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 Disobey.com (www.disobey.com/ghostsites), 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.
An AltaVista search on almost any topic now yields an absurd haul of sites, an increasing number guaranteed to be well past their use-by date. Since every film, TV show, novel and product—no matter how minor, how banal, or how temporary its shelf life—now has its own constellation of Web sites, things can only get worse. Much worse.
The problem is that it's so cheap to put stuff up on the Net and, as Sterling says, "It's simpler and cheaper to leave sites there than to pay someone to remove them." Why bother anyway? In the boundlessness of cyberspace, there's no lack of new real estate. "The Internet was designed without a waste basket."
And, according to Sterling, there's very little we can do about it. Nobody online seems to be taking responsibility for cleaning up after himself. And who's to separate the dross from the gold? One person's turkey-movie site is another's cult-classic URL. But why should we act surprised? Fouling our nest seems to be a hallmark of modern humankind. Beginning with the industrial revolution, we first poured the gaseous garbage of spent coal and oil into the air, then the 20th century's wondrous assortment of synthetic chemicals—the dioxins, PCBs, CFCs and so on. Waterways, too, we have befouled, flooding pristine rivers and oceans with rivers and oceans of sewage and industrial sludge. Hell, we have even trashed outer space! The U.S. Space Surveillance Network now keeps track of over 8,000 bits of space debris, most of it left over from old satellites and rocket launches. Even the airwaves are filling with junk, as cell-phone transmissions bleed into the "space" set aside for radio astronomy. Beaches are awash with disposable diapers; public parks are littered with syringes; you trip over Coke cans on rainforest trails. A few years ago, I was on holiday in a remote region of central Australia (1,000 miles from any major city), yet fish in the streams were threatened by the chemicals from sun-block lotions.
Is there no place on Earth free from our junk?
For a short while, cyberspace sparkled as a pristine frontier, a clean and pure space in which we might start afresh. It was a beautiful dream while it lasted.
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