the Internet rotten?
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.