Publish and be damned

Johann Beringer tried, in vain, to destroy his own legacy. In the 1700s, two colleagues of the German professor had carved fanciful shapes from stones —such as birds with fish heads—and had passed them off as fossils. Beringer fell for the elaborate hoax and wrote a book in which he claimed that the stones showed the varied handiwork of God. However, when he realised that he had been the butt of an academic prank, he spent his wealth trying to purchase all the copies of his book and destroy them. He died in 1740, his task unfinished. More on this at historical/andrew_white/Chapter5.html. It’s hard not to pity Beringer, but his travails are as nothing compared with those of people who want to rid the Internet of something that’s been published on it. Unlike books and papers, digital bits and bytes don’t decay over time, so information on the Internet can persist indefinitely, at least in theory. And many people have discovered that it’s incredibly difficult to expunge the digital genie once it’s out of the bottle. Britain’s Foreign Office found this out earlier this month when a list of 117 people who purportedly worked for MI6 appeared on a Swiss website. Though Britain successfully shut down that site, duplicates quickly spread to other websites and newsgroups. While the British government will never get rid of the MI6 list, owing to its infamy, many web pages do actually disappear without a trace. But the Internet Archive ( is trying to record and preserve the entire web—a tough task, even with the 10 000 gigabytes of storage space it has at its disposal. Michigan teenager Rick Wallace (if he exists, that is) has become famous for his lovelorn homepage—and knows more than most about unerring digital memory of the Internet. “I regret ever writing that page, and have since taken it down,” he wrote. Find out why at this mirror site: http:
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