Paper, web-page, rock

Aug 29, 2021

We are madly digitising all the published materials we can get our hands on, but technophile Geoff Ebbs has an insight into the ephemeral nature of our digital obsession.

On my radio show Fashion by Dad, I have been reading from Alec Kruger’s book Alone on the soaks, telling us what it was like to be a stockman as an 11 year old boy in the 1930s, leading all the way up to walking off the job on Wave Hill Station. That first strike by First Nation stockmen changed the nature of agriculture in Australia, which you can read about here and listen to here.

This is an interesting little side story about the “making of” Alone on the soaks.

The book was written with Alec by friend of mine, Gerard Waterford. Gerard came to Sydney to do some research because he was chasing a diary that he heard was donated by a contemporary of Alec, when he died, to the Mitchell Library at Sydney Uni.

My blazer of glory

Now, in the week that Gerard and his Good Wife Jo came to stay with me and my Good Wife Bec in Newtown in inner-city Sydney, I was given the marvellous opportunity to donate a website that I built in 1995 to the National Library of Australia (NLA). The NLA was making an exhibition of the early days of the web, I’d written a book called the Australian Internet Book, which in the first version had all 65 websites that were up and running in Australia in December 94, 9 months before Microsoft released Windows 95, their first serious nod to the Internet.

The NLA archives quite a lot of Wide West Media's work

The National Library of Australia archived some of my work from the mid-nineties

So, all the 66 websites were in our directory, built using a really, really early web-publishing database. So early, that some of our clients objected to having long gobbledy-gook in the URLs. They were literally the first database-driven websites most Australians had seen. This is before Google, before Amazon, before Microsoft got into the web. Our database was a German add on for a Microsoft database and it provided the examples of those early websites that were illustrated in the Australian Internet Book.

All 66 Australian websites were listed in the first edition

The Australian Internet Book listed all 66 websites that had been created in Australia

One of the most remarkable things looking back at the book is that there were no images. Images weren’t a feature of the web in 1994 (Mozilla 0.9) and … anyway, I thought, “well, this is my place in history. I’m going to be recognized forever as an Internet pioneer.”

“The National Library of Australia will mount an exhibition with my early database publishing system and I will be recorded for posterity as one of the first people in the world to do that.”

I spent the better part of a week trying to recreate a four year old website and it was almost impossible. I had engineers from Microsoft in Seattle on the phone and I had a company in Singapore retrieving the data from a disk that I backed up in 1995 using software that was no longer available.

We retrieved the backups but could not rebuild the old version of the Windows NT Server and then recreate the entire software environment to read those files, let alone convert them to web pages on the fly.

I could have done it if I had endless amounts of money and or endless amounts of time, but I couldn’t do it and survive. At the time I had three-month old twins, so I was somewhat distracted.

The bedroll in the special collection

In the meantime, while I was going through this brush with fame, this attempt at glory, this veritable Blazer of Glory, Gerard was hanging out at the Mitchell Library, looking for the diary of Alec Kruger’s mate.

Now Alec describes life as an 11 year old boy spending three months alone in the desert, trying to keep water up to a bunch of cows and then, later on, ripped himself from eyebrow to ear-hole on a branch and almost died, it took him three weeks to wake up, so you know he was living under pretty rough circumstances.

The cover of Alone on the soaks

The book that finally resulted

One of the people who shared that adventurous and dangerous life used to keep a diary at night using a stubby old pencil and had donated the diary to the Mitchell Library, so Gerard, wandered in one morning and said he was researching for a book on the life of Alec Krueger and had heard that there was a diary that’d been donated.

They looked it up in the catalog said, “Oh yes, Sir. That’s part of the special collection. We’ll need a special librarian to go down with you to the special collection and take out that special piece. It’s never actually been accessed since it was donated.”

So he came home, had lunch, had a chat, I told him about my adventures with the National Library and the Singapore Data Recovery Company, and how many thousands of dollars I was spending trying to earn my Blazer of Glory.

He went back to the Mitchell Library and was taken downstairs by one of the special collection librarians.

In the basement there was a cyclone wire gate, or door, the sort of door that rolls back. So, they rolled back the gate, the sliding door … rumble, rumble, the cyclone wire gate rumbles open and there, in the special collection, is a swag, a canvas bedroll.

So they unrolled the bedroll, and there, in the middle of the bed roll, there’s a pile of papers and, Gerard said, the smell of a campfire. As they unrolled the swag out came a pile of burned leaves. There were bits of dry grass and a couple of pencils, a pile of paper, written in different inks and pencils over the years. The only copy of those papers in the whole world, and there it was, in the swag.

He used those as part of his research for Alone on the soaks written by Alec Kruger with the help of Gerard Waterford.

My awakening

So, one guy on horseback living a life so rough that none of us alive today can actually imagine it, keeps a record of his day’s activity each night. We can read about it, fifty five years later in Alone on the soaks, and it makes our hair stand on end just to try and make that leap of imagination.

Here’s me, with the help of Microsoft in Seattle and a Singapore data recovery agency recommended by Microsoft as better than any data recovery agency in Australia at the time, and these best minds in the world could not recover a set of information that I’d put together five years earlier. The only evidence of its existence was the book.

At that moment I had one of those realizations, one of those road-to-Damascus moments, where I realised that this technology I was immersed in, exciting, new and liberating as it was, was actually ephemeral.

Man oh man, that’s confronting.

By contrast, consider the power of the book. The power of paper. A self-archiving information storage technique that does not need a power supply. Something you guarantee that future generations will be able to read. Paper, web-page, rock.

I now dedicate a big chunk of my life to collecting books and sharing the contents with you, here on Fashion by Dad. Together, we will keep some knowledge outside the singularity. Echoes of Farenheit 451. Watch it and weep. But that’s a story for another day.

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