Can the computer encourage critical thinking instead of passive reception? Brewster Kahle is trying to do just that with Internet Archive. SARAH HIDDLESTON

I magine everything ever written, posted, uploaded, filmed, recorded or broadcast available at the click of a mouse for free. Ideal or irreverent, it's Brewster Kahle's vision and he's making it happen while paywalls go up and rights arguments rage.

“We're building the library of Alexandria V2,” he gestures to academic publishers visiting his Internet Archive, located in a coincidentally neoclassical Christian Science church building in Funston Avenue, San Francisco. “Only this time anyone, anywhere can access it.”

Kahle, inventor of the predecessor to the worldwide web with an academic background in AI, believes that unless we put the best of what we have to offer in front of our children we'll get the generation we deserve.

“We're merging with the machine… Pretty soon we are going to be the computer. So let's make the computer an interesting companion. Let's teach it some good stuff. Otherwise it'll be an idiot and that's no fun,” he says.

Archival material

Kahle has archived over two million books, almost 3,00,000 movies, nearly 80,000 live concerts and over 5,60,000 audio recordings. He's mapped a complete record of every webpage every two months since 1996. It's called the Way Back Machine – if a page changes or an upload removed there's a good chance of finding the original on their search engine.

The idea, he hopes, is to encourage critical thinking instead of passive reception. Take TV, (they record 20 news channels 24x7) and take coverage of 9/11, which Internet Archive packaged and posted in October 2001. “What did the world see? CNN was saying that Palestinians were dancing in the streets. Were they? Let's look at Palestinian TV. Comes across very differently. I think we really know now that news comes with a point of view in this country (the U.S.),” he says. Kahle is showing off his newly relocated centre like Willy Wonka on a tour of his chocolate factory. He even has ompa lumpas, but that's another story.

“This [congregational hall] is the next generation library… Don't think of it in a row [of terminals] like an Internet café. Think of big screens where you might be collaborating with other people.” He and his team are still cooking up ideas. Awe-inspiring and interactive are the baselines.

We see the scanning centre, with their purpose built copiers complete with museum lighting and professional-grade digital cameras. Later on, in the old Sunday school, we see a machine about the height and width of a five-door filing cabinet, filled with rows of flashing slivers. It's a computer that stores 320 terabytes. Which is small. Their storage centre is made up of blocks of one petabyte (a million gigabyte) cabinets, named the PetaBox, which anyone can buy. “It's inexpensive because we designed it ourselves, even bent the metal. I think it's the first open source computer,” he says.

Kahle runs a tight ship. Internet Archive is non-profit making and runs off government subsidy and other donors. The goal was transparency. “We want people to know that we are not jet setting around on their material,” he says. There are 300 employees but only 40 are office workers, administrators and programmers. The other scanning centres are in Canada, the U.K. and Guatemala.

“What we want is more other people to be doing this stuff. They just aren't… What they are doing is often really ‘niche-y' or they just protect it. That's the Google problem,” he says.

Open access

Kahle is referring to the controversy over Google Books, which in 2002 set out to digitise millions of books and was sued for violating U.S. copyright law. In 2008 Google negotiated an agreement with the Author's Guild, so that over half Google's advertising and e-commerce revenues from the project go to copyright holders. Google can index the books but only display snippets in search results for free; any book downloaded must be paid for.

All things old enough not to have rights restrictions in the U.S., Internet Archive gives away. “The idea of downloading a million books is a good day for us. It's not something we are fighting against. Let's find out and do interesting things, non-traditional things, with our material,” he says.

Therein lies the rub. “We've got some structural problems with the web,” he says. “We gotta figure out how people keep publishing on the net and make money…We wish that capitalism would just work but it doesn't because it just goes to monopolies and kind of crushes everybody else.”

Rights issues, he says, are an artefact of power structures, and we are in the middle of a big transition. What it's really about, he says, is “institutional responsibility”; who is supposed to do what.

His ideal solution is open source at the core, with competition on services: “A distributed system for helping people set their own terms and have their own customers is the only way to make the Internet grow to the next level.”

Whatever that is, it's not the iPad. According to Kahle, instead of a shrunken general purpose Mac, the iPad is just a big iPhone - an environment that's too controlled by Apple. “That's sort of sick. It's not exploiting the better part of humans,” he says.

“I want to see these tablets prosper. But … it's the web-based applications that are the ones that are interesting. In terms of a publishing platform we have to make the web version of our for-sale products work. Because this app thing really favours a few power centres. If we want to keep power distributed let's go with open standards as mechanisms to distribute it. So that somebody in a garage can make a really cool tablet. And it doesn't have to be someone working at Google or Apple.”

"We're building the library of Alexandria V2. Only this time anyone, anywhere can access it."

Quick links www.openlibrary.org is an online catalogue of books www.archive.org for the Way Back Machine http://www.capricorn-tech.com/ to know more about the PetaBox