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How to Preserve the Internet's First Steps

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While most of us would dread to ever lay our eyes on a photo of us during our awkwardly formative years, it's comforting to know that those documents exist should we ever be in a weird enough mood to stomach them. Same goes for book reports, high school essays, and slides of drunken college parties. They're saved. There's a paper trail.

The internet, on the other hand, doesn't have that luxury. Once something's removed from a website, it's likely gone for the ages. There are already some methods of preserving earlier incarnations of websites, such as the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine, Herbert Van de Sompel's Memento system, and Google's cached pages, for example. But those systems still lack the hardware each site ran on -- and occasionally an animated GIF or two from a Geocities site.

However, Jim Boulton of the London web content agency Story Worldwide is opening an exhibition of what he described to New Scientist as the "first archaeological dig of the web." After compiling a wish list of websites they've like to see again, Boulton and his team have tracked down the hardware which hosted the original servers. Boulton says, "These machines are very fragile." Adding, "Some of the monitors are on the verge of burning out, and some of the hard drives are on the brink of failing."

The team wanted to preserve the actual feel of browsing the web during its infancy -- something that's lacking in the Wayback Machine and Memento.

"The Wayback Machine is a decent effort, but you don't see it in the context of the time," he told New Scientist. "You only see the website, you don't see the hardware or software it was shown on, so you don't get the full experience."

While Boulton has restored the early versions of Kylie Minogue's site as well as one from the digital advertising agency Antirom -- viewable on a laptop built in 1995 -- it's impossible to extend this exhibition to every corner of the web. Millions of sites have come and gone, lost in a digital vapor. Never to be seen again.

And as little as I want to see my HTML skills from my 1996 Simpsons-themed software site called Homer's Warez, it would be nice to have an original copy of it.
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