As I set about writing this article, I will be providing you with multiple links to verify the sources of my statements and information. I will be using the most common sources to find the information I need to write this piece. These links are also sometimes for you to read further on a topic that I mention, but do not delve into. This is usual practice for those writing for the internet, as is the case here. We mostly link our content to URLs, whether we are writing journals, articles, advertising copy, marketing content or pretty much anything else. What we often find, without quite understanding its impact, is that our links are dead. And this, ladies and gents, is what is being referred to as the decay of the internet.
The idea behind this starts with Jonathan Zittrain, law and computer science professor at Harvard, and a co-founder of its Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. In an article he wrote for The Atlantic, Zittrain began with: “The glue that holds humanity’s knowledge together is coming undone.”
Since the writer is first and foremost an academic, it wasn’t easy to quite get to grips with his idea, until he compared it to a library. Imagine that we were going on about our writing for different purposes and audiences without the internet. We would be referring to physical journals, articles and books from a physical library. Before the arrival of the World Wide Web, this is how things were done. Therefore, should I try to retrieve the assignments I submitted to my university back in the 1990s, I would probably find all of the cited material still there on the bookshelves.
“Grooved into the nervous systems of anyone who came of age in the ’80s and ’90s was also a persistent fear of disappearing data. […] Then came the hard lesson of the century’s end: Economies could vanish too. The crash of the dotcom market reinforced the impression that the internet was itself a soap bubble.” [Virginia Heffernan in Wired]
So, it seems the writing was on the wall. “It turns out that link rot and content drift are endemic to the web, which is both unsurprising and shockingly risky for a library that has “billions of books and no central filing system”” Zittrain writes.
The definition of ‘billions of books and no central filing system’ coming from one of the bookkeepers, Google.
Exit the information superhighway?
The internet has been massively available since the mid-1990s. For many of us, we didn’t bother to find out how it worked or whence it came about. The possibilities the internet has offered the world are of such magnitude that they are impossible to quantify. A simple look at how it allowed the world to keep ‘functioning’ through the Coronavirus pandemic, with offices and schools going online, is tribute enough.
The amount of traffic on the web could be what is precisely causing parts of it to just vanish into thin air.
“People tend to overlook the decay of the modern web, when in fact these numbers are extraordinary—they represent a comprehensive breakdown in the chain of custody for facts.
As far back as 2001, a team at Princeton University studied the persistence of web references in scientific articles, finding that the raw number of URLs contained in academic articles was increasing but that many of the links were broken, including 53 percent of those in the articles they had collected from 1994. Thirteen years later, six researchers created a data set of more than 3.5 million scholarly articles about science, technology, and medicine, and determined that one in five no longer points to its originally intended source. In 2016, an analysis with the same data set found that 75 percent of all references had drifted.” Zittrain states.
What is the impact of the ‘rotting’ internet?
The impact, to put it simply, is that we won’t go about recording things the way we used to. Humanity has always had ‘records’, Zittrain explains, whether it was cave walls or parchment paper. Written information in material form became the most enduring means of gathering, recording and documenting basically everything. With the internet’s inability to record ‘forever’, what may be lost is the capacity to look for answers in the past, as Adrienne LaFrance puts it:
“Time erases most everything and everyone, eventually. Any effort to understand the past is based entirely on incomplete records. And because it is impossible to standardize the language used to catalogue what’s left, or to fully index what is found, humans are unable to search through our own vast repositories of knowledge.”
The future of WWW
There is hope, however, simply because too many scientists are scholars are aware of this problem. For example, in the existential aftermath of 9/11, Brewster Kahle and Bruce Gilliat created the Wayback Machine or ‘more than 591 billion pages saved over time.’
“By putting nonmaterial culture on digital tape, as was the founders’ original intention, the archive might lend immortality to internet ephemera. Kahle and Gilliat thus made sure that “I Can Has Cheezburger?” “HelloMyFutureGirlfriend” and “All Your Base Are Belong to Us”—which seemed like fleeting hallucinations—would outlive us and delight humankind forever” Heffernan comments.
The father of the internet himself, Tim Berners-Lee, believes that the entity should be decentralised. For this, he has been working on the creation of Solid (Social Linked Data), ‘which was researched and implemented at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Oxford University.’
“The objective is for data to no longer be stored by individual companies such as Google, Amazon or social media providers, even if their software is being used. Instead, it should be stored where the user wants it to be. That way, everyone gains more control over their own data, which is stored in pods.” [ Source: https://www.bosch.com/stories/future-of-the-internet/ ]
Just like he believed in his invention 3 decades ago, Berners-Lee again stands convinced that this is the way forward. Whether it is or not, we are yet to know. One thing for sure is that with today’s concern with impermanence on the internet (Tiktoks, Snapchats and Reels galore…), is humankind in the 21st century really concerned with preserving its imprint? Or is it quite happy with just being a ‘fleet’ or ‘story’? Time may, or may not, tell.