The Living End

Old Web sites never die--they don't even fade away

"If anyone had really thought about this in advance, they would have thought about where to put the spent fuel rods," Sterling observes, drawing an analogy to the nuclear power industry. And as with the nuclear industry, we are now being saddled with ever-growing masses of unwanted waste, which there's very little we can do about. Nobody online seems to be taking responsibility for cleaning up after himself. And who's to separate the dross from the gold? One person's turkey-movie site is another's cult-classic URL.

But why should we be surprised? Fouling our nest seems to be a hallmark of modern humankind. During the Industrial Revolution, we began pouring the gaseous garbage of spent coal and oil into the air. Then the 20th Century's wondrous assortment of synthetic chemicals--the dioxins, PCBs, CFCs, and so on. (Ironically, CFCs were designed to be environmentally benign. Chemists thought they were so inert they wouldn't react in the atmosphere. Just goes to show what you can do when you really try!) Waterways, too, we have befouled, flooding pristine rivers and oceans with rivers and oceans of sewage and industrial sludge.

Hell, we have even trashed outer space! The U.S. Space Surveillance Network now keeps track of more than 8,000 bits of space debris, most of it left over from old satellites and rocket launches. The problem of space junk has now become so pressing that scientists fear we are running out of room for vital communications satellites. Even the airwaves are filling with junk, as cell-phone transmissions bleed into the "space" set aside for radio astronomy. Beaches are awash with disposable diapers; public parks are littered with syringes; you trip over Coke cans on rain forest trails. Is there no place on Earth that is free from our junk?

For a short while, cyberspace sparkled as a pristine frontier, a clean and pure space in which we might start afresh. It was a beautiful dream, while it lasted.

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