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Preserving the Internet of the Past, Building the Internet of the Future

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The internet is so ingrained in our daily lives, that it can be hard to remember life before it. And it changes so quickly it’s equally hard to know what the future might hold. One thing that’s clear is that more and more people will be connected and doing more and different things with this technology.

It’s a bit tricky to pinpoint when the internet began. Was it the first email? The first public network? What we do know is exactly when we started keeping a record of what’s on the web - October 26, 1996.

That’s the day Brewster Kahle launched Internet Archive. A computer engineer, internet activist, and digital librarian, Kahle draws inspiration from the Library of Congress and – further back – the great Library of Alexandria. Universal access to all knowledge is his ideal.

As early as 1980, the idea that internet technology could make that possible was floating around the computer science community. As technology improved, the idea grew. By 1996, Kahle could archive every page from every website every two months.   

“It was kind of like what the search engines were doing,” he told WCAI. “Take a snapshot, and another snapshot, and another snapshot, and another snapshot, and we’ve been doing that for 20 years.”

Twenty years of the web is a lot of data. The archive is currently 265 billion pages. Internet Archive also includes music, digitized books, and just about anything Kahle can legally get his hands on.   

“Whoever is going to be president in 20 years, we probably have her website [from] when she’s in high school,” he said.

That may seem unnecessary, even unwelcome, to some. Kahle concedes there is plenty on the web that isn’t intended for posterity, and Internet Archive respects requests to have content removed. But he sees value in preserving web content that might be lost inadvertently. 

“Even though we use this metaphor of ‘page,’ which sounds like books, which sounds like permanent, it really isn’t,” he said. “The average life of a web page is only 100 days.”

In the Internet Archive, those ephemeral pages become part of a permanent record of our collective internet experience. Browsing the Internet Archive, one lesson is immediately apparent – that experience has changed a lot in twenty years.  

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Re-imagining the Information Superhighway

The content we consume and share, the games we play, the online stores where we shop - those are really just the outermost layer of the internet. On-line innovation, whether new search engines, social media platforms, or ways of exchanging payments, are enabled – in part – by the underlying structure of the internet.

“The internet is a very simple data transport mechanism between computers,” said David Clark, a senior research scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and co-director of the MIT Communications Futures Program. “You put the bites in one side and they come out the other side. And the idea of that service is that you can build anything on top of it.”

Think of it this way: the internet is a system of roads, websites and apps are cars, and users are drivers.

“If the road didn’t admit cars that were more than three feet wide, we’d have very different cars,” said Clark. “The road was intended to be general. And you think about the internet the same way.”

But building an open, flexible internet that enables as many opportunities as possible didn’t just happen. The creators of the internet had to choose it.

Clark is one of the fathers of what known as the end-to-end principal. Basically, the idea is that the internet should be as decentralized as possible. Important functions should happen as close to the user as possible, without involving some central hub.

In other words, you shouldn’t have to drive to the capital of your state and ask permission to go to the grocery store, or even to open a new one.

Clark is part of efforts to imagine and design the internet of the future. That includes rethinking the technology and structure of networks. But, discussions with those outside the computer science community have revealed that much concern about the future of the internet is focused on uses and behaviors that can’t be addressed at a structural level.

“There’s only so much you can do to shape society’s use of the highway system by the design of the roads,” said Clark. “Yeah, you put in a superhighway or you don’t. But that’s not the best place you get control if you’re worried about things like drunk drivers.”

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OpenCape - broadband internet for the Cape and Islands

Still, in many rural parts of the country – including Cape Cod and the Islands – those superhighways have yet to be built.

“On the Cape and Islands you really have one provider […] and, unfortunately, they’re just saddled with legacy systems – whether it’s coaxial or copper,” says Steve Johnston, chief executive and executive director of OpenCape Corporation. “It simply doesn’t provide the greatest opportunity […] to transfer data at the highest rates. “

Being able to transfer gigabits of data every second may not seem like a absolute necessity, but Johnston argues it is an essential economic driver in today’s world.

OpenCape is an effort to bring the opportunities of universal broadband access to southeastern Massachusetts. To date, the non-profit organization has laid more than four hundred miles of fiber on Cape Cod and set up a microwave connection for Martha’s Vineyard.

“To use David’s analogy, we have an Autobohn of internet connectivity here on the Cape and Islands,” said Johnston. “We just have to work on building more exits.”

Those exits could connect towns, businesses, schools, and individuals. OpenCape is currently gauging public interest through their CrowdFiber initiative.