As the Wayback Machine celebrates its 25th anniversary, it takes a stab at portraying an ad-riddled, thought-policed future. Enter a URL to learn why what you can access today will be banned 25 years from now. This thought experiment, meant to stoke our Orwellian anxieties, is a call to action, urging readers to become advocates for archives.

But is the age of pop-ups really when knowledge started being at-risk? George Orwell didn’t use a VPN, but understood how access to information shapes the world we live in; “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” The democratization, or wide-spread availability, of knowledge, is a post- and pre-internet fight, and framing it as such may help us find practical and enduring solutions.

We, the Hacker Class

But how do we fight this fight? We hack; or, As Wark puts it, “we create the possibility of new things entering the world.” Through this approach, we can hack code, poetry, music, anything. 

In the case of inventions like the Wayback machine, we find ourselves at the intersection of hacking and access to information, or, archiving. Yes, archiving. Let’s take a look at how this often-overlooked process has both impacted how we think and made hacking accessible to everyone.

Knowledge in the Margins: Problematizing the Dewey Decimal System

So the big idea here is: how we store knowledge affects that knowledge and even creates new knowledge in the process. This knowledge-storing and -making process is what information anxiety is typically a response to. How we shape what we know has the power to change the thing we know. But does this really happen?

When Melvil Dewey was developing a classification system for the library at Amherst College, he had one major goal: give these young Christian men the best classical education the late-nineteenth-century could offer. Now, over 100 years later, the Dewey Decimal System is still the most widely used library classification method in the world.

melvin dewey

But systems like this are universal and timeless, right? A quick look at the Religion section may show otherwise.

If you’re looking for a topic relating to Christianity, you get to peruse entries 220-289. Any other religion, you go to 290-299. While each range is enough to accommodate its category, the difference shows bias, one so glaring that the OCLC has been offering an alternative religion sorting system since 2000. The classic way makes perfect sense for a seminarian, but most neighborhood libraries implement it, too. From this Christian-centric framework, topics that the system doesn’t serve are more likely to fall through the cracks. 

So what can we take away? Even the most ubiquitous ways of sorting knowledge bring with them ideas about how knowledge should be sorted, saved, and prioritized. But we need to organize this overgrowing pile of stuff! Or, at least, some poor archivist has to.

How to remember stuff: Hackers and archivists

Storing knowledge and media used to be rare, but now we all do it. In a sense, we’ve all become hackers, creating our own system of categorization and prioritization for the information we ourselves control. (Candidly, we don’t do a very good job of it, but that’s another blog post.) The individual approach to saving stuff is a fairly new phenomenon in human history, predated mostly by institutional approaches; museums, colleges, libraries, things with resources and four walls. So what is the impact of our pocket-sized archives?

If you’ve ever wandered through a library, you’ve probably seen their archives; framed, yellowed documents, weak-spined books behind glass, things that, at some point, someone decided were worth preserving. Letters, diaries, and recipe books jockey for space as archivists pick and choose which ones stay and which ones go.

Mundane Metadata

Now the digital archive solves the space problem. So well in fact, that it makes a new one. With so much space, things become hard to find all over again. Out of the digital everything, how will people look for stuff?

You’re probably familiar with the concept of metadata, or, data about data. You’ve experienced it as keywords, sorting criteria, shoeboxes with “World War I” scribbled on them, any data about data that usually helps someone know what they’re looking at. Using metadata, archivists try to predict how someone would go about finding the thing they’re looking for. 

But now that archiving is an everyday digital process, anyone can decide what we save. As a result, our daily digital hygiene is its own kind of archiving. It’s not a coincidence that we call collections of music, photos, etc. our “libraries.” We act as librarians to our own archives, hackers who curate information for ourselves and (whether we like it or not) for others. How we manage information in our lives, however redundant, creates metadata—more information.

There are Hackers in the Future

My first time using Wayforward Machine I was told Facebook was unusable in my country (which, given recent events, was more humorous than scary.) Window after window popped up and I had nowhere left to click. However, using the Wayforward Machine yielded similar results to other pop-up riddled sites, like using without an adblocker. A subtle irony in both cases; using things the way it is assumed we should makes each thing unusable.

And there is no shortage of hacker-made solutions to built-in problems, real or doomsaid. Today, these inconveniences are passively solved by plug-ins and simple features that make the internet usable. Extra-technical interventions, things as mundane as ad blockers and password keeps, remind us that how we are supposed to experience the Internet is different from the way we hack it.

Given the bleak thought experiment, I hope that the Wayforward Machine shows the future of a user who has yet to set up their VPN. Transforming our add-ons into optimism, we can hopefully remember technology never moves in a straight path. It winds in tandem with the storied history of hackers. The ingenuity of the everyday hacker will continue to open up the internet of tomorrow, the same way it improves the internet of today. So what “inventions” have yet to come?