Taking in the Trash

When historians finally get around to tackling the Net, the Net will likely tackle them. The source material is already so suffused with static--abandoned home pages, XXX spam, and countless messages that venture, "Testing... Are you there?"--that the human signal may be impossible to pick out from the noise. And the volume is only getting louder. The three-year-old WWWAC list (wwwac.org), a 3000-person e-mail congress of mostly New York designers and entrepreneurs, is reaching the tipping point with its archives on servers at Echo. Query the archives through e-mail and you can easily read the handful of initial posts ("Hello, there... the few, the proud" and "Hi. I've got the chips, who brought the dip?") from January 1995. But try to read May 1998's file and Echo's software can't deal with it, says list administrator Larry Aronson. "The file is just too enormous."

If we can save everything, then should we? Artist Mark Napier's idea is to decide what's junk and start dumping--not trash the files exactly, but make a public spectacle of them, a tea party of ephemera. Last week, Napier unveiled his virtual compost heap, called the "Digital Landfill" (potatoland.org/ landfill), where users can deposit graphics, text, and animations into a roiling stack of castoffs. The site layers the donations on top of one another, so what you get is, not surprisingly, an absolute mess. But, as he notes, our ruins reveal as much about us as our monuments. "The landfill is not supposed to have value," he says. "It creates a view of the subconscious of the Web culture."

Some bits are a little more conscious than others. Last fall, Napier drew the ire of the toy company Mattel for his twisted online culture jam "The Distorted Barbie," where he digitally mutated the plastic bombshell (interport.net/napier/barbie). Napier added the "cease and desist" letter he received from Mattel to the landfill. "I made the digital landfill so that I had a place to throw that letter," he admits. With the landfill, he wants to raise questions about the future of digital objects that don't decay. "In 20 years, will we be collecting digital antiques?" he asks.

The navigation tool Alexa (alexa.com) already is. Developed by the people behind the Internet Archive (archive.org)-- the Library of Congress of the Net--Alexa runs below the browser and provides information about the Web page that you're looking at: who owns it, where most users go to from it, and, if the page is missing, what it used to look like. If you encounter a "404 File Not Found" on a site, Alexa searches through its database of 500,000 Web sites to fill the hole with an archival version. "As a navigation feature, it seems like, why use this? Why is this here?" says Alexa CEO and president Brewster Kahle. "But the 404 service has been very useful to a few people, like those who lose pages on their own servers if they crash."

Effectively, it's a form of public salvage: to Alexa, nothing is junk--just unpopular. Alexa blindly stores everything on the Net onto tapes, now containing over 10 terabytes of data--over half the amount in the Library of Congress, says Kahle. But its 100,000 active users are pruning the data through their collective paths, which other users can follow. One Alexa stat shows that just 1000 sites account for half of the traffic on the Web. "The Web made everyone into a publisher, and Alexa makes everyone into an editor," Kahle says.

Even with all the evident chaff that remains, Kahle still believes wholeheartedly in broad preservation. "We want a feel of what the whole Net looks like," he says. But he recognizes that Alexa's storage system works for now because most of the data online is text. As he says, "[storage] starts to become a real issue of volume when everybody has a camcorder pointed at their kid's cradle."

Federalist Papers 2.0

The question was like trying to sluice a tidal wave: where do you draw the line and declaim, "Government begins here"? At last week's all-star panel, "The Internet & Public Policy: Who's in Control?" Harvard Law professor and panelist Lawrence Lessig nailed the recalcitrant spirit of Netizens. "We don't have a problem with governance in cyberspace," said the rhetorically polished Lessig. "We have a problem with governance."

The three participants in the discussion, sponsored by the New York New Media Association, would be the inaugural members of the Net's constitutional convention if one ever were convened: Lessig (who also serves as "special master" in the Microsoft antitrust case), Ira Magaziner (a presidential senior adviser and framer of the latest domain name policy), and Esther Dyson (venture capitalist and author of Release 2.0). They are possibly the only people capable of wrestling with the policy debate coherently--or, as they proved last week, at least able to properly frame the question.

The Net is exploding with ad hoc, private-industry governments, young colonies without state lines. With the rise of alternative ruling bodies to arbitrate the privacy andcensorware debates--"private architectures" as Lessig terms them--"to call the government 'it' " is a mistake, Dyson said. But smaller efforts at regulation, like the nonprofit data-control service TRUSTe (which Dyson helped instigate), face the challenge of "legitimacy," said Magaziner.

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