A Note on the Disappearing Internet

A while ago, I wrote that the future is local. File this quick note in the same folder.

Tonight I was trying to locate a handy graph showing trends in the construction of shopping malls in the twentieth century to supplement a travel essay I’m working on. I know I’ve seen charts, tables, timelines, and maps which show exactly what I needed, so I thought it would be trivial to find it on Google. Turns out it was easy to find secondary content describing what I wanted, but the primary sources were long gone from the internet. Here’s a great example.

In May 2014, The Washington Post ran a story about the death of American shopping malls. After the usual rambling wind-up to the ad break, the article got to the point: an animated map designed by an Arizona State grad student tracking the construction of malls across space and time in the twentieth century. “Over a century,” Post columnist Emily Badger wrote, “the animation gives a good sense of how malls crept across the map at first, then came to dominate it in the second half of the 20th century.” That is exactly what I wanted! I scrolled up and down the page, looking for a map with “dots… colored by the number of stores in each mall,” but it was nowhere to be found. I clicked a link to the source: nothing. MapStory.org appears to have gone offline sometime in the summer of 2020. Increasingly dismayed, I went back to Google and searched again. This Archinect article, published a few hours after the Post column, embedded the map directly. All that remains now is a blank box. Business Insider was a few days late to the party, but it was the same story there: a blank box where the map used to be.

As a last resort, I turned to the Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive. An archived version of a web app like MapStory appears to have been is never ideal and only rarely works. Sure enough, the archived version of the mall map is just text gore. I’m afraid Sravani Vadlamani’s map is gone, and probably gone forever.

As corporations merge and downsize; as executives and product managers make changes to content retention strategies; as technical standards and fashions in code change over time; and as server upgrades, data loss, simple bit rot, and other forms of entropy accumulate; more and more of these primary sources are going to disappear. In the best-case scenario, dedicated archivists might be able to stay ahead of the chaos and preserve some majority of the information we see every day. Because the last ten years or more of the internet is largely hidden behind the walls of social media, however, the odds that this scenario will prevail are vanishingly small. We should be prepared for a much worse situation: if we don’t make a local copy of the things we see on the internet, they probably won’t be there when we come back.

As an historian, I am troubled by the potential consequences of this fragility. “Darkness” did not prevail in the so-called dark ages of the past because people were less intelligent, inventive, or ambitious than their ancestors. The “darkness” seems to have existed only in retrospect, when later generations recognized a rupture in information between one age and the next. Burning libraries is one way to cause such a rupture. Perhaps networked computers serving dynamically generated content is another. Let us hope not.

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