Preserving the Internet

Many of us can’t remember the last time we put pen to paper and
wrote out a letter. It’s so much easier to type a quick email, zip
it through a maze of cables and wires, and have it delivered to the
recipient’s inbox within minutes. Virtual mail has become the
preferred medium for nearly all occupations. But according to
an article in PhysicsWeb by Robert P.
Crease
, each time you click the ‘send’ button, a little piece
of history might be lost.

Imagine twenty, fifty, even two hundred years from now. What
will become of all of the emails, websites, and web-based
information that we currently take for granted? Will the great
essays, scientific discoveries, and original art born on the
internet be lost forever simply because a server shut down? Unless
historians think beyond paper and come up with a way to preserve
our digital footprints, that’s a lot of ideas that could end up in
the garbage icon.

According to Crease, advancements in communication technology
‘are good for scientists, encouraging rapid communication and
stripping out hierarchies.’ But the latest fear among historians —
who rely on such correspondence to chronicle scientific
developments, reactions to them, and to better understand
scientists themselves — is ‘whether email and other electronic
data will be preserved at all.’ Luckily, there are several
organizations taking steps to ensure that all hope — and
information — is not lost.

As reported by Crease, historians at the
American Institute of
Physics
charged with tracking the history of physics in
industry have discovered some interesting findings regarding the
influence of communication technology on science. Among them:
‘PowerPoint… can stultify scientific discussion and make it less
free-wheeling; information also tends to be dumbed down when
scientists submit PowerPoint presentations in place of formal
reports.’

Working on the preservation front, Crease also notes that the
Stanford Linear Accelerator Center has collaborated with several
institutions to create the Persistent Archives Testbed (PAT)
project. Launched in 2003, the project has brought together
researchers to test a model for electronic records management. As
explained on PAT’s website, should the research prove
successful, the system would introduce a ‘cost-effective
application and architecture for preserving electronic records.’
Translation: Important discoveries found or discussed via email
could be saved from the vacuum of cyberspace.

Of course, scientists aren’t the only ones with data worth
protecting. In San Francisco, the nonprofit
Internet
Archive
is building an internet library — a kind of Library of
Alexandria for the 21st century. The organization’s website states
that, ‘If libraries are to continue to foster education and
scholarship in this era of digital technology, it’s essential for
them to extend those functions into the digital world.’ In
collaboration with institutions such as the Library of Congress and
the Smithsonian, the Internet Archive seeks to trace the evolution
of the internet, track language changes, revive dead links,
establish international internet centers, and exercise our ‘right
to remember.’ A search feature on the site called the Wayback
Machine allows users to browse through 85 billion web pages to find
pages from as early as 1996, including those that no longer exist.
Simply type in the URL of the site you’re looking for and a list,
sorted by year, pops up with links to each former incarnation.

Go there >>
The Lost Art of the Letter

Go there, too >>
The Internet
Archive

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