The Internet Archive and history

The Internet Archive aims to provide 'universal access to all knowledge'. This project began 1996 and is ongoing, so far preserving over 300 billion webpages and quite a few million books and other, more weighty materials such as computer programs.

One could argue that The Internet Archive shares the same strengths and weaknesses as Funes in Jorge Luis Borges' short story 'Funes the Memorious'.

Funes is injured, his personality and thinking change. Now Funes remembers everything, sometimes thought of as a gift but also a limitation.

Faced with all details he is unable to have distance, unable to make proper abstractions since abstraction, in the end, is about increasing the distance between a material of some sort and a stance.

What can we do with the Internet Archive? How should we use it? It's up to us, as individuals but also as a community - or rather communities.

The German philosopher Nietzsche, always mixing cat-gold with the real thing, asked this very question in his essay 'The use and abuse of history' (1874). He fixated three broad categories on history and implicitly memory:

In history as an academic field, both in the philosophy of science concerned with history as in actual research about some part of history, all categories tend to be present. But usually, the second and the last category are stronger.

When we use history as a monument, Nietzsche argues, we only care about the future and therefore don't use the past to our advantage (we don't learn from history). On the other hand, if we're all too concerned about the past, we don't really use it at all - while we always move forward in time, so to speak, we're still 'present' in the past.

Nietzsche is a proponent of the last category: he wants to use history 'critically' as he puts it. And criticism is about distinctions, selections, and having substantiated opinions.

This category produce knowledge, but not necessarily knowledge aligned to science. On the other hand, as the now old discussion about tacit knowledge claims, perhaps we should neither underestimate or put scientific knowledge as a norm in all and every context?

By definition scientific knowledge is limited. This is its downside, while its obvious upside is that we have means to say we have good causes to hold this or that proposition for true in this or that specific context.

Nothing I say here is new. Everything has been discussed during modernity and is still being discussed in academia. However, how we answer such questions is not only a concern for academia. It's also a concern for individuals and culture.

How do I use The Internet Archive? I use it for personal amusement and nostalgia. I look at the first preserved memory of me Online, dated 1996. (I've since changed my surname to have the same as my children, and I did not use my full first-name, Claes-Magnus.) In nostalgia I look at a page about Tolkien me and friend made, I look at a page me and another friend produced with our company in high-school. Now aged 37, a developer again after re-schooling at the age of 34, this is so much fun.

Is this useful? No, only amusing on a personal level.

I know of initiatives using the Internet Archive for good things. But I can't say I've looked for them and my guess is you'll find plenty of interesting research projects (as well as others) if you would investigate this.

But still, I don't think the Internet Archive is very widely known. And if it is not, we should make more people becoming aware of it. Using it for personal amusement is a start. But we should also ask questions about how could use it in serious contexts.

A project aiming for 'universal access to all knowledge' is beautiful. Very much like similar projects in the tradition of the Enlightenment such as the french Encyclopedia.

Something being beautiful and interesting (or just amusing) is good enough. But in this case, I think we could do more. But it's not in those terms we should think about its use-cases.

Note something. The Internet Archive can be used for good things. But you don't need much imagination to use it for bad things. This is why every project of technology needs to ask questions about uses and misuses, whenever we as developers in a wide sense realize, yes - we can do this.

We should ask: should we? What consequences would most likely follow? How do we use this knowledge to make an ever so small contribution to the betterment of humanity? Equally true for products stemming from business as from some other initiatives. However unrelated we perceive this, applications stemming from some business often do better the quality of people's lives, interpreted very broadly.

Let's use the Internet Archive more. And let's use it wisely. That is, with intelligence, creativity, reflectivity, and awareness of history.

In the end, let's make a small correction: The Internet Archive have no relevant strengths nor weaknesses in the same was as Funes do. He's an actor, The Internet Archive is in essence not. The only strength or weakness we can speak about is technological: how much is preserved? How do we reach the material? And so on.

The Internet Archive is a vessel just like the Web; let's head in the right direction.