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Is the Internet rotten?

June 2002

It came as quite a shock when I read recently that the Internet is rotting. Two researchers monitored 550 links over a period of 20 months and found that at the end of that period many of them no longer worked--a phenomenon often referred to as "link rot."

How bad is link rot? During that period nearly 20 percent of the links had rotted away. This included about 11 percent of the .org links, 18 percent of the .edu links, and 42 percent of the .com links.

Oh my gosh. What's your Internet columnist going to do if the Internet rots away before our very eyes? I could always write a column about hamsters.

Actually, once I got over my shock, I was exhilarated by the notion of link rot. I feel it's helping me to understand the nature of the Internet--and more.

First of all, despite link rot the number of accessible web pages on the Internet continues to explode. Tell me, does this sound familiar? What other system are your familiar with in which some things go away and new things are born? Hint: it has four letters, begins with an "L" and is spelled "life." The Internet, as link rot suggests, seems to have characteristics of living systems.

This point has been brought home to me in other ways, as well. In the long, long ago era when the web was young--say back in 1994--and I was teaching workshops in which I introduced newbies to use the Internet, I would often get asked the same two questions: Who owns the Internet? and Where's the Main Menu? Today, the answer is obvious to all you power users: the Internet is owned by many many different people and organizations, and there's no single Main Menu and all-encompassing directory.

These two newbie questions give insight into the nature of the Internet: it's organized in the way that life is organized--it's sprawling, variegated, and dynamically changing and evolving. It's out of control. No Main Menu. And that's part of what gives it its power. There could never be Main Menu and a comprehensive, perfectly accurate directory simply because of this unfettered growth and flux.

So what? So, the Internet is like life and is decentralized, dynamic, and evolving. So what? It's just this: I think the Internet can help us understand the intelligence that's at the basis of life.

Think of this fact: 99.99 percent of all species that have ever lived have become extinct. So many dinosaurs gone down, occasionally leaving hints of their existence in rocky images of their bones. And yet, scientists now tell us that the dinosaurs live on--as the little birdies we know and love. Dinosaurs evolved into birds. Deep in the cells of birds are remnants of dinosaur DNA.

What is DNA? In a sense, it's simply intelligence--the orderly and specific arrangement of four particular organic compounds. The precise and orderly arrangement of DNA is the intelligence that structures every living thing.

Life is this protean, shape-shifting intelligence. Sure, 99.99 percent of all species have gone down, but the DNA remains, evolves, creates life ever anew. It's the intelligence that's constant, and the forms that change.

What does all this have to do with the Internet? The Internet seems to have this protean, ever-creating characteristic of life. Nobody would ever have guessed back in 1993 that the World Wide Web would grow the way it has. In a sense, it was intelligence unleashed, just as life itself is like the intelligence of DNA unleashed.

It's so sad. I'm nearing the end of my column and still haven't quite figured out my point. It may be that the Internet, like life, is self-propagating and self-organizing. It's self-propagating in the sense that no one ever said, "OK, now lets create a billion web pages." It just sort of happened on its own, with people all over the world contributing. And the fact that some links rot away doesn't damage the overall system suggests that in a way it's self-organizing.

In short, I'm convinced that not only is the Internet fun and useful and all that, but also helps us understand various properties of the intelligence that underlies life. That's quite a lot to infer from link rot. But that's how your Internet columnist thinks.

© 2001 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

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