Archiving the user experience of the Internet: Does it matter?
Over the last couple of days I've read two blog posts that touch on the subject of archiving the digital experience of the Internet.
Nick Sweeney wrote about what Bagpuss can teach us about the Internet. He talked about how whilst the engineering mice could get a lost item restored to working order, it was the whole cast of characters that imbued the object with narrative. He went on to explain that it is this narrative and context that is missing when we try to archive the digital experience.
Chris Applegate also wrote about archiving the web in his round up of thoughts from Open Tech at the weekend. He made the point that:
"The obsession with archiving now has struck me as somewhat odd - we live in era where storage space is near-infinitely abundant and yet we are more worried about losing our culture than any other age in history. Did the scribes of the Lindisfarne Gospels factor in the possibility their work would still be around 1,300 years in the future?
As information has become less scarce, paradoxically we've become increasingly obsessed with preserving it. Maybe it has something to do with the volatility of our storage - all it takes is your hard disk to be corrupted and you could lose years of your work. Or the effect of the internet on giving us information at our fingertips means we're now capable of knowing what we would lose if these archives disappeared. Or maybe it's just hindsight and a selective memory - we lament all those thoughtlessly-wiped episodes of Doctor Who, and are now much more sensitive to data loss, but we're not so fussed about all the editions of The Cliff Richard Show that got deleted too."
Which is possibly a little unfair on Cliff Richard fans, who you'd suspect lament missing episodes with an equal fervour, but I take his point.
Our failure to adequately capture what the early web was like, though, is something that has bothered me for some time. One of the first of my trademark multi-post web review series was about the earliest BBC Online content still hanging around on the BBC's servers, with content that covered the 1995 and 96 budgets, and the death of Diana and politics in 1997. I've also blogged about the history of official Doctor Who content on the BBC website, and how bbc.co.uk responded to the 7/7 bombings in London.
I recently wrote about the way that whilst we've retained the Guardian Unlimited content from tournaments like Euro2000 or the 2002 World Cup, we've ported a lot of content into new templates and new formats, so haven't preserved the whole feel of the site in the way that an aged copy of the newspaper does.
And whilst I worry about what big media sites are doing, I've completely failed to capture my own archive. Since I started blogging in 2002, this site has had at least three designs that I've got no proper screenshots of whatsoever.
Of course, as Chris says, it may not matter in the end.
Whilst it is difficult, for example, to recreate the exact experience of loading a game from cassette on the ZX Spectrum with the bytes being represented by the yellow and blue flashing border, you can still play Manic Miner on the web. And the legacy of that machine isn't in recreating the exact experience, but in the generation of bedroom programmers that the machine and others like it spawned.
Even if it isn't possible to perfectly archive or recreate it, the legacy of the early Internet is the pervasive use of networked digital technology all around us.