Jason Scott


In a special series Zamzar take a look at some of the people who have helped shape technology and made it what it is today.

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Jason Scott

The first person in that series is Jason Scott; the American archivist who created and maintains textfiles and perhaps most well known for his work involving the Internet Archive.

Early Days

In his early 20s Scott was a temp worker, working in the video games industry before he found his calling as a Unix Admin which was better paid and allowed Scott to just keep the video game work as a sideline – Scott ran a online multi-user game and social space called TinyTIM which still runs today. In a bid to earn some more money Scott worked weekends at Harvard drawing caricatures of people before being closed down by ‘spoilsports’. In 1998 Scott had developed a keen passion for digital archiving and set about creating a site called textfiles which was launched in the year 2000. The idea behind the site was to make available the thousands of BBS textfiles he’d collected in his youth, but which has now expanded greatly in all directions of computer history. The website grew in popularity having received tens of millions of visitors and accumulating over a terabyte of storage. This growth in popularity mirrored Scott’s increasing passion for archiving and it wouldn’t be long until Scott found himself involved in the Internet Archive.

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The first Textfiles post

The Internet Archive

The Internet Archive is a non profit library and exists both physically – in California – and online. It was founded by New York entrepreneur Brewster Kahle who had serious pedigree having sold one startup for $15 million and then sold his web traffic analysis company, Alexa, to Amazon for tens of millions just a few years later. However, his most important work was when he founded the Internet Archive in 1996. A couple of years later he oversaw the building of a technology called the Wayback Machine which allows people to go any website and see what they looked like at a point in time.

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An example of the WayBack Machine in action

This technology is often [wrongly] thought of as the Internet Archive but it only makes up a part of it. Instead, the Archive is made up of almost everything including books, film, songs and software. Over a 1000 books a day get scanned and there are tens of millions of books that are on the Internet Archive. Activists, in a way not too dissimilar to Wikipedia, contribute various media to the Archive making it one of the most important resources we have available today.

Jason Scott’s role in The Internet Archive

So where does Jason Scott fit into all of this? Scott was brought into the Archive in 2011 but being a passionate archivist himself many people already thought he worked there. Scott’s main focus in on curating software but he also reaches out to organisations that have digital data that he thinks has a value in being archived. Lots of these organisations perhaps want to do it but can’t justify it financially so the Internet Archive, a not for profit, is utterly invaluable to them.

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The Internet Archive relies on donations

Jason Scott 4.pngScott’s big love is software and developing the ability to be able to launch that software within the browser. Today, because of the work Scott and his team have done, a user is able to run various machines within the browser at a good speed which removes the need for users to launch software via CD-ROM and allows a user to launch, for example, a spreadsheet or document from almost any date and launch it within the browser. The ultimate goal with this work, and with the Internet Archive more generally, is to be the Internet’s library. Scott wants “people to come to archive.org, browse around, see things they didn’t even know they wanted, and find the things they’re looking for.”

Scott’s passion for the Internet Archive is infectious. He once described the process and how he picks and chooses what to salvage in a recent interview:

“…The thing is, I’m not as worried about gaming magazines. A lot of people played video games and, of course, they’ll digitize video game magazines. But I have a newsletter about an obscure word processing program. I’ve got six or seven issues of this handmade newsletter. That’s the stuff I want to scan because I’m afraid nobody will, because it’s too weird and boring and obscure.”

“The nice thing about the archive is that there’s room for all of that. It’s a weird, Willy Wonka factory. Even I am sometimes surprised when I walk the stacks. I’ve tried to describe it to my coworkers. It’s like this endless room of drawers and you open one and it’s like, “Oh my god, it’s 1,000 glass eyeballs. What’s this one? Every hedgehog whisker from the past 100 years.” It’s just this weird thing where you’ll find 50,000 manuals or you’ll find a full run of a video podcast series that somebody did about Burning Man.”

“Just weird, wonderful things that are all living in there and being saved. It’s a weird but brilliant library”

Scott is a passionate activist and volunteers for a group called Archive Team. Archive Team’s remit is to try and identify sites that are potentially in trouble and salvage a copy of the site before it folds.

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This picture is on the homepage of the Archive Team’s site

For example, RapidShare was a popular file hosting service that closed its doors in 2014. The Archive Team recognised that there would be files that were perhaps too big for a user to store on their home PC but that had intrinsic value to them that would disappear as soon as RapidShare closed down. The Archive Team therefore went in and made a copy of the site and were able to salvage large swathes of files. Jen Simmons once described the Archive Team like “a volunteer fire engine where the Archive Team would go in and salvage as many possessions as they could before it burnt down.” Other projects that the Archive Team have stepped in and salvaged include Quizilla, Zanga, JustinTV, Inkblazers and Posterous. There are 1000s and 1000s of sites who have come, who have conquered and who have gone almost overnight and if it wasn’t for Scott and the other volunteers then all of that indispensable content would be gone forever.

The Internet Archive costs around $15 million a year to run but Scott is realistic enough to accept that the future of archiving the entire digital history will soon be too big a challenge for a small army of digital librarians and that the way we think about digital preservation needs to change.

“I’m glad we’ve hit that level of success that people are like, “Wait a minute, there’s only one.” Without realizing that there used to be zero. I think there’s a quote from me in a documentary, where I said that, essentially, we have these young people on Archive Team, and we have people like myself who are weirdly organized towards this. It’s a tragedy of the modern era that we have to depend on children and maniacs to save our history. But that’s where we are.”

The work Scott has done, in conjunction with the Internet Archive is some of the most important work of the digital age and as the Internet grows in popularity the importance of Scott and the Internet Archive grows with it. Why not help them out by donating today?

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