User:ThomasW/Notes Raiders of the Lost Web

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LaFrance, Adrienne (2015) Raiders of the Lost Web, theatlantic.com [Online] Available: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/10/raiders-of-the-lost-web/409210/ (24.11.2015)


The web, as it appears at any one moment, is a phantasmagoria. It’s not a place in any reliable sense of the word. It is not a repository. It is not a library. It is a constantly changing patchwork of perpetual nowness.

A piece of paper can burn and you can still kind of get something from it. With a hard drive or a URL, when it’s gone, there is just zero recourse.”

the astrophysicist Carl Sagan wrote, “the brain and heart of the ancient world.”

“We did a couple of those public forums,” Vaughan said. “In one of them, somebody asked John Temple how long the series was going to be on the Internet, and John said, ‘Forever.’”

In 2008, Vaughan was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing for the series. The next year, the Rocky folded. And in the months that followed, the website slowly broke apart. One day, without warning, “The Crossing” evaporated from the Internet.

ater, after Vaughan had a chance to sift through the materials and make copies for the series, the clerk phoned the district attorney’s office to ask what should be done with the box. “They told her throw it away,” Vaughan said. “She hung up and she looked at me and said, ‘We are not throwing this away.’”

Many of the never-before-published documents and photographs Vaughan unearthed became key components of the web series, appearing only online and not in printed versions of the series. These weren’t just extras, but key chapters of the story, told digitally. And when the website disintegrated after the Rocky’s closure, these stories weren’t relegated to an old box on an unreachable shelf; they were gone.

“The day-in, day-out maintenance [of the site] just stopped happening, and so pretty quickly, some stuff didn’t work,” Vaughan said.

“There are now no passive means of preserving digital information,” said Abby Rumsey, a writer and digital historian. In other words if you want to save something online, you have to decide to save it. Ephemerality is built into the very architecture of the web, which was intended to be a messaging system, not a library.

In the print world, it took centuries to figure out what ought to be saved, how, and by whom. The destruction of much of Aristotle’s work deprived humanity of a style of writing that the philosopher Cicero described as like “a flowing river of gold.” What survived of Aristotle’s writing wasn’t prose, but more akin to lecture notes.

In other formats, entire eras of meaningful work have been destroyed. Most of the films made in the United States between 1912 and 1929 have been lost.

Rumsey said. “The first 50 or 100 years of print after the printing press, most of what was produced was lost... People looked down on books as having less value in part because they were able to print things so rapidly and distribute them so much more rapidly that they seemed ephemeral.”

Transformative technologies in any era are met with initial skepticism, and that attitude often fuels indifference about initial preservation efforts. Historians and digital preservationists agree on this fact: The early web, today’s web, will be mostly lost to time.

“There’s a school of thinking that says if you can’t do it right, don’t do it at all,” said Scott, who began working for the Internet Archive in 2011. “But the thinking is, let’s do what we can.”

In 1997, the average lifespan of a web page was 44 days; in 2003, it was 100 days. Links go bad even faster. A 2008 analysis of links in 2,700 digital resources—the majority of which had no print counterpart—found that about 8 percent of links stopped working after one year. By 2011, when three years had passed, 30 percent of links in the collection were dead.

It is, as Jill Lepore wrote for the New Yorker earlier this year, “like trying to stand on quicksand.”

aving something on the web, just as Kevin Vaughan learned from what happened to his work, means not just preserving websites but maintaining the environments in which they first appeared—the same environments that often fail, even when they’re being actively maintained.

the fact that unravels even an optimist’s belief in what the web can be, is that the ancient library was eventually destroyed. Not by technology or a lack of it, but by people. Saving something and preventing its destruction are not entirely the same thing.