Brewster Kahle is an unassuming man. But as an internet pioneer and digital librarian, he may rightly be called a founding father of the Open Culture ethos. In 1996, Kahle began work on the Internet Archive, a tremendously important project that acts as a safety net for the memory hole problem of Internet publishing. Kahle developed technology that finds and aggregates as much of the internet as it is able in his massive digital library.
Along with the archive, which Open Culture has drawn from many a time, comes Kahle’s “Wayback Machine,” named for the time-traveling device in a Rocky and Bullwinkle segment featuring the genius dog Mr. Peabody and his pet boy Sherman (the cartoon spelled it as an acronym: WABAC). The “Wayback Machine,” as you probably know, logs previous versions of websites, holding on to the web’s past like classic paper libraries hold on to an author’s papers. (Here’s what we looked like in 2006.)
In the animated adventures of Peabody and Sherman, the Wayback Machine was a monstrous contraption that occupied half of Peabody’s den. And while we often think of Internet space as limitless and disembodied, Kahle’s Internet Archive is also physically housed, in a former Christian Science church now lined with towering servers that store digitized books, music, film and other media for free access. It’s an impressive space for an impressive project that will likely expand past its physical boundaries. As Kahle says above, “it turns out there is no end; the web is, in fact, infinite.”
Kahle is deeply invested in data. The challenges of maintaining the Internet Archive are immense, including translating old, unplayable formats to new ones. But what Kahle calls the greatest challenge is the perennial threat to all libraries: “they burn.” And he’s committed to designing for that eventuality by making copies of the archive and distributing them around the world. If you’re interested in what motivates Kahle, you should watch his 2007 TED talk above. He frames the business of archiving the internet as one of making available “the best we have to offer” to successive generations. “If we don’t do that,” Kahle warns, “we’re going to get the generation we deserve.” It’s a warning worth heeding, I think.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness