I wonder if there’s a lunatic out there who is frantically printing out page after page of the Internet for fear of its impending destruction. This destruction could be for any number of reasons, including politics, nuclear war, or alien invasion. Perhaps he sits alone in his Unabomber-style shack with a couple of dozen inkjets, crawling the web and harvesting sites to preserve our modern culture for posterity.
Doubtless, there are institutions eager to maintain archival copies of websites; a quick Google search yielded the International Internet Preservation Consortium and a paper by Margaret Phillips entitled “The Preservation of Internet Publications,” which essentially advocates the work of groups such as the aforementioned.
As an aside, it would make me quite happy (even giddy) if you’re reading this a number of years in the future on any location other than the server hosting www.cghm.org, which is currently located somewhere in the southwest U.S. It would make me somewhat happy if this article were still formatted in HTML and the links above were no longer functional because the Internet Preservation Consortium was unable to maintain its self-preservation.
The problem is that none of the resources to which I gave a cursory glance are eager to create physical copies of their massive hordes of information. Phillips’ paper seems to make a fleeting mention of the concept (emphasis added), although in passing it is decried by the author:
We also need preservation techniques including refreshing, migration, emulation and possibly (although this is not a favoured option) hardware and software museums.
Archiving the Internet in physical form would indubitably be a momentous and costly undertaking, but might it be worth it in the long run? Phillips raises several important issues with web archiving which are not necessarily restricted to the physical manifestation of the Internet, not the least of which raises the question of who should be in charge of such a task. Independent, non-government sponsored, international committees are probably best suited to the work, but their funding would surely be limited.
In many ways, losing the information from the Internet would not greatly diminish the profundity of mankind. Although exact figures are currently unknown, much of the Internet may fall into several disposable categories: pornographic, advertising-related, redundant, superfluous, or patently offensive. Preserving these materials in a datacenter with nearly limitless amounts of virtual storage space is one thing, but physical copies of such material would be unnecessary. Still, the proposition of an agency, consortium, or commission scouring what could be hundreds of billions or even trillions of pages of material and then selectively printing copies seems unfathomable.
It is not, however, unfathomable to see some crazy little man doing it on his own. Perhaps one day this will be revealed to be the case, and I want to personally meet the guy so I can have a good laugh at him.