I Thee Web
Get me to the church online.
A language of optimists takes root on the Internet.
6 Billion Human Beings
An online exhibit from the Museum of Natural History in Paris looks at our burgeoning humanity, en masse and one at a time.
The state of art on the Net.
The CIA reaches out to a new generation of spies.
A multimedia "essay" has technology serve humanity, and vice versa.
"Interactive fiction" moves to the Web.
The "Why?"s Have It
For a nation of strangers, the simplest questions can help bridge the widest distances.
For more, see the complete Web Citations Index.
June 4, 1998
Bertrand Russell, exasperated by scholars earnestly mourning the works lost irretrievably when the ancient Library of Alexandria was burned to the ground, is reported to have pointed out that while priceless works may indeed have vanished forever in the conflagration, so, too, did thousands and thousands of pages of utter dreck. Tongue only slightly in cheek, Russell argued that we should be immensely cheered, not saddened, by the fact that we have been spared the obligation of sifting through the centuries' worth of literary flotsam that had accumulated in the Egyptian library. The Atlantic's Cullen Murphy limned similar terrain in his 1996 essay "The Backlogs of History," suggesting that while the problem for historians of the ancient world is the paucity of the information available, the problem for scholars studying more recent events is the spectacular overabundance of public and private "data hoards." Comparing such archives to the archaeological mounds, or tels, that dot the Middle East, Murphy wrote,
There are too many of them for more than a few ever to be excavated systematically, and understanding what's in even those few takes decades if not centuries. For the rest, the occasional exploratory shaft or trench must suffice.The line between an archive and a rubbish heap is a fine one, of course -- as is abundantly clear in the case of the Internet. Regularly celebrated as the world's largest information archive, the Internet is headed inexorably toward becoming the world's largest dump. Web pages are not only proliferating madly these days, they're also being abandoned with increasing frequency as enthusiasms wane and interests change. The result is a growing number of "dead" Web sites that litter the Internet and clog up search engines. Taking note of this phenomenon, one Steve Baldwin has given it a name and a Web site: Ghost Sites. "I launched Ghost Sites," Baldwin writes, "as a modest attempt to document the great disappearing fleet of web sites sinking beneath the waves."
Baldwin's idea, it has to be said, is currently more interesting than the individual ghost sites he has collected. That's natural, however: fresh garbage tends in some degree to be either banal or repulsive, whereas with age it takes on unpredictable significance, character, and even appeal. In time, Baldwin's core sample of the world's digital refuse will likely be considered a gift to historians and archaeologists -- even if the site ends up being abandoned like those it describes, and it, too, becomes a ghost.
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.