I know I should probably be writing about concrete poems, but a recent personal discovery on the Internet has my mind aflutter about archives.
Maybe I’m the last to know about this, but while searching for a source for my master’s thesis I inadvertently brought up the a page under The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine (http://archive.org/web/). I didn’t even know something like this was in existence, which took “screenshots” (in a loose sense) of web pages and preserved them for posterity. Of course, before I learned anything more about the organization, I performed a search almost instantly:
That, in all its embarrassing, nerdy, early-teenage years glory, is my old Yahoo! Geocities website dedicated to Ewan McGregor–movie actor, motorbike aficionado, world’s best looking man. Yep. I said it. This page was last updated in 2005 and last crawled by the Wayback Machine in 2009 shortly before Yahoo! Geocities shut down and I lost the site for good.
I suppose I had imagined that major player websites were being archived by someone somewhere out there, but I had no idea about this indiscriminate archiving process which had picked up a random fangirl’s now nearly decade-old website. My nostalgia was palpable. But more importantly, I saw how The Internet Archive seemed to challenge the notion of the archive itself by being inclusive of pretty much anything it could get its “hands” on. And, as the Internet Archive’s website shows, there’s really no sense of order to the information. Just search the address you’re looking for, or select some of the popular options scrolling by on the screen. It’s a kind of archive, kind of anarchy.
This archive is equally interesting in the ways it is fragmented. Like lost pages in a book, my website is certainly far from complete, with most of the links and images now broken (only certain pages were crawled). It is almost a piece of ephemera in that sense, never meant to stand the test of time but here it is regardless.
Of course, what’s kind of alarming about thinking of my old website as ephemera is that it is not that old. I started ewymc back in 2003 when I was in eighth grade with (clearly) little else to do. By comparison, drawings of mine from kindergarten have stood the test of time in a cardboard box far better. And, reading The Internet Archive’s about page, it seems those behind this program recognize the need to document (and more fully document) what is going on with the Internet, given the pace of the modern day They write, “With the explosion of the Internet, we live…[a] ‘digital dark age.'” And the Internet does seem to be somewhat ahistorical in the dark age sense, as websites (or hosts) that shut up shop often entirely disappear. Even if the page content is archived , the layouts change, everything adopts or shifts to newer and newer platforms, and we’re not allowed to see what the content really looked like at that moment in time. I did another two searches, picking a certain infamous date, and found the results of archiving can be particularly powerful:
Nevertheless, some traditional ideologies still dictate the construction of this internet archive. Major websites (those with high traffic) are indexed far more often, revealing some traditional curating bias. (Admittedly, this seems as understandable as an art museum preferring Picasso’s paintings over my own scribbles.) Additionally, there’s a heavy emphasis on chronology as it’s pretty much the only organizing factor. And much of the language around the utility of this archive (“show how far we’ve come,” “see where we once were”) still emphasizes the linear narrative of progress.
And there’s something even more insidious and Ministry of Truth-like about the Internet Archive as it relates to “robots.txt.” Websites can choose to not be indexed—even retroactively—by setting up this command that the archive must obey. It’s a way to avoid potential legal snafus about “reproducing” copyrighted content. (Facebook won’t let you, for example, apparently they’re concerned about their own privacy. *cue joke*) But it all seems so Orwellian to me, that certain histories can be hidden or erased from public view. Granted, anyone can request that their site not be archived (or employ robots.txt) which is democratic. I guess it just raises all sorts of questions about public v. private, and whether the Internet can really be “owned” in these ways.
In closing, I am thinking about ways to play with this archive which may be more Ernst-like, mixing up pages to undo chronology, showing the brokenness of links, maybe some mashing up in Photoshop—playing with the “materiality” (or should I say, “visuality” is that even a word?) of the pages…