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banner Monday, 12 November, 2001, 11:37 GMT
Seeing the future in the web's past
BBC
How BBC News Online appeared on 6 October 1999
What was the internet like last year? Or even last week? A scheme to keep a copy of the entire web could give valuable lessons for the future, writes Maggie Shiels from Silicon Valley.

One of the three passions that governed Bertrand Russell's life was the search for knowledge. As the other two were love and an unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind, it was undoubtedly the easiest of the three to satisfy.

Amazon
How Amazon looked in October 1996
Today for a 41-year-old computer scientist from California's Silicon Valley, it is the collection of knowledge and its dissemination which is at the core of a project he believes will define the digital information age.

Having made his fortune through a variety of internet ventures, in 1996 Brewster Kahle became a collector of web pages. Through the Internet Archive, which he founded, he has gathered regular snapshots of millions of pages. To date, the collection stands at a staggering 10 billion pages.

"We think the opportunity of our times is to offer universal access to human knowledge," says a modest Mr Kahle. "And with the technology of today, not only can you gather a huge library in digital form but you can make it available to everyone."

Old maxim

When the Internet Archive hit its fifth birthday at the end of October, the bespectacled Mr Kahle celebrated by launching a website called the Wayback Machine to allow everyone the chance to surf through history without becoming tied up in the maze of the worldwide web.

Brewster Kahle, BBC
Brewster Kahle: "Society should make the ability to rise available to all"
"There's a lot of miscellaneous guck out there on the web," he says. "But one person's guck is another person's goldmine, and the Wayback Machine helps you get there faster and easier."

So if you want to see what the early Yahoo website looked like, or discover more about obscure Brazilian stamps, the Wayback Machine is your ticket to browse.

And should you ever need to know what Bill Clinton had to say about terrorism on 9 September, 1996, the Wayback Machine will help you find out.

His words, incidentally, were: "We know we can't make the world risk-free but we can reduce the risks we have to face and we have to take the fight to the terrorists... by rallying a world coalition with zero tolerance."

The fact that such sentiments echo those repeated today by President Bush perhaps adds to the maxim that to learn about the future one should examine the past.

Forward-looking time

"I guess I'm more and more driven by the idea that open and free societies prosper by learning from each other," says Mr Kahle about why he started the whole project.

And he cites a Scottish entrepreneur and philanthropist as a visionary worth imitating. "Andrew Carnegie, who founded the American library system, seemed to imply there is a bargain. There are those that are allowed to get very wealthy but society should make the ability to rise in society available to all, and he did it through libraries."

How big is a terabyte?
About as big as 1,000 copies of the Encyclopaedia Britannica

In the five years since the Internet Archive has been going, Brewster and his willing cohorts have collected 100 terabytes of data. That compares with an estimated 20 terabytes of information in the entire Library of Congress. The archive is growing by 10 terabytes a month. The next milestone is a petabyte.

For Mr Kahle, the internet is the most democratic place to site a library of the new millennium.

Wayback Machine, BBC
The Wayback Machine's Jad DeFanti, with some of his charming terabytes
"The web is more inclusive than a book library. The wonder of the web is that it is the people's voice. Only a few people can write for the London Times or the BBC, but everyone can write for the web," he enthuses.

"Five, 10, 15 billion voices are on the web, but it's a fleeting voice and it disappears fast. The average life of a web page is 100 days so if you don't actively gather these materials then they are gone."

'Coolest thing'

So far, the Wayback Machine is proving to have exceeding its expectations, and is receiving millions of hits a day and hundreds of queries a second.

University of California-Berkeley journalism Professor Paul Grabowicz is already using the Wayback Machine to teach new media.

Andrew Carnegie, AP
Andrew Carnegie "seemed to imply there was a bargain"
He says: "It's a way of preserving how our culture responds to events."

Christopher A Lee, who is chairman of the Electronic Records Section of the Society of American Archivists, declares: "Isn't it the coolest thing around?"

And he suggests social historians of the future will learn much from the archive.

Brewster Kahle doesn't disagree. "The web is a great cultural, innovative environment that shows humanity at its best and its worst. And I think what we'll see in the Wayback Machine is the internet dreams of millions of people. And that our time is going to be looked at as a dreamy, forward-looking time."

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