The Internet: Now you see it, now you don't

The original web is rapidly disappearing, and taking our culture with it.

Source: Midjourney.

A friend and former colleague who has been in this business for about as long as I have recently lamented that his work is disappearing from the Internet. Like me, he's been writing and editing stories for magazines and websites — mostly the latter — and recently discovered that he's slowly becoming invisible, as websites wither away and Google gets less reliable and more AI driven. 

He [1] writes:

What makes this especially galling now is that the AIs barely know who I am, and everything I wrote about startups in my 1000-ish Red Herring daily "Catch of the Day" columns is now offline, not only unsearchable but also not part of the new AI global hive-mind.

Hey, I'm a writer. I'm in it for the immortality. 

I hear ya, pal. Boy do I hear ya.

Though I make no claims on immortality, I have written a metric shit-ton of material that once lit up the screens of millions countless several readers over the years and now has been lost to the ages. Literally thousands of stories and millions of words. 

It’s called “LinkRot.” Or, as Cory Doctorow puts it, the “Internet is built on quicksand.”

This was recently brought home to me when a Google Alert (yes, I have a Google Alert looking for mentions of my name, don't @ me) pointed me to a story I had written for Yahoo Tech 10 years ago about truly disgusting smartphones are. [2] It was a slide show (slide shows were big in those days) but only a tiny stub of the story was left. 

(The full text of that article, minus the slides, is actually preserved on a Yahoo News Tumblr site based in the Philippines. Go figure.)

Why did a portion of this story suddenly reappear, like some ghostly radio signal that's been bouncing around the troposphere for the last decade and suddenly decides to return home? Your guess is as good as mine.

For me, most of my disappearance has to do with magazines going under and taking their websites with them to the grave. I've written for dozens of publications that used to appear on paper (remember paper?), and easily half of those have gone tits up. And of course this is doubly true for purely online publications that have moved on to the great digital boneyard in the sky. At least, I have printed copies of some of those magazine stories, which I will bequeath to my children as their legacy. [3] 

There is of course the Internet Archive, aka The Wayback Machine, which has for the last 28 years made a noble attempt at preserving portions of the old Internet. It now contains snapshots of some 866 billion web pages frozen at a moment in time, plus millions more books, images, audio, video, etc.  That's still just a tiny fraction of what's been published. The Archive will only crawl most websites a few times a year, and then only if the site allows it. So if you want to find something specific, you need to know exactly what you're looking for and when it was published, and then pray that it made the cut.

I don't know what the hell was going on at YahooTech in May 2014, but The Wayback Machine clearly got very excited about it. Yet there's nothing at all from November 2014, when my Smartphones Are Icky story first appeared, and the links go no deeper than the home page. 

Making flippy floppy

Why does this matter to anyone other than cranky old gracefully aging journalists complaining about the disappearance of their 'legacy'? Because it ultimately affects everyone. 

Here's another example. Another writer friend recently recounted to me that she still had an old copy of a book she had written in her 20s, perfectly preserved on 5.25-inch floppy disks.

In case you've never seen one of those, they look like this:

The last computers that shipped with 5.25-inch floppy drives died off around 1995. By then, 3.5-inch cassettes were all the rage. Those finally went extinct around 2010. In between there were dozens of other media storage formats and drives, too many to name here. In each of those cases, lord knows how many trillions of gigabytes of data are stored on media that virtually nobody can access any more. [4]

If you're willing to fork over some coin, there are services that will extract that data from those mouldering disks and dusty thumbdrives and transfer them to some newer, soon-to-be-obsolete storage medium. Or they'll put them into the cloud, which is simply just another storage device that will eventually be supplanted by some newer type of hardware, assuming the company that you pay to store that data doesn't go out of business and take your data with it.

On a larger scale, this is happening to everything. As all of media moves into a purely digital form, we are evolving into a state of permanent impermanence. Digits disappear in an instant — all you have to do is pull the plug. Or wait long enough for the machines you've used to store and access those digits to stop working. 

Future historians and alien anthropologists look back on the last 40-odd years of human history and wonder what the hell happened. Because there will be no record of it they'll be able to examine. [5] 

The moral here: If you really want to preserve your words and images, print them out and stick them in a fire-proof safe. Or maybe paint them on the wall of a cave. It ain't immortality, but it's a start.

What would you most hate to lose? Post your thoughts in the comments below or email me: [email protected].

[1] The 'he' in this case is Rafe Needleman, former cappo di cappo capo dei capi of magazines like Red Herring and sites like C|NET, as well as my former boss at Yahoo Tech. Also a complete Star Trek nerd. Live long and prosper, Rafe.

[2] They really are teeming pits of filth and despair, harboring "18 times more bacteria per square inch than your average toilet seat." Feeling a little queasy now, aren't you?

[3] And they will ask, 'What is this thing you call a magazine?'

[4] And I'm not even getting into file formats that are no longer supported by software. That's a whole other problem.

[5] Honestly, it’s probably for the best. Otherwise, it would just be too embarrassing.

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