Using the Wayback Machine to Move Forward

by Derrick Story

While most folks at the Emerging Technology Conference are trying to figure out what tomorrow will bring, Brewster Kahle is using digital technology to catalog where we've been.

Kahle is an Internet pioneer who among other things, invented the Wide Area Information Server (WAIS). He studied artificial intelligence at MIT where he earned his B.S., and he's now applying much of his intelligence toward saving millions of documents, images, thoughts, comments, and ideas from falling into a cultural abyss.

The Internet Archive is an effort to provide universal access to comprehensive collections about our cultural heritage. An aspect of this archive that you may have explored is the Wayback Machine, a catalog of Web pages dating back to the mid 90s.

Listening to Brewster talk during his Tuesday afternoon session was both comforting and alarming. On one hand I was thankful to have someone of his caliber working diligently to preserve the content that comprised one of the most phenomenal leaps in communication that society has ever seen -- the Web.

On the other hand I was wondering, what were we thinking? I can't believe that our culture is so short-sighted that we didn't have a mechanism in place to record and preserve our own history.

Ask folks you know what they've retrieved from the Wayback Machine. Nine out of ten times they're looking for pages that they created years ago and didn't archive themselves. Were we that distracted while exploring this new frontier called the Internet? Maybe we were too busy creating content to consider preserving it too.

I'm a big fan of Brewster Kahle's work. But his efforts have reminded me that I need to be my own archivist as well as creator. Thank goodness for the Internet Archive. But ultimately Brewster's most important achievement might be his evangelism. Maybe his enthusiasm will help all of us do our part to preserve our cultural heritage.