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Business Unusual

The best way to predict the future is to understand the past

17 February 2021 7:15 PM

Unless we can store what we produce now, we can't learn from it in the future

Thanks to artefacts that remain from the Big Bang we are able to theorise that it took place 13.8 billion years ago.

We have a fairly good idea of how the universe began because it has left a trail of evidence. Human history is at best only a few million years, modern humans less than 100 000 years, yet we have so little left to know what it was like.

A new chapter in learning about the past will begin as the UAE, China and the US all have probes capturing new data about Mars.

The world is producing an incredible amount of data every day, 88 000 YouTube video are watched, 9300 tweets are posted and 2,9 million emails are sent - every second.

There are two challenges, the first is how to store the vast amount of information and the second is how to update it when the technology changes.

The web began on 6 August 1991 when Tim Berners-Lee made the first website live. He was working at CERN and the project would allow fellow researchers to search for content using links rather than having to know which computer to connect to in order to access files stored on that machine. That single page is still live and since then over 1,8 billion more have been added. Despite the incredible growth only a small percentage of those sites might still be active and so their contents are lost.

On the 12th of Jan Flash players died, there was lots of warning although some big sites did get caught out like SARS that used the player for displaying tax forms. At one point 99% of computers were using and a lots of early games were created using it. Do we simply lose it all?

We have one person to thank for the work to save the contents of the web, Brewster Kahle.

He was working on internet technologies before the web and created the method that the 1st internet service provider to function America Online - while South Africa was celebrating winning the Rugby World Cup Americans were be played ads like this one to sell web access.

Kahle was behind the idea that the best model would be to have service providers collect the revenue which would be paid as a royalty to publishers based on how much time you spent online. With hindsight it may have proved a better model than the ad model or even the subscription model - the upsides are that service providers would be guardians for what could be accessed via their services and that users' time spent consuming content would determine the revenue they would receive.

The web would be a very different place had it been adopted.

His other innovation was to create a way to track website popularity with a service that took its name from the library of Alexandria.

In 1996 he sold it to Amazon for a quarter million dollars in shares which at its IPO was $1,50 while it is now a little under $4000.

It lives on in another Amazon product of the same name, when you ask Alexa something it is thanks to Alexa being a good wake word and because it is a hat tip to an ancient library in Africa.

His most ambitious project is the Internet Archive which includes the astounding undertaking to capture the state of the world's websites. Rather than just a link to the current site, the Wayback machine will allow you to visit the site as it was.

One of the first global news stories to be covered online was the 9/11 US terrorist attacks. You may see what the coverage was on sites like CNN and the New York Times by visiting them today, but to see how it was laid out and what else was on the site can only be done by visiting this special digital library.

They have saved many years of audio archives from media companies like the BBC and have an impressive collection of US radio shows dating back to the sixties along with all the tobacco ads too.

They have a growing catalogue of books and made millions of textbooks available online when libraries across the world were closed because of the pandemic.

It is amazing that he had the vision to start the project in 1996 already, before there was a Google, Facebook or YouTube.

In 2012 they had backed up 20 petabytes of data, we can understand a Gigabyte, a thousand of which is a Terabyte and a thousand of those is a petabyte. So a million gigabytes. In 2021 that number is now over 70 petabytes.

There is another hat tip to Africa in that the servers that store all that information use the Ubuntu operating system developed by Mark Shuttleworth.

For Kahle to reject the billions he could have made for himself by making this commercial like Google and Amazon but instead opted to create it like Wikipedia, his small team of about 200 are as a non profit able to do a service for all humanity.

He has inspired others to look at doing the same with Europe having started an archive service to compliment his efforts, sadly it illustrates that this is a difficult undertaking and has itself become defunct. Locally we need to acknowledge the excellent work being done by SA History online. Another small team looking to make our history accessible to all including ambitious scanning projects to save posters and pamphlets that were circulated in effort to end Apartheid.

A collaboration with Internet Archive and Wikipedia allows books citations in Wikipedia entries to not just link to a book sale page, but the actual digitised page of the book that was cited.

We usually remember the people that make historic discoveries, but this is a man that deserves to be remembered for what he saved for future generations and if the Mars probes are an indicator to our future among the stars we will need to take those petabytes of data along with us.

17 February 2021 7:15 PM

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