2023-01-18: In A Terminal Far, Far Away...

HTTP and HTML are the reigning champs in terms of delivering content from the Web to your computer, typically though a Web browser. Content and data available over HTTP could generally be categorized to be mostly within the surface web. This, however, only constitutes a small portion of what content is available on the complete Web. Some protocols, such as FTP, are no longer supported by browsers and accessed by way of more specialized programs. Modern formats, such as IPFS, also exist but have limited adoption and often still require external software. While content available over these non-HTTP protocols is still "on the Net", the extent to which it is archived remains murky.

A Trip Down Internet Lane

Originally, I was inspired to write this blog post because I was exploring different representations of content on the web I remembered a gem from my younger days on the Internet. That gem was the ASCII Star Wars animation that you could watch over your terminal by typing in "telnet towel.blinkenlights.nl". Telnet is one of the Internet's oldest RFCs and is no longer installed on most systems, having been removed from Apple's macOS 10.13 (High Sierra) in late 2017, for instance. It can still be installed from external sources though, and when I tried to use it to load up the classic animation I was sad to notice that it was no longer functioning! Thinking it could be an error in my network, I tried again a few more times over the next few weeks and still had no luck.

Fig 1. Unreachable connection from terminal.

When I searched around the web I found a handful of posts expressing the same sentiment and confusion, mostly from Reddit and HackerNews. The experience had simply vanished into the void.

Fig 2. Social Media posts regarding towel.blinkenlights.nl unavailability 

One of the oldest posts I found discussing the server's unavailability was roughly six years old from a Microsoft support message board post on Daniweb.com, an Information Technology forum.

Now curious, I began to search around for a bit more information and found the archived homepage on the Internet Archive. The original ASCII animation project dates back to 1997, as described on the FAQ page of the project's still existing web site, and has evolved with more scenes being added over time. The telnet connection, I learned, was the separate work of an individual named Sten Spans whose bio on the archived blinkenlights.nl website reads "I'm a whacked Dutch Hardware Geek, tinkering with stuff in ISP Land. Breaking and fixing stuff at about the same rate." Perhaps, some of the mystery behind the server's unreliability lie in the creator's bio, but in a way it kind of lends to the charm that the Internet is a loose routing of networked entities, fragile but coming together for the purpose of advancing knowledge and humanity.

While subdomain of towel.blinkenlights.nl is meant to by accessed over a telnet connection (Fig 4), the main website can be found in the Internet Archive and it was interesting to read about some of the hardware evolution and history behind the project on the main website's archive. From 300Mhz to dual-core 1.26Ghz over the years, I'm assuming mostly to meet the demands of networking traffic, is quite an interesting jump considering the "low-tech"/"low-resource" nature of both the medium and material.
The main ASCII project lends itself well to being an archive-friendly setup and is well archived in the Wayback Machine, but browsing Internet content over a terminal or something, such as Usenet, would require a specialized archive (see UsenetArchives) to capture. For instance, one such archive of the telnet session is represented as a sequential list of the frames, but this is at best a compromise, not a faithful representation of the animation or the old-school hacker-like command line web experience.

In the case of our telnet experience, there are some helpful scripts floating around which can help capture and playback the animation in an emulated fashion. There are also projects on the Web, such as the website Asciiation which got its start in 1997 showing the animation through the traditional web browser. Telehack, is another such website, listed in a comment in Figure 2 and shown in Figure 8 below, which takes things a step further and seeks to emulate retro computing environments and command line interfaces over the web. Telehack has the ASCII Star Wars animation built in to its interface and provides that "hacker" feel with no downloading needed.

Fig 8. https://telehack.com/

A New Hope!

To my surprise though, by the time I had originally discussed this with my advising professor and sat down to write this post the telnet portal for the Star Wars IV ASCII animation is back online and alive after many years!

Fig 9. telnet towel.blinkenlights.nl intro (can we get Sten a hug, please?)

The animation itself hasn't been updated in a while, but its nostalgic feel, high-quality rendition of a higher-dimensional medium, 3D scenes, and classic Star Wars text crawl are all still there. The Star Wars ASCII animation features witty scenes of dialogue between characters, high-quality animations that brought depth and 3D scenes over a highly constrained medium that takes you back to the early 2000s.


Fig 10. Scenes from towel.blinkenlights.nl


While it is a great sign that this web experience is back among the land of the living, its intermittent availability and long disappearance speaks to the implicit unreliability of Internet services. Among such a vast web of interconnected nodes of information, not all data is equally distributed or available further speaks the necessity of web archiving. Furthermore, while the service might be back, as mentioned at the beginning of this post, most current computers will not have access to it natively. 

Anecdotally, from the time I began using the web in the 90s the holistic landscape has shifted so drastically that it is almost unrecognizable. Current generations coming online today have no real context of an Internet before the presence of social media. Mention of text-based terminal interfaces, Palm Pilots, Usenet, BBS systems, and MUDs had already been virtually written out of the technology education curriculum when I was growing up. This begs the question, "how can we archive that which we do not know exists?" I suppose though, that today's youth no longer need suffer those fun, sibling arguments over who gets to use the telephone line to either connect to the Web or make a call! As the web continues to change and old technologies are replaced and marginalized to the fringes of isolated groups, we continue to run the risk of losing more and more of these technologies and the experiences which came with them. While we might be thrilled to consider the Star Wars Telnet service resurrected, not all services are so lucky. One such Telnet service was an animation for the Nyan Cat meme (Fig 11), which remains unavailable to date. Previously, the service did have some mirrors by which it could be alternatively accessed but these have all since ceased operation, in addition to the primary service.

Fig 11. Archived Nyan Cat Telnet Server page

The lines between reality and fictional universes the likes of Ghost in the Shell, Snow Crash, and the Matrix are blurring year by year. As we push the limits of our technological boundaries and further integrate man, mind, and machine so do we continue to transcend our mediums of interface. Just as when we look at these web technologies of old, what happens when we outgrow out current web technologies? What happens when augmented reality and virtual reality improve such that the ever-dependable rectangular screens of our fondest silicon obsessions succumb to the changing of paradigm? Will web pages or sites adapt to new and emergent environments or will web "pages" become a concept of distant obscurity as well? Interestingly, these are broad temporal evolution of  the Web  are also separate from the temporal elements of the web, which we look at quite a bit here at the WS-DL group. Previous work from Abigail Mabe looking at a Memento-aware web browser (arXiv paper), explored an integrated experience for looking the past-and present web. In such an envisioned future environment, how might the archived web grow and take shape? Will we still browse archived pages individually through some emulated interface, or might our technology evolve to a point which we can somehow view all historical changes to a web page simultaneously?

The Web is one of the most important resources available to us but it is also far more fragile than most people even realize. Both on the Web and beyond, many things we might not even be aware of are at risk of being lost to us. As older generations leave us, we find ourselves losing more and and more important insight that they take with them, for example. Web scientists around the world are working hard to study, grow, and preserve it but they can't do it alone. The "World Wide Web" couldn't exist without the "World" and it isn't the actions of a handful of institutional groups that can save it, often they are busy fighting to stay alive in addition to their intended mission. That is why it is critical that digital citizens from all over help out in this endeavor, it is only through our collective action that we can drive substantial change. If there is a web site that you frequently use or that is important to you, archive it. If you know of a specialized at-risk service, try reaching out to the community of that service to make a case for integrating some form of archival before the service finally goes offline. Press the importance of physical and digital archiving efforts to local policy makers. If you know a dying language, try to find online groups to help preserve and document it. If you find some old, obscure, dust-covered technology lying in your grandparent's attic, double check that it isn't the last of its kind, because it just might be. Together we can all help fight decay on the Web to make it a more robust and substantial for our present and future!

If you are a budding Computer Scientist, I hope that you might consider an interest in Web Science! Websites disappear all the time and there is always work to be done in reviving and preserving old mediums and web experiences. If you'd like to learn more about Web Science and work related to the field, explore our blog and check out work being done across a diverse spectrum of topics and specific areas of interest!

- David Calano