ARPAnet Ettiquette

 

 

It’s entirely wrong, and it’s the road back to the cave. The way we got out of the caves and into modern civilisation is through the process of understanding and thinking. Those things were not done by gut instinct. -Professor Brian Cox

 

Chapter 1: Fluent in Eyebrow

In keeping with the last few blog posts by William Kilbride and Sarah Higgins, I am going to share my version of the proverbial experience of explaining information profession jobs to outsiders. In my case, a mildly awkward social interaction slightly intensified by my immigration status. For a year or so I waffled on how to describe my work to UK Border Control without arousing suspicion. Was that quizzical eyebrow code for: What kind of criminal can’t even explain her own job in fewer than 20 words?  

In the beginning, I thought I had it nailed with: ‘I’m a trained archivist working in development of new methods for digital content’.

 

Border Agent: ‘Huh, okay, so scanning photos and things like that?’

Me: ‘Mmmm, yeah, close enough.’

 

Later I adapted my approach in hopes of clarifying: ‘I work for a non-profit that supports organisations managing digital stuff’.

 

Border Agent: *blank stare*

Me: ‘So am I free to go?’

 

I have learned, though, that shorter is better and now simply say: ‘I’m a researcher’.

 

Thankfully, this exchange has become rote with UK Visas and Immigration. The equivalent conversation in social contexts, however, often delivers a further plot twist when they find out exactly what I research.

 

Me: ‘I’m a researcher.’

Friend’s Husband: ‘Interesting, what field are you in? I have a cousin working on his PhD in molecular biology.’

Me: ‘I don’t actually work in academe. I’m a researcher for a non-profit in the archives sector. At the moment, I’m working on a few projects looking at the long-term preservation of the web and social media.’

Friend’s Husband: *quizzical eyebrow*

 

That quizzical eyebrow translates closer to: ‘Why on earth would you archive the absolute heap of steaming garbage that is the Internet?’ I can practically see the visions of malicious Twitter trolling and fake clickbait news flash across his eyes.  

My uncanny ability to read eyebrow is largely a result of working in a relatively new area (web archiving) of a relatively new field (digital preservation) of a relatively poorly understood profession (archives, libraries, information management, take your pick). I seem to be in a perpetual state of convincing people that what I do is important.

What the world sees are paper-filers (‘Actually Tom that’s an office administrator’) and book-shelvers (‘Yes, Sally, sometimes I put books on shelves, but we mostly employ students for that’). They don’t see the tireless work of ensuring transparent government that can be held to account. Or the daunting task of helping a physicist working in thermodynamics and statistical mechanics manage the data from her 6-year research project. Despite these heroic feats, most of us making our living in the memory or information sectors have likely experienced the indignation of having to explain why our work is important.

I’ve found, the best approach is to tell a story. So that even if my friend’s husband, or Tom, or Sally walk away with absolutely no idea what I actually do, at least they leave with a heightened awareness of the digital content they create and share and download online. And sorry about the Twitter trolls – as much as we’d all love for history to forget them, in their own way, they’ve had a significant impact on society. Like Nazis, and Paul Dacre.

 

Chapter 2: In the Beginning

The Internet has many stories, with more unfolding every day – the right to be forgotten, net neutrality, and the Internet of Things are only 3 of the many narratives stippling the headlines every morning. But my favourite story – and the one I’m going to tell today that convinces me why web archiving is important – is the first story. The genesis of the Internet. ARPAnet, Usenet, TCP/IP, young Vint Cerf, and the birth of a technology that revolutionised the world at an unprecedented rate. (Except for maybe when some comets from outer space wiped out the dinosaurs, but that’s up for debate.)

In a 2011 article in IEEE Annals of the History of Computing (yes, the history of computing has annals), Stephen J. Lukasik, former honcho at the DoD, gives an account of the origins of ARPAnet, the predecessor to the Internet we know today: 

 

‘Writing from the viewpoint of the person who signed most of the checks for Arpanet's development, in this article, I detail the rationale for investing US Department of Defense resources for research and development of the first operational packet-switched network. The goal was to exploit new computer technologies to meet the needs of military command and control against nuclear threats, achieve survivable control of US nuclear forces, and improve military tactical and management decision making. Although not central to the decision to pursue networking, it was recognized that these capabilities were common to non-defense needs.’ [1]

 

(Just an aside to note that technology originally funded to prevent nuclear attacks has led to a global communications platform where the Commander in Chief of the US Military can taunt the most dangerous nuclear threat in the world with juvenile insults. I suppose I’m not really selling my argument here for the importance of preserving the Web. Let’s move on.)

 

Another important aspect of this statement by Lukasik comes at the end of that passage: ‘… it was recognised that these capabilities were common to non-defense needs.’ It was almost an after-thought that people might want to use this communications platform – capable of transmitting information almost instantly over massive geographic distances – for purposes other than preventing nuclear attacks.

As ARPAnet expanded to a network of universities across the country, the latent power of this new technology – I mean of course the social power – became more fully recognised. Albeit, this 'other' function was still officially subordinate to the primary function of government research.

A 1982 user manual for ARPAnet, ‘Getting Started Computing at the AI Lab’, circulated at MIT instructed:

 

‘It is considered illegal to use the ARPAnet for anything which is not in direct support of Government business. At the Al lab, we use the network to talk to other researchers about all kinds of things. For example, personal messages to other ARPAnet subscribers (for example, to arrange a get-together or check and say a friendly hello) are generally not considered harmful. This is one of the ways in which we adapt the network environment to our community. It is very clear that without that sort of freedom, the network could not have evolved to its current point of technical and social sophistication.’

 

As this user manual argues, the secondary social function of ARPAnet actually contributed to technical advances. While the manual still echoes funder mandates, it makes a point of asserting that the community aspect of the technology was equally as important as ‘Government business’. The manual goes so far as to defend the use of ARPAnet for social interactions as a necessary freedom for making progress.

As we all know, it did not take long for these ‘new computer technologies to meet the needs of military command’ to be requisitioned more fully for use as a social instrument. We are social creatures – even Ivory Tower dwellers are not immune to the benefits of a ‘friendly hello’. Whether that be in the form of an email, a gif of a furry animal, or a distant family member beaming in through your laptop.

 

And behold, Chapter 3: Usenet

By 1979, two computer science researchers at Duke University had conceived of a news sharing network, initially referred to as ‘poor man’s ARPAnet’, to share messages, files, and news announcements. By 1980 Usenet became the first incarnation of the Internet forum, hosting ‘newgroups’ on topics from computer science to the ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ sciences to ‘discussion on controversial topics’.

As one Internet historian observes:

 

‘In the beginning, Usenet was largely a forum for discussing computing issues. Gradually it became necessary to designate specific topic areas so that discussions of classic cars, for example, would not obscure threads about the Internet.’ [2]

 

In a relatively short span of time (a little over 10 years), this invention evolved from military intelligence tech to a chat room about classic cars and Joy Division. If that doesn’t exemplify the spirit of the Internet, I don’t know what does. Human history is full of examples of remarkable and unlikely invention and innovation. From written language to vaccines to space travel, as a race we have changed the world so profoundly time and again that almost every generation has its own ‘end of history’ prophet. Among the many contenders, the Internet will surely become another development that creates a chasm between ‘the world before’ and ‘the world after’. If contemporary dystopian fiction is any indicator, the Internet has come to be the difference between darkness and light. Being in the world, or being out.

 

Chapter 4: Why You Should Care

The Internet has an even greater power beyond its own invention: the power of facilitating and accelerating many other inventions and creations. If we can put aside shameless clickbait ads for a moment, the Internet and the World Wide Web have generated some amazing things. And I don’t just mean Ed Balls’ Ed Balls tweet. Or even the aww subreddit. Many national web archives and universities, for example, have been systematically harvesting (‘copying’) political candidate campaign websites. That’s every campaign promise. Every manifesto and statement about values. In 2016, in anticipation of the presidential end of term, the Internet Archive and partners began archiving the White House and official US government web estate. And the world did not miss when the Trump administration promptly began deleting climate change and LGBT rights immediately upon taking power. But history won’t forget … because of web archivists. We don’t seem like obscure little dungeon-dwelling dweebs now, do we, huh Tom? What do you have to say now Sally? You’re welcome, Border Agent.

Besides the importance of individual websites, from campaign websites to news outlets to web-based art, the volumes of information on the web have created a smorgasbord of data for quantitative researchers. Using computational analytics to discover and measure major trends on the web, researchers from many different backgrounds have begun to develop a rich and valuable understanding of modern society. Even Tom and Sally can experiment with some basic web analytics using the UK Web Archive Shine tool. Want to know how many times ‘cat’ was mentioned on the UK web between 1996 and 2013? Well, here ya go…. Apparently 2005 was an excellent year for cats.

But we don’t want to overlook to importance of the small in the excitement over all the really big. As Gabriela Redwine writes in her Technology Watch Report on Personal Digital Archiving

 

An individual’s personal digital content ‘… can be as banal as a text message confirming a meeting time, or as significant as a digital video of a baby’s first steps. The meaning of digital files can change over time. The text message that initially seems inconsequential may take on vital significance if it ends up being the last communication from a loved one’.

 

The Internet has become a treasure trove of personal narratives, family photos, and videos of memorable moments. Whether the national institutions and major publishers of online content are being responsible about preservation or not, you – you, reading this – should care about your own web and social media content. The web is not a storage service – it’s a publication platform. Social media is not a secure lockbox for your memories and experiences with family and friends. But how many people are careful to keep copies and back-ups of all the content they share online? How many of us make sure all those old photos from our first trip abroad exist somewhere besides Facebook? Have you checked if that ridiculous video you posted on YouTube with your close friend is still even online (especially since the phone it was recorded on has disappeared since he passed away)?

Collectively speaking, wouldn’t it be tragic if we lost all traces of our lived experience – the conversations, the photo albums, the videos, the blog posts? Just because the Internet gives us access to everything – any morsel of information we require – in an instant, does that mean history is over? That our collective memory and experience no longer mean anything? I seriously doubt, Tom, when you are 92 years old, living in a house completely controlled by voice activation (or possibly mind-reading) that prepares your meals and takes your temperature and allows your grandkids to appear as live holograms in your living room, or even to arrive safely at your door via Waymo, that you will think history is worthless. Who will keep your memory alive? Who will capture the fabric of your life and weave it into the grander narrative of history?

I am. We are. Researchers. Web Researchers. Archivists. Web Archivists. Memory Keepers. History Weavers. Without a concerted effort to preserve the web and innovate ways to use and apply archived content, we risk losing a huge chunk of human knowledge and art and progress. As Professor Brian Cox said in response to the anti-expert sentiment during the EU Referendum campaigning:

 

‘It’s entirely wrong, and it’s the road back to the cave. The way we got out of the caves and into modern civilisation is through the process of understanding and thinking. Those things were not done by gut instinct.’

 

If we don’t archive the web we lose an entire generation’s worth of understanding and thinking. We go backwards, we suffer as a society and as a race.

 

So Tom. So Sally. So husband of friend I just met. That is why you should care about web archiving.

 

Sorry, no open source URL:

[1] Stephen J. Lukasik, ‘Why the Arpanet Was Built’, IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, Volume 33, Number 3, July-September 2011

[2] Michael A. Banks, On the Way to the Web: The secret history of the Internet and its founders, 2008, Berkeley, CA: Apress.

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