Who is Curating the Reliquary of the Internet?
Flashing cursors, hit counters, and animated backgrounds – the cutting edge of 90s web design. Occasionally, I stumble upon an outdated website that has been gathering dust for years. I wonder why it hasn't been updated or taken offline, like so much content of the early Web. With broken links and videos that won’t play, I wonder if my new laptop even has Adobe Flash Player. Already, digital obsolescence is making old websites unusable, provided they haven’t just expired and been reclaimed by an unpaid web-hosting company. But does any of this really matter? Are these sites examples of ‘relics’, artefacts worthy of preserving, or simply old junk?
If we consider the concept of a relic, we imagine an artefact of great significance and permanence that persists from an earlier time despite the changes all around it. The significance of a relic requires some kind of knowledge or belief about it; its aesthetic or functional value is not sufficient. A shrivelled old finger in a glass case, for example, becomes a curiosity of historical significance once you learn that it in fact belonged to St Teresa of Ávila. For the devout Catholic, it is totally transformed, becoming something worthy of divine reverence. Similarly, it could be easy to dismiss what remains of the Internet in its infancy because of its ugly design, outdated content and uselessness now, or equally to disregard current developments in online culture as frivolous and insignificant, but this would be unfair. The emergence of the Internet is likely to be viewed one day as one of the most consequential developments of our time for its impact on culture, society and productivity, and so the relics of its early days – these raw, experimental products of the nascent Web – ought to be preserved.
It may seem odd to regard a website, perhaps only a few years old, as a ‘relic’, when the word typically conjures up an image of some rare, arcane and mystical object. It is, of course, perfectly possible to seek to preserve and archive cultural objects for posterity while they are still contemporary, and it is a great shame that many artefacts have been lost because little care was taken at the time to preserve what seemed mundane. However, I believe that much Web content has already undergone this process of relic-making, this passing from an ordinary object to an anachronistic symbol.
Since the Industrial Revolution, levels of population, productivity, and total output increase at an exponential rate. More and more people are producing and consuming more and more products, cultural objects and ideas. The advent of computing and communication technologies in particular has meant that information can be created, transmitted and processed in ever greater quantities and at ever faster rates. The great democracy of the Internet – at least in theory – is that an unprecedented number people can now speak, create, and collaborate as they never could before. Put simply, in the digital age, more things happen more quickly than ever before, and contemporary Internet culture builds and thrives on this. Because of such rapid change, the network of meaning in which a particular cultural artefact is situated shifts so quickly that anachronism almost instantly marks what is left behind. Internet memes, for example, live and die daily, spreading virally and evolving faster than they can even be understood. The pace of change is such that a truly contemporary understanding of a cultural phenomenon or artefact online may be lost to history in mere weeks. When decontextualised, relics lose their meaning; they are unstable and require a narrative. If relics of the digital age are to survive at all, which narratives will give them meaning? The Internet seems to be an ever expanding reliquary, but its contents are at risk.
Above all else, digitised data is a precarious medium. The BBC Domesday Project of 1986 sought to honour the 900-year-old legacy of that enduring and invaluable relic of the 11th century, the Domesday Book, by creating a new digital record of life in modern Britain. Just 16 years later, the product of the BBC’s project was almost completely unreadable because of changing technologies, and a significant process of ‘data archaeology’ was required to save this archive from the ravages of obsolescence. If this deliberately created relic of the digital age was at such risk, what can we expect for the great mass of more vulnerable information on the Internet? Despite that common warning we all hear – that everything we post online will remain accessible forever – the reality is much more complicated.
Advancing technologies may leave old information unreadable, but Web content disappears just as often when it is a casualty of the search for profit. The 38 million pages created on Yahoo Geocities over its 15 year lifespan, surely a treasure trove for cultural study, were deleted at once because of a corporate decision. So much content online, which is created in a specific moment and with no future in mind, relies on privately owned platforms. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the original World Wide Web, has widely expressed concern at the direction his creation has taken. The Web was built on egalitarian principles – it was such a revolutionary technology because of its decentralised nature and low barriers to entry, creating a radically new environment that was anarchic, democratic and favoured open-source models of information sharing. By contrast, the flow and organisation of information on the Internet today is dominated by corporate monopoly - the verb ‘to google’ is ubiquitous. These firms not only have control over so much online content, but also already seek to obscure our access to it. Google manipulates search results to benefit those who pay, YouTube prioritises the visibility of its most profitable users’ comments, and the recent “fake news” epidemic has proven that the spread of literal misinformation is profitable for companies such as Facebook, whose algorithms drive traffic to these sensational hoax articles.
In the early days of the Web, to “go online” was a discrete activity, and required a certain technological knowhow. Increasingly however, the Internet is more and more naturalised, woven in the fabric of daily life, all too easy. We are permanently online, accessing many web services through apps, or features built right into devices, barely aware that we are on the Internet. We find ourselves locked into privately owned networks through ease and compatibility – Google is omnipresent, a Facebook login can be used anywhere, and a text usually means an iMessage. In this way, we are witnessing the development of closed ecosystems online, which redefine and restructure the Internet in the interests of capital, supplanting the raw Web. A salient example is that of Facebook’s audaciously named Internet.org project, a widespread scheme in developing countries whereby mobile phones are supplied with free Internet access, but exclusively to the web services of Facebook and its selected partners. In Nigeria, 65% of those surveyed agreed with the statement “Facebook is the Internet”, as do majorities in India, Indonesia and Brazil. For millions of people worldwide, this firm has complete control over their access to the Web.
So will Facebook, Twitter and Google be the gatekeepers to the archives of Internet history? Historically, institutions of government and organised religion have often been the curators, archivers and preservers of knowledge and historical artefacts. The relics of past eras, whether physical, textual or virtual, largely exist and persist by virtue of their past or present ideological value to those in power, and their relation to social forces. While Western liberal democracies may be relatively free of direct state censorship at present, the big players online have already proven themselves to be deeply intertwined in government and politics. Twitter and Facebook have made much of their role, for example, in facilitating communication among pro-democratic revolutionaries during the Arab Spring, while also evidently co-operating with Western governments for the purposes of surveillance. In the future, what narrative will the Internet tell of the social and political movements of our times? Whose accounts will prevail? It is not difficult to envisage how a future history of the Internet era might be told through the filter of dominant political and economic forces. If we seek even now to study Internet culture, it is clear that the history of phenomena such as vlogging, the democratisation of video publishing, and the Internet celebrity are all inseparable from YouTube. How does YouTube narrate the history of the vlog, and give meaning to the relics in its possession? The curation, visibility and even existence of so much cultural material is here in the hands of one corporation.
The myth of the Internet as some open, egalitarian and comprehensive source of information is becoming increasingly unsustainable, so to use the Internet as a source for cultural studies and history will necessitate a serious evaluation of tools and methods. It may be unrealistic to expect a more accurate and accessible online record to emerge, and an objective presentation of a relic is perhaps meaningless, but we can call into question the narratives into which online relics are being written. If data archaeology is the science of recovery of unreadable data, we must expand this concept significantly. Given the sheer quantity of information online, the forces acting to bury or distort it and the stories being told, it is clear that a new kind of archaeology of the Internet must be developed. If we wish to see an accurate reading of our times, we must attempt to uncover hidden artefacts, interpret them critically, and situate them in a fairer history of the Internet.
Joseph Peacock is a second-year Sociology student at King’s College. His academic interests include semiotics, psychoanalytical sociology, and cyberculture.