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 (, 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”, 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 ( 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 ( already is. Developed by the people behind the Internet Archive– 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.

The goverment white paper on domain names policy, ntiahome/ domainname/ 6_5_98dns.htm, released on June 5 and debated by the panel, will face its own questions of legitimacy. The initiative calls for a nonprofit organization, consisting of “stakeholders” from all interested companies, to rule over the meting out of the top-level domains like “.com” and “.net,” wresting control away from the corporation Network Solutions, which currently manages the system. While Lessig agrees with the new system in theory, he argued that the problem is that we don’t know who the “stakeholders” are, and that in many debates (like that over encryption) we are all stakeholders.

And that’s the issue that haunts us: as the Net comes closer to being regulated by specific bodies, who is choosing them? Just what constitutes citizenship, exactly, and when do we get to vote? The migration toward overarching ruling groups–like the domain name nonprofit–signals a trend away from consensus and public debate, warned Lessig. “We’re not democrats anymore, but that should force us to figure out why.”

Signal and Noise

  • Agencies: David Remnick nabbed $200,000 for Lenins Tomb. Joe Klein got his own $200K for Primary Colors. For those bucking to get published, the Agent Research & Evaluation site, created by Bill Martin and his wife, author Beverly Byrne, is intended to “empower authors” with an extensive database of about 850 literary agents, their deals, and the 10,000 authors they rep. Though essentially a promotional site for a $30 yearly newsletter, AR&E still offers a telling list of the highest-powered agents behind the bestsellers and an “Agent Verification” function to let writers interrogate the database to ascertain whether their newest suitor is legit…
  • HackJob: First, John Markoff of the Times wrote a front-page story on hacker Kevin Mitnick. Next came the book deal
    for Takedown–a collaboration between Markoff and Mitnick’s captor Tsutomu Shimomura. Now Miramax is rolling on the Takedown film, set to star Skeet Ulrich as Mitnick. But can Skeet type 90 words a minute and glower at the same time?…
  • Secret History: During the “quiet period” before an IPO, executives must keep all company business on the q.t. But now that ad network DoubleClick has become the Alley’s first company to spike in the market (trading now at 35 points), president Kevin Ryan will go public with the perks and perils of opening the company up to investment at the MIT Enterprise Forum meeting on June 24, at the Chase Manhattan bank at 270 Park Avenue. Accountants, lawyers, and investment bankers will be on hand. Call 681-1112 for details.E-mail: