Brewster Kahle The tech idealist archiving the internet.

Brewster Kahle The tech idealist archiving the internet.

Issue 42


Arts & Culture

  • Words Pip Usher
  • Photograph Gustav Almestål
  • Set Design Andreas Frienholt

As an idealistic technologist studying at MIT in the ’80s, Brewster Kahle was enthralled by the possibilities the internet offered. In 1996, he established the Internet Archive, which he hoped would become “the Library of Alexandria for the digital age.” Today, this free digital resource is used by 1.5 million people daily for its vast, crowdsourced collections of books, live concerts, television shows, software programs and audio recordings. Its most popular project, the Wayback Machine, allows anyone to access its archive of over 600 billion web pages that would otherwise have disappeared into the ether. Here, Kahle explains the human effort that goes into running a digital behemoth.  

PIP USHER: How do you collect content for the Internet Archive? 

BREWSTER KAHLE: There are now 800 different organizations—mostly libraries, universities, museums, historical societies—that participate by giving us lists of URLS and how frequently they should be archived. If they’re interested in South American political elections, or their own institutional things, or zines, then we’ll make those into their collections. They can download them and add them to their digital holdings, which we encourage because lots of copies keeps things safe. But we also have general robots that run around and try to collect as much as we can from homepages and then go down as deeply as we can.

PU: What have you archived recently?

BK: One thing that’s been interesting are 78 rpm records, which came before vinyl.We’ve been digitizing all the ones we can find—all 287,078 rpm records. These are things you’ve never heard: yodeling, people whistling, accordions, Yiddish.

PU: Does some content on the internet have the right to be forgotten? 

BK: Not all of the web was designed for the ages. It could be a painful time in your life that you’d prefer not to be enduringly visible. People write to us and ask to be taken down and we almost always do. But with public figures or politicians there’s other considerations.

PU: You’re based in a former church in San Francisco. What’s the setup?

BK: We’ve installed servers that hold 70 petabytes of data in the sanctuary’s great room. It’s really hard to get a sense of how big this is from a data perspective, but physically it’s kind of manageable. We’ve tried to make physical what for many people is purely virtual. Having people experience the internet by being able to see it—and even touch servers—is really important. We have Friday lunches where people come over and we introduce ourselves and say what we’re up to. We’re trying to lead an open life. 

PU: How have you seen the internet change? 

BK: Twenty years ago, we were running toward a world based on open-source materials. Now if you want to be heard you have to plug into Facebook or get published in someone else’s magazine. The rise of the multinationals means we have fewer and fewer major corporations buying up all the magazines, all the scholarly journals and book publishers. We’re seeing the world through screens, but what’s on those screens is controlled by very few players globally. The heroes of the internet are its people. Hundreds of millions, or billions, of people are participating in the Internet Archive’s radical experiment in sharing. The participation and the trust that people have put toward adding in what they know to the World Wide Web is fabulous.

PU: How might future generations use the Internet Archive? 

BK: I hope it’s displayed in a completely new and different way. What if you could walk into the library and talk to Albert Einstein and he answers in his tone of voice based on his writings? Or what if you could play the music that your parents had at their prom? Let’s do something fun with all this.

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