966) where he suggests that through a passive revolution we can attain a more positive, ‘free relation’ to technology? A relationship of distance which “will become wonderfully simple and relaxed” (1966:54). Later work in the Philosophy of Technology, especially that focused upon computing and internet technologies (Dreyfus 1979, 1999; Heim 1997; McCluhan 1966), seems to have incorporated Heidegger’s mixed message and oriented for a destination off-the-map combining ancient skepticism, Enlightenment optimism, and Romantic uneasiness (Mitcham 1990:32-33). E-publication in archaeology, and blogging more generally, has received just such a sort of mixed assessments.

Archaeolog was launched in October of 2005. At first the unpolished ideas and commentary of 2 or 3 ‘archaeologers’, archaeolog has now grown to encompass more than 40 regular contributors from North America and Europe. At that time a few other, very early weblogs or static .html pages – most notably Internet Archaeology – were dedicated to publication of archaeological interests of/on the internet. Even a few early commentators – like Julian Richards (2006) or Christopher Chippindale (1997) – knew that digital publication would change how information and ideas are shared by archaeologists. Since these early days, a host of specialty blogs have appeared for those interested in archaeology. The digital media necessary to launch a blog are inexpensive – even free depending upon your server scenario. Indeed, part of the open-source initiative begun in Silicon Valley has the radically democratic ideal of making self-expression through software available to anyone. And since the 2004 US presidential election, blogs have become effective at offering an alternative to the widely held perception in the States that mainstream media is unreliable and biased. News to/from the people. Now every reputable mainstream news source – from BBC to CNN – integrates a blog component to their news casts. Without enlisting bloggers, and other new media such as Facebook, a would-be President of the US would be sorely lacking in funding. Grass roots organization and mobilization.
This has all been relatively good. For archaeology and other disciplines publishers are, however, understandably a bit nervous about what this portends for academic book sales. In fact, this is where the Association of American University Presses works against most coalitions in academia who attempt to provide more scholarly material on-line; and the issue quickly becomes litigious as it involves the interpretation (in the US, but closely related set of issues abroad) of the 1976 Copyright Act. This is when fair use was first codified in statutory form. Back then, rapid and less expensive distribution of academic texts was at stake – Kinkos Corporation ended up paying $2 million for xeroxing ‘course packets’. Today, convened by a new brand of ‘cyber lawyers’, such as Lawrence Lessig, issues of what constitutes ‘fair use’ and electronic distribution have morphed with new media, and the mixing and mashups of user generated content on the web, into complex issues of freedom of creativity and the entrepreneurial spirit (Lessig 2004). The Digital Millenium Act of December, 1998 (Europe passed the similar EU Copyright Directive or EUCD in 2001) broadened the definition of ‘copyright infringement’ by criminalizing the development of internet technologies that may be used to circumvent copyright control; and it heightened the penalties for infringement over the web. As a result, e-publication has become one aspect of an entire feud, inside and without of academia, over the status of creative and informational works in free societies. Copyright controls are increasing: to keep abreast of new digital technologies that facilitate copyright infringement?; or, as others such as Lessig argue, to satisfy the lobbying interests of some very powerful players in Washington to profit from ideas?
These ‘big’ concerns, which our prescient Philosophers of Technology have been raising over the past fifty years, dovetail with very real situations that archaeologists are facing. The emergence of Intellectual Property Rights already involves archaeologists, anthropologists and indigenous people in the struggle to define under what value system ‘artifacts’ and ‘sites’ will be put on the books. To draw back from these grand questions, in the case of Archaeolog and archaeology, e-publication raises questions of peer-review, quality and content control, as well as legitimacy. These questions should be taken seriously; but they can also be seen as established interests worried about financial futures and gate-keeping in academia. Suffice it to say, most new media theorists argue that the digital is no substitute for the physical and real. It augments various qualities – capture, distribution and storage, for instance. But it deletes the tactile sensations which, for archaeology at least, figure prominently in our fieldwork. So traditional publishers ought to be rest assured that there is no substitute for book-in-the-hands. More than a nod to an academic’s version of the Heideggerian jug, witnessing the shift to digital publication has indeed heightened awareness of the ‘thingyness’ of books as they slip from ‘ready-to-hand’.
What will occur are strategies to mix traditional and digital components of publication. Books will be printed, but they’ll be supplemented by new media ‘plug-ins’, such as additional images or full resolution databases of images (which are prohibitively expensive to print), sound bytes or podcasts of interviews, YouTube video clips and even commentary/reviews and ‘book-networking’ community groups (all only made possible by new media).
With so many archaeology blogs out there now – and more appearing daily – the onerous on e-publishers will remain consistency and longevity. Quality should go without saying. But a blog or other e-publication environment must remain reliable. This gets them into users’ rss feeds and other aggregates so that they become a habitual source of interest and information. Other distinguishing characteristics could be listed about e-publication. The one that really matters for academics, however, is a function of analog publication constraints. With near instant posting, commenting and reviewing in these collaborative authoring architectures, a digital journal cuts the production time down to a week or less. This means that e-publication can outpace the dated articles which appear in traditional journals – which often take a year – or sometimes more! – to surface after they are submitted. Accelerating debate and the sharing of ideas and information. This will be the great utility of e-publication over the next few years. My suggestion is that new media, and Archaeolog in particular, should be understood in sober but enthusiastic terms. Bearing in mind the potential for ‘enframing’, or depersonalizing our engagement with archaeological topics, Archaeolog is a welcome ‘focal thing’, gathering information, equipment (servers, programs and computers), opinions and users that otherwise would be dispersed and providing a ‘window’ for the sharing of creative work. It may not be Heidegger’s craftwork; but then archaeology has the enviable opportunities to engage both with the ‘thingy’ jugs out there and the rich webwork rendering our experiences. Archaeolog should and will continue to hold a ‘free relation’ with archaeology’s digital future.
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