Who's archiving IT's history?
The mishandling of Babbage's baggage
Column The relaunch of the IT History Society (formerly the Charles Babbage Foundation) exposes a problem which the Web has brought to journalism and historians - stuff is not being preserved. There are people, however, who are trying to build proper records of the past.
The question is whether this works. The IT History Society is trying to create a history of European computing:
Software for Europe is a historical project with strong interdisciplinary connections. Its members are informed variously by the disciplinary perspectives of cultural history, business history, economic history, history of science and technology, science and technology studies, and technology policy; it is our intention that the project’s work will be recognised in all these fields. Much of the work will proceed from analysis of written sources, published and archival, and to some extent on the examination of software itself.
Well, they're in for a tough job. One of my jobs recently has been to look back into IT history and apply some 20-20 hindsight to events five years ago and ten years ago.
How hard can that be? I go into the office; I open the vault with back numbers of IT Week. I find the one with the same date as my next publication deadline, and I flip through the pages till I find something interesting and topical. And I write my column. Bingo.
Last week, I couldn't get into the office, so I went for my backup. Way back up: the WayBackMachine which is attempting to build up an archive of the web.
I won't hear a word against the WayBackMachine. But I will in honesty have to say a few words against it: it's got holes.
What it's good at is holding copies of "That day's edition" just the way a newspaper archive does. I can, for example, go back to NewsWireless by opening up this link; and there, I can find everything that was published on December 6th 2002 - five years ago! - more or less. I can even see that the layout was different, if I look at the story of how NewsWireless installed a rogue wireless access point in the Grand Hotel Palazzo Della Fonte in Fiuggi, in the hills above Rome. And it shows that in those early days, NewsWireless was called "Guy Kewney's Mobile Campaign" - a name we chose in spite of the good advice of more sensible friends...
Now, have a look at the same story, as it appears on NewsWireless today. The words are there, but it looks nothing like it used to look.
Unusually, NewsWireless does give you the same page you would have seen five years ago. When you're reading the Fiuggi story, the page shows you contemporary news: for example the utterly mad, definitely disgusting "phones to salivate over" http://www.newswireless.net/index.cfm/article/1226 which appeared that week. It's the week's edition, in content at least.
Most websites don't do this.
You can, sometimes, track back a particular five-year-old story (though sadly you'll often find it's been deleted), but if you go to the original site you're likely to find that the page you see is surrounded by modern stories. It's not a five-year-old edition. Take, for example Gordon Laing's Christmas 2002 article on five megapixel super-cameras (I know, I know) and you'll find exactly no stories at all relating to Christmas 2002. They were published, yes, but they aren't archived together anywhere - except the WayBackMachine.
And sadly, the WayBackMachine has a limitation; it has a lot of historical "editions" of websites, but there are a lot more it doesn't have.
Also, it's vulnerable to electronic interference. Censorshipware, according to Seth Finkelstein, sees the archive as a single site. If just one page appears to contain an image showing more skin than a maiden aunt in Boise, Idaho, might consider proper, then the entire archive is liable to be blacked by a lot of ISPs who take their cue from that net nanny.
Worse, a lot of sites block the Archive from accessing their pages. The archive spiders call, and are recognised as "proxy avoidance" sites. It's a trick, the site monitor decides, attempting to display naughty images to people who have asked not to see them.
So Websense blacklists Wayback Machine as 'Proxy Avoidance Systems'. Observe, given the description, one might think that such sites are somehow disreputable or have little value besides getting around the censorware. Few people would consider that an extensive historical web archives qualifies. And that access is denied to a digital library by the imperatives of control, the necessities of the blinder-box.
So I got quite excited when NetModo announced:
NetModo Inc., a web-publishing venture aimed at providing free content to consumers, launched their initial website www.NewsModo.com with over 3.5 million news articles from 85 newspapers across the country in partnership with Media News Group Interactive.
You can see the reason for excitement; you can also immediately spot the limitations. "The country" for example - which country? The US, obviously! Are there any others? Not on NetModo. And 85 newspapers... isn't that rather a low number for the US? Yes, it is. It seems to be a select few, most of which have local-interest small-town news. Great for a social historian, but it's hardly going to help us find the August '85 edition of Byte, or Dr Dobbs or even the San Francisco Chronicle.
And it shows individual stories, not the snapshot of a day or a week which a paper magazine captures for history.
Of course, it may be a relief to some families to know that:
"NewsModo.com is also a 'safe' search environment. Because NewsModo only publishes professionally produced content and does not 'crawl the web' for content, parents and kids can be assured that a search on Newsmodo.com will only return content that has been published in a newspaper previously."
Because, as the proprietor of the archive points out: "This essentially eliminates the threat that some type of questionable photos or other unwelcome content will be displayed to unsuspecting eyes while perusing search results and articles on the site."
But what sort of "history" is it which doesn't record things that would embarrass sexually or religiously crippled individuals who want to prevent their babies from growing up?
Once upon a time, someone offered me all the back numbers of a particular tech magazine I had contributed to. He said: "I don't need it anymore. If I want to search for something I need to know, I Google it."
But what if you don't know you need to know it? What sort of records of the present are we actually keeping? What will historians of the future get to hear about contemporary reactions to stories of the day, without the benefit of hindsight?
Maybe, someone in the British Library ought to be solemnly printing out all the content on every news website every day, and storing them in boxes, labelled by date?
Meanwhile, you can do your bit. If you actually do have archive printed material, keep it. Also, if you find good website archives, let me know about them, and what they are good at, and I'll pass that on. I do think this may be quite an urgent mission. ®