One way to think of the internet is as an infinitely expanding trove of ephemera. While we assume that all of the videos, links, jokes, blog posts and one-off websites are there forever, it's actually extremely difficult to archive the net. Bob checks in with a group of digital archaeologists, people who are recording and presenting the net as it used to be, as far back in antiquity as 1991.
BOB GARFIELD: In the digital world everything progresses kind of fast, doubling every which way, according to Moore's Law, every two years. The World Wide Web expands at least as geometrically. In 1997 there were about 50 million unique URLs, today about three trillion, and they represent perhaps as little as 1/500th of the so-called "Deep Web." As that e-universe expands in a nearly Einsteinian way, time seems to contract, distorting the scale of history itself.
So now, to unearth the lost treasures of creation comes a new branch of research, digital archaeology. The new discipline was on display this week in New York City, where curator Jim Boulton stood above a sleek black box about a foot cubed, tracing back to the beginning of time, 1991, that is.
JIM BOULTON: We've actually managed to get hold of a NeXT Cube, which is the machine that the World Wide Web was invented on. And —
BOB GARFIELD: This was a Steve Jobs piece of hardware, after he left Apple, founded NeXT.
JIM BOULTON: Yes. And it's interesting because when Tim Berners-Lee invented the web page, of course, he also had to invent a browser to access that web page. And we've actually managed to track down that browser at the same time, and we've really happy to have been able to reunite the first website with the first browser and the computer it was invented on.
BOB GARFIELD: What the monitor displays actually isn't the first-ever web page. This is a version circa 1992.
JIM BOULTON: One tragedy, actually, is that the very first web page no longer exists. There's no record of it, there's no archives, not even a screen shot. That monumental point in history has been lost forever. And I think that's typical of the industry, you know, and it kind of highlights the issue that we're trying to raise here, that we're in real danger of not having a full and comprehensive record of this crucial period that's changed our lives forever.
BOB GARFIELD: It all seems so unlikely. You'd think that if there were one thing easy to unearth after a mere 20 years, it's a bunch of ones and zeros. But, as it turns out, no. One problem is that as technology evolves we actually discard the hardware and software that made the old stuff work. Boulton's team spent months haunting eBay and brick and mortar recycling centers looking for the ancient artifacts dating clear back to the George H.W. Bush administration.
Here is David-Michel Davies, chair of Internet Week, the umbrella event housing the exhibit.
DAVID-MICHEL DAVIES: So to look at a website in its original form from 1996, you actually can't do it, unless you're looking at it on a computer that's from around that era, on a browser that's from around that era, because all these things function together and when you sort of take one of them out, it all stops working. So the hardware is really cool to look at, but it's actually necessary in order to run some of these sites that we're looking at.
BOB GARFIELD: You know, I'm so old that I am experiencing actual evolution. I mean, there are species changes in my lifetime, never mind, you know, an old Power Book. So, it — it's hard for me to process the idea that this is archeology. But I guess it is archaeology, huh?
DAVID-MICHEL DAVIES: He really excavated these web sites, and he went and he got the source code from the people who created these that were files, and there's all this sort of like crust around it.
You know, there's things don't really work anymore that, that wouldn't work today, and he literally had to go into that code and have people sort of dust off some of the code that's too old to render and push it away and really just get at the core of the source so that he could then put it up on some of these computers and some of these browsers. So, in that sense, like he really did dig away and excavated. So, you know, I think it is a new form of archaeology.
BOB GARFIELD: Thank God for the diggers. It is amazing to see the old PCs, the early iMacs looking like Day-Glo helium balloons, the earliest versions of web animation, Words.com, a pioneering e-zine, and more than two dozen other bygone sites you can interact with, as if you'd gone back in time.
I tried to interact with the famous 2004 Burger King website subservientchicken.com, which allows you to issue orders to a man in a chicken suit, any kind of workers. But that went poorly. I typed in "wear pantyhose," and that's clearly a garter.
I had much better luck with Exhibit 28, which is from way back in — right now. The Wilderness Downtown allows you to create a movie about a solitary figure haunting the streets of any neighborhood you happen to type in, all to the music of Arcade Fire.
DAVID-MICHEL DAVIES: What you do is you type in the address of your hometown, and it will create a personalized video for you, based on Google Maps, showing someone running around the streets of your hometown. And, again, it raises the question, how do you archive an experience like that?
BOB GARFIELD: So I'm gonna type in a hometown of my youth, Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.
Oh wow. The leitmotif is these birds awing in the sky and it's superimposing them over satellite views of [LAUGHS] Bala Cynwyd. Now we're seeing street views in another window. Oh my God. It's kind of amazing. So it looks like a, a custom-made film that happens to be situated in my hometown.
DAVID-MICHEL DAVIES: I think what's interesting is the way we've come full circle. The very first websites, they had to be experiential. There was no other reason to visit a website, apart from it being an experience. And then when e-commerce kicks off and it became very commercial, all of a sudden it was about the transaction.
And now, with the rise of the social web, where we can easily reject products and services commercial messages, again, it has to be experiential again. Otherwise, there's no reason to visit the site. And I think we can learn a lot from these young pioneers of the early Web.
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BOB GARFIELD: A little stroll down random access memory lane can be illuminating, and also pretty hilarious. To offer context, each of the 30-some PCs, Macs and NeXT machines were accompanied by the same year's model of cell phone, some the size of bricks, and by a contemporaneous issue of WIRED Magazine.
Randall Rothenberg president and CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau amused himself with a cover story from March 1997, when he was a Wired contributor.
RANDALL ROTHENBERG: The cover story is all about the idea that push was going to replace the browsers as the next big interface. It's just so amusing in its wrongheadedness.
BOB GARFIELD: Did you read that?
RANDALL ROTHENBERG: Yeah, "Kiss your browser goodbye, the radical future of media beyond the Web, by the editors of Wired. Remember the browser war between Netscape and Microsoft? Well, forget it. The web browser itself is about to croak, and good riddance!”
BOB GARFIELD: Okay. Oops, it's hard to predict the future, even when the future was only just over the horizon. I asked Rothenberg, who represents the sponsors of our online lives, how worried he is about losing the artifacts of our online lives.
RANDALL ROTHENBERG: This kind of changes the way we think of kind of our cultural presence and cultural heritage, but I'm not sure if it's a problem. I think we'll know that in 50 or 100 years.BOB GARFIELD: One of the sponsors of the digital archaeology exhibit, a little outfit called Google, thinks it knows the answer right now: we gotta save this stuff. Aman Govil, a Google marketing manager, was on hand truly admiring the unearthed treasures.
BOB GARFIELD: Isn't it weird to look at 1994 as history? I mean, I think I still have stuff in my fridge from 1994.
AMAN GOVIL: It depends on what the context of history is, right? Like I probably have shirts older than some of the websites around here. But the Internet evolves faster than almost any other thing in our life. Like you go to YouTube, right, three months ago the stuff you had on YouTube is like ancient history. And it's just that pace that is evolving, which, if you think about it, two decades of Internet, to me it just sounds like history. And if you just —
BOB GARFIELD: You mean like — Charlie bit my finger!
AMAN GOVIL: Finger. Oh, that was so [LAUGHS] February. Exactly. But now, you know, what's the new one, what's her name? Rebecca Black.
[REBECCA BLACK SINGING FRIDAY]
You look at cars, for example, right? A basic setup of a car hasn't changed in the last 20 years. Yeah, you've gotten more toys inside it and, you know, better buttons and better leather and everything.
But the Internet has just completely changed. It's like going from bicycles to, you know, supersonic jets in 16 years. So when you look at it in that context of how quickly everything has evolved, 1994 is definitely history; it's ancient history on the Internet. Like some of these computers that you see out here, right, they belong in a museum and not on your desktop.
BOB GARFIELD: Reasonable point, but here's a better one: Rebecca Black, the tween sensation with the 160 million online hits is pretty much over too. Her video is four months old, a relic, an antiquity. Friday is history. Remember it well.
REBECCA BLACK SINGING: I don't want this weekend to end.
RAP VERSE: R-B, Rebecca Black. So chillin' in the front seat (in the front seat)
In the back seat (in the back seat)
I'm drivin', cruisin' (Yeah, yeah)
Fast lanes, switchin' lanes
Wit' a car up my side (Whoo!)
Pssin' by is a school bus in front of me
Makes tick tock, tick tock, wanna scream
Check my time, it's Friday, it's a weekend
We gonna have fun, c'mon, c'mon ya all...
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