Postcards from the Bleeding Edge
Monday, September 23, 2002

 

Sins of Ommission


The Wayback Machine is the new (and so far, the only) historian of the Internet age. Even with the Wayback Machine in place, busily archiving snapshots of the entire web, web history only goes back to 1993, and its record is spotty. Web pages age badly. Large percentages of pages only a few years old have 50% or more of their off-site links returning 404 ERROR NOT Found messages.


History is important. We need to understand ourselves, our culture, our mistakes, and the only way to do that is to keep an open, honest historical record alive. But huge forces are at work increasing the rate of internet entropy to the point where I doubt in 20 years, we will be able to make anything coherent out of the last 30.


Gag orders, the DMCA, stupidity, site re-organizations, artificial obsolesence, disk crashes, and just plain neglect hamper the creation of anything like a permanent historical record on the web. My own article on the 500 hundred years of copyright history before the DMCA was lost to a disk crash, at least two of the best articles I linked to have been lost in the sands of time, and a really spectacular and prescient recording of a 1992 radio show by John Reiger on fair use are gone forever. (Thankfully, the wayback machine has preserved two out of four of these items. But that article is only 2 and a half years old!)


Recently I was trying to find out if there was any prior art on a rather broad patent which concerns cpu clock scaling and power management. (the ability to scale the clock is an important feature for the handheld computers being built today) . Siemens applied for the patent in 1999, but the first processor to feature this ability was the StrongArmtm processor, developed around 1997, by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), which was absorbed by Compaq, which is now part of Hewlet-Packard. It seemed like a good bet that documentation and manuals on the processor would contain prior art that invalidated the patent. I failed to find a hard-copy anywhere, and DEC's web site went the way of the dodo, long ago.


No problem, said I, I'll just use the wayback machine to search for the information in web times past. Imagine my surprise, and dismay, to find that the entire contents of Digital's web site's history had been withdrawn. By request of the site owner.


Ever wonder how the creators of the phenominally successful "Blair Witch project" made out financially? Certainly, with all the hype, the follow on movies, the web sites, the action figures, they must be living on easy street, right? Well, I don't know. Why? Because they are under a gag order. I do know that they sacrificed everything they had to make the movie, and then tons more on lawyers in the lawsuit, and then they didn't see a dime of their money for over two years! Gag orders seem to be part of business as usual on an on-going, colossal scale.


Philup Greenspun's true story of Arsdigita's demise would be lost to historians if it weren't for the Wayback Machine (and the lackadaisial efforts of the lawyer that got the original article suppressed) Recently, the Church of Scientology successfully sued to prevent Google from deep linking into their site. No doubt their lawyers were a mite peeved that a search for scientology on google was returning an anti-scientologist site as it's highest ranked result!


If the Wayback machine crashes, or sways easily to legal pressure, where are the real truths of the ongoing century going to be stored? Not in the United States, to be sure. Not in today's environment of artificial obsolescence and informational overload. I was reading an article on the plane from a marketing rep who didn't have a problem with the average american getting over 3000 marketing messages a day - her only concern was "improving the quality of those messages". With an informational agenda like that, who has time to fit in some questing for the truth or to listen to the quiet still voice of conscience?


Never has it been more true that history is written by the victors.


How long before every solid sordid fact gets reduced to anecdotal evidence; reduced to party conversation? Google's Groups is the one publicly available resource of the public's dialog, going back to 1981. It's the only record I have to track down certain things that I sorta think I remember. What if, it too, goes away?


A few weeks ago I found a single page (page 79-80) from Orwell's 1984, torn out, stuck between some pages in an old Larry Niven book.



It is by sins of omission, rather than commission, that the history of the late 20th century will be remembered. Or perhaps, by the sin of commissioning omissions.

 
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David Täht writes about politics, space, copyright, the internet, audio software, operating systems and surfing.


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