The Internet Archive commemorated its 25th anniversary by asking us to imagine the future of the internet. Image courtesy of the Internet Archive.

The Next 25(0[0]) Years of the Internet Archive

"The Library of Alexandria is best known for burning down." The Internet Archive looks "wayforward" in hopes of avoiding the same fate.

For the past 25 years, the Internet Archive has embraced a bold vision of “Universal Access to All Knowledge.” Founded in 01996, its collection is in a class of its own: 28 million texts and books, 14 million audio recordings (including almost every Grateful Dead live show), over half a million software programs, and more. The Archive’s crown jewel, though, is its archive of the web itself: over 600 billion web pages saved, amounting to more than 70 petabytes (which is 70 * 10^15 bytes, for those unfamiliar with such scale) of data stored in total. Using the Archive’s Wayback Machine, you can view the history of the web from 01996 to the present — take a look at the first recorded iteration of Long Now’s website for a window back into the internet of the late 01990s, for example.

Internet Archive Founder Brewster Kahle in conversation with Long Now Co-Founder Stewart Brand at Kahle’s 02011 Long Now Talk

The Internet Archive’s goal is not simply to collect this information, but to preserve it for the long-term. Since its inception, the team behind the Internet Archive has been deeply aware of the risks and potentials for loss of information —  in his Long Now Talk on the Internet Archive, founder Brewster Kahle noted that the Library of Alexandria is best known for burning down. In creating backups of the Archive around the world, the Internet Archive has committed to fighting back against the tendency of individual governments and other forces to destroy information. Most of all, according to Kahle, they’ve committed to a policy of “love”:  without communal care and attention, these records will disappear.

For its 25th anniversary, the Internet Archive has decided to not just celebrate what it has achieved already, but to warn against what could happen in the next 25 years of the internet. Its Wayforward Machine offers an imagined vision of a dystopian future internet, with access to knowledge hemmed in by corporate and governmental barriers. It’s exactly the future that the Internet Archive is working against with every page archived.

Of course, the internet (and the Internet Archive) will likely last beyond 02046. What does the further future of Universal Access to All Knowledge look like? As we stretch out beyond the next 25 years, onward to 02271 and even to 04521, the risks and opportunities involved with the Archive’s mission of massive, open archival storage grow exponentially. It is (comparatively) easy to anticipate the dangers of the next few decades; it is harder to predict the challenges lurking under deeper Pace Layers. 250 years ago, the Library of Congress had not been established; 2500 years ago, the Library of Alexandria had not been established. Averting a Digital Dark Age is a task that will require generations of diligent, inventive caretakership. The Internet Archive will be there to care for it as long as access to knowledge is at risk.

Check out the Internet Archive’s full IA2046 site, which includes a timeline of a dystopian future of the web and a variety of resources related to preventing it.

Going deeper

  • Read our coverage of the Digital Dark Age
  • From 01998: Read a recap of our Time & Bits conference, which focused on the issue of digital continuity. Perhaps ironically, some of the links no longer work.
  • For another possible future of the internet in 02046, see Kevin Kelly’s 02016 Talk on the Next 30 Digital Years
  • For another view on knowledge preservation, see Hugh Howey’s 02015 Talk at the Interval about building The Library That Lasts

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The Long Now Foundation is a nonprofit established in 01996 to foster long-term thinking. Our work encourages imagination at the timescale of civilization — the next and last 10,000 years — a timespan we call the long now.

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