Internet as Archive, If You Have the Time Commentator Paul Ford says that he used to think that the Internet would make everyone a historian -- but he doesn't think so any more. Ford, an editor at Harper's magazine, is the author of the novel Gary Benchley, Rock Star.
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Internet as Archive, If You Have the Time

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Internet as Archive, If You Have the Time

Internet as Archive, If You Have the Time

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SIEGEL: And even if you're still stuck with dial-up, the Internet has probably changed the way that you get your news. But commentator Paul Ford bets that it hasn't changed your view of history much.

PAUL FORD: People think of the World Wide Web as an ephemeral medium. This huge ocean filled with news and noise. So a funny video or a political scandal will surface like a whale breaching the ocean and everyone points, amazed. Then the whale is gone. The story is sent to the deeps, filed away and indexed in the archives and everyone waits for a new whale.

But the Web's actually not all that ephemeral. You can find things that were written thousands of years ago and anything that gets published sticks around potentially forever. I'm thinking of the New York Times. You know you can get the news free on the Times Web site, but then after a certain interval it drifts into the archives and costs money to access. You need to subscribe to a service or pay a fee to read it.

The Times has decided that there's a barrier between the past and the present, that certain links between pages will be cut in half unless you pay to make the connection. There's profit in splitting the past from the present. What you do to make a big modern news Web site to work is you sell ads to support publishing the new news and get people to pay for the old news.

I used to have this utopian fantasy that in the same way that blogging had made everyone into an amateur publisher, that bigger, broader historical archives would make everyone into an amateur historian. I was sure that real soon now when something huge happened like another crooked election or natural disaster, everyone would just jump on the Web and read about all the similar events that came before and find hidden connections and precedence and the result would be that we'd all understand things as part of a broad historical cycle.

Maybe one day, but the truth is the news organizes itself much more easily than history. I mean it took more than eighteen hundred years after the birth of Christ for Edwin G. Seibles to invent the filing cabinet. And before that it was pigeon holes and envelopes like you see behind the desk in an old hotel. The Web has made it much, much easier to do research, but figuring out what it all means and why anything happened and what's actually going on down in the deeps, that's still the work of historians, professionals and history is still something extra, something you have to pay for.

SIEGEL: Paul Ford is an editor at Harper's Magazine. He's the author of the novel Gary Benchley, Rock Star.

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