Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Why not record all of it?

There is of course an impulse to archive the Internet. Considerations of archiving something so shifty and gelatinous are an intriguing access point to questions of what the nature of the Internet really is. The Internet is at once epistemological and presentational, object and tool of observation. If we ignore the more communicative side of the Internet, being altogether too private to survey voyeuristically, and take only the World Wide Web into consideration, we find that it still impossibly avoids capture. As Ernst theorizes in “Dis/continuities”, to archive the Internet is to create an archive of archives, a new dimension of mastery over information. A successful attempt would, in other words, allow users not only to access data but to access points of access to data in time in order to achieve not only a retrieval of said data/information/mp3, but an understanding of how the data would be reached at some point, a context that is different.

Yes, the Web is contextual. This presents as many complications as it does possibilities. Context can only be simulated to a certain extent, perhaps never perfectly. Furthermore, as Ernst points out, archives are as much concerned with what is not included as they are with what is included. Beyond this, the Internet is not a static entity, it exists not as some collection of discrete objects fixed in time, but as a continuous series of Interactions between users, cultures, businesses. Entities of every scale and sort colliding endlessly, producing content, removing content: this is what must be recorded. This endless dance naturally defies archiving. It is not a record or a thing but a living act. Media Archaeologists can hope to do little more than photographers snapping shots of marathon runners as the fly by. The context is lost, the data trash (as Ernst posits) ripe with the discarded significance of ephemeral transactions.

On the other hand, the Web invites archiving. It is easy to save, capture, and reproduce. The ideal archive would allow users to tap into a comprehensive “Internet” of some given time and from some given place. You might ask: “What about that Wayback Machine? Doesn’t that do that?” The machine is useful, but it fails to provide an accurate experience; it fails to provide the context. The tool paints a grim picture of the Web past, a desolate textual jungle scarred by broken links and missing content, doors that lead nowhere, and windows that look onto nothing. The basic tool bar of a Web Archive should not ask the user “what page would you like to view at different points in time,” but “at what time would you like to view the entire Web as it was.” Unfortunately, when technology makes it possible for such an archive to be created, it will change the way people relate to the web. When the history of the web is laid bare for all to see, what use will it be to keep pages updated, or to keep them free of errors. The creation of web objects will become less organic and exposed and far more secretive and instantaneous. No one will ever be forgiven for their web mistakes.

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