Once in a Lifetime

By Andrew Nimmo, 10 June 1996

Where have all the old web pages gone?

Accelerating web developments, continually changing specifications, goals, protocols and expectations, from plain text to shocked pages and streaming audio and video, transparent jpegs. Tomorrow the list will change, and the next development and new feature will take over. Where have all the old web pages gone?

I never enjoyed history; the relevance was wasted on me, and I still don't care much for the building the buildings, weapons and food that Iron Age Celts had. I do have admiration for the information architects, for the people who piece together and make sense of the buried stumps, scratched rocks and chicken bones, the people who create a living community from a grass field and tell us that something happened, archiving and maintaining.

Now tell me. if you have a home page or corporate web site, how has it been developed and how has it grown? Did you write HTML, version 1, 1+, 2, 3 or whatever? Did someone else do the design? Do we have a record of the structures and processes, the errors and the results? Can we point to the design routes, building blocks, plans, formats? No? Can we try and rebuild the parts, reconstruct the reasons and choices which went into creating the monolith?

Mechanisms for maintaining data integrity through tedious/essential backup procedures onto tape and disk let us declare that it's all safe, and can be restored whenever we want. Sure, but what about the subtle changes and the possibilities to retrace the design. Well, these were overwritten because we didn't see any reason for keeping them, they were old and out of date, and we needed to move on to the next iteration anyway.

I didn't enjoy history, but now feel a need to record, to make my design processes more open, for other architects to question and build on. Many of my web sites have used dynamic page generation techniques, further compounding the problems related to my desire to record more detailed information; at least the methods used to generate the pages are kept. As more and more dynamic content is used, we will rely more on the means to generate the content, and to maintain the reasons for design decisions.

Web sites are more than the pages and content. People view the sites, and their visits create a limited history of their choices, of where they came from, how they travelled and reviewed the content, and where they go. once in a lifetime is an experimental web site which retains a sense of history and tries to create content based on visits (though not always?). Planning is ongoing and modifications related to my choices, comments from friends and viewers, and routes taken by visitors will all contribute to the content. Exploration and analysis are key to the experiment.

My type of history is centred around the choices people make and the consequences of those choices, and the related events at that moment. once in a lifetime will exist as a result of events and experiences since I first developed for the web, and many, many conversations and comments from many people (especially Nina and Claudio). once in a lifetime will be at for a period of time (!).

Old web pages never die, they just get overwritten. Dynamic web pages never die 'cos they never really existed.

Andew Nimmo