In possibly one of the greatest moments in recent television, the character Moss introduces his supervisor Jen to the internet. If you haven’t watched the clip, watch it now. Actually, drop everything you’re doing and go watch the entirety of IT Crowd. It’s on Netflix. Do it.
Mk, you’re done? Okay cool. Because last week, Gabe and I went and visited… THE INTERNET
To be specific, we went to the Internet Archive’s annual celebration. Located near the Presidio, the Internet Archive is a massive program charged with building a second library of Alexandria through the digitizing and archiving of numerous books, articles, films, everything.
I first became aware of the Internet Archive after watching The Archive Documentary Part 1. The archive exists on 15 petabytes of hardware stored in a former church near the Presidio. According the the documentary, some of the hard drives live in the old organ room, and the heat from the servers provide temperature control for the entire building. Which is pretty neat.
We unfortunately didn’t get to see the awesome organ room, but we did get to poke around the main auditorium. Gabe told me approximately how much internet was visible in the room – I forget the actual calculation but it was pretty high.
Reader Privacy For All
The first talk of the night focused on internet privacy, specifically in context of the NSA. There were clearly a lot of old school Bay Area hippies in the house (Gabe and I were mysteriously two of the youngest there) and they were all quite pleased with the anti-spying rhetoric.
Founder Brewster Kahle summed it up as thus:
The government has broken the internet. Encryption is under attack by the people we pay. The theme tonight is let’s fix it!
His introduction segued into a guest speaker – Daniel Ellsberg. Yes, Pentagon Papers Daniel Ellsberg.
He presented a few main points about privacy and the internet. One key point was that it’s becoming harder to be a government whistleblower because digital conversations can be easily traced. In light of high profile whisteblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, it’s easy to forget that there are other whistleblowers out there – and the Obama administration is quietly building a reputation for cracking down on them. Obama Administration quietly removed its promises for whistleblower protection, although his original promises are documented on the Internet Archive’s WayBack Machine (which I’ll talk about in a bit).
Ellsberg linked the lack of internet privacy to the McCarthy era, recalling how during HUAC hearings, individuals would be asked about what they read Now, Ellsberg said, they don’t have to be asked – the government already knows. And it’s not just about hiding the fact you’re into 50 Shade of Grey; according to Ellsberg:
Privacy is not just a private matter – it’s about regaining democracy
Brewster Kahle then took the mic to announce that the Internet Archive was now officially running on https instead of http, assuring browsing security for all its users.
Quotable Television News
The next segment focused on a pretty cool new feature on the Internet Archive: its TV News archive. Now in beta mode, it allows for users to search hours of TV news footage to find specific quotes and segments.Yes, you can search by quotes: the program pulls out transcripts, so you can search for something specific someone said.
Another exciting announcement in the world of archiving television: the Internet Archive is set to receive 140,000 cassettes from the estate of Marian Stokes, a woman who simply recorded television for the sake of posterity. It was, as the presentation said, “A gift to the future”
No More Broken Links
Remember earlier when I mentioned the WayBack Machine? Yeah, this is the part where they start talking about it. The WayBack Machine is essentially a way to archive websites, which allows for the preservation of digital history for generations to come. (There was a moment of sadness for geocities). The WayBack Machine now has 361 billion pages saved and is currently archiving WordPress sites (future internet historians, I hope you found this helpful!). There’s also a new WordPress plug-in will check for broken links. Another cool new functionality of the WayBack Machine that allows you to archive a website instantly by inserting the link.
And if anyone is still convinced that archiving web pages is a waste of time, check out their recent blog about the government shutdown. Remember freaking out about not being able to access information on government websites? Well, for select ones, there’s a WayBack Machine for that!
Bringing Old Software Back to Life
This particular presentation gave quite the food for thought about digital archiving and technology in general. Jason Scott, the guy in the awesome top hat giving the presentation, began by talking about the internet and infrastructure. He called the internet a miracle, but noted,
Here’s the thing about miracles: after a while, it’s like, *sigh*, let’s look at the miracle. We’re used to it
And it’s true – who cares about the things that make lights turn on, until there’s a blackout? Just like, who cares about the software infrastructure, until it becomes unusable? The challenge is then to create programs that allow the common user to access archaic software. I don’t quite understand the technical methods of creating the program, but to my understanding it involves a number of fragile and confusing programming languages that shouldn’t work together and yet somehow do – hence the “Mess” in the name. (Check out his blog about it for actually accurate info.)
One really neat aspect of the software archiving project is that it’s actually an interactive immersion with source material. (Jason: “Suddenly you’re in history!”) The program, for example, even makes the sounds of an Atari turning on. With a normal archive, you can say you interact with it, but there’s really only so much you can do – no matter how many times you read a letter, they’re never going to actually write to you. Material objects may allow for some interaction, but you might hurt an irreplaceable object and that’s just no bueno. With someone like digitally preserved software – and a game no less! – you can actually experience a piece of the past, and not be worried about necessarily breaking or destroying a historical artifact.
The Library of Alexandria v. 2
One of the aims of the Internet Archive is to create the Library of Alexandria 2 – and, as Brewster Kahle put it, they’re trying to learn from the mistakes from version 1. The Archive is focused on longevity, and is currently building up a physical archive in Richmond. It also aims to duplicate its holdings around the world – including Alexandria! – in case anything should happen to its infrastructure. (Or financial support – io9 recently posted an article saying the great library was destroyed by budget cuts more than fire)
The archive is also introducing types of social nets for internet people, such as an internet credit union and subsidized housing. It will be interesting to see what comes of this.
The event ended on a high note, with promises of a bright future for the Internet Archive. Said Brewster:
Our internet that we want – we are building. An internet that is safe, open, reliable, and fun!
So spoke the elders of the internet.
If you want to see more deets, here’s a Storify of my live tweets. (There wasn’t a hashtag, so I couldn’t really curate other people’s tweets, but I tried to throw in a few!)
To watch the full event, check out the recording here.
And here are more pictures of the internet!