Somebody forgot to take out the garbage on the information superhighway

Illustration by Bob AulIn the summer of 1996, while working as a designer for Time-Warner's gargantuan, inelegant Pathfinder Web site, Steve Baldwin had an epiphany about the World Wide Web. Out boating on Long Island Sound one balmy night, a vision came to him from out of the depths. As it appeared to Baldwin's apocalyptic eye, the Web "wasn't a friendly place—an innocent place of community, commerce and chat. It was a great, utterly pitiless electronic ocean that swallowed up sites, careers and venture capital like a ravenous killer whale."

What Baldwin realized was that along with explosive Internet growth came a kind of digital carnage. "Great sites were going down with all hands," he thought. All around him, as he surveyed the inflationary cosmos of the Web, he saw the carcasses of dead and abandoned sites—sites no one was maintaining, sites with no connection to the present, sites that had simply ceased to be relevant. No one seemed to care. Who "would record these days of New Media folly, disaster and despair?" he wondered.

As a public service, Baldwin launched Ghostsites, his own "modest attempt to document the great crewless fleet of Web sites sinking beneath the waves." Now reincarnated under the sheltering umbrella of (, Baldwin's Ghostsites is a key vantage point from which to view the ever-growing number of rusting hulks on the electronic sea. Sites such as that for Woodstock '94, where until recently you could still follow a breathless countdown to the opening chord of the concert, or study detailed maps of the grounds so your minivan wouldn't get stuck in the mud. (Strangely, this site seems to have gone into some kind of digital Bermuda Triangle; links now deliver you to an apparently unrelated business site.)

Or take one of Ghostsites' current monthly picks, a doozy of a site constructed by and devoted to the amazing life of Dr. Frederick Lenz, a.k.a. Rama. Before he chose to end his own life in 1998, Lenz was an eclectic techno-guru who attracted into his cultish fold a number of prominent members of the Silicon Valley elite. A computer-systems architect, snowboarder, surfer, martial-arts expert, Buddhist teacher, musician, record producer and author, Lenz in his incarnation as Rama received advice from the higher powers of "Master Fwap and the Oracle." Lenz/Rama's adventures are chronicled in such classics as Surfing the Himalayas and Snowboarding to Nirvana. Sadly, since the duo's demise, their Web site has been left to rot.

Consider also the "Gadget" Web site, which bills itself as "the newsletter for grown-up kids." According to Ghostsites' commentary, "This sad, rusty site once functioned as a somewhat unsystematic guide to gadgetry, electronic gizmos and mechanical what-nots." Despite lavish production values, the site appears to have been killed off soon after its launch; just a handful of gadgets were ever reviewed, and its last update was in October '98.

Observers of Net necrosis can add their own favorite corpses to Ghostsites' archives using the cunning Ghost-o-meter, a small window that lurks on your PC desktop, enabling instant capture of digital wraiths.

Unfettered by any regulations, Baldwin notes, these drifting hulks are far from innocuous; increasingly, he says, they "pose a pesky nuisance to Net navigation." Austin, Texas-based science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling (author of Holy Fire) is also troubled by the buildup of Internet debris. "The ghost sites are really scary," he says. "There's going to be this increasing rind of 'living' stuff online surrounding a growing core of dead sites."

And not just dead sites, also dead links—promising-looking connections that go nowhere. "Link rot," Sterling calls it, and as anyone who has spent much time on AltaVista or Yahoo knows, it's another pervasive problem online. As the philosophical fountainhead of the Dead Media Project, a major online effort aimed at cataloging all forms of dead media (from neolithic notched bones, to Betamax videotape and defunct computer platforms), Sterling is a sort of unofficial expert in dead communications technologies. His interest in the necrotic face of the Internet is more than passing. Throughout the Net, he says, "Garbage is now endemic." Where Baldwin uses a nautical metaphor, Sterling prefers the classic motoring motif. "It's piling up in the gutters of the information superhighway," he bemoans. "It's not septic, so often there's no way to even tell if it's garbage."

One of the most serious consequences of all this debris is that it gunks up the wheels of search engines. A concrete example: some months ago, I was working on a science story and—as I soon found out—one of the scientists I was researching online had the same last name as the leading actor in a minor Hollywood film from 1997. An AltaVista search under my scientist's name pulled up hundreds of citations, yet almost every one turned out to relate to the forgotten film. I spent hours trawling through the list, trapped in the digital attractor of an out-of-date film, before I finally found a site relevant to my topic. It drove me insane. Nobody, surely, could still be interested in this passé piece of cinema—a turkey even when it was fresh.

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