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PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY | Cyberspace

Forget Forest Lawn--Live Forever on the Web

September 14, 1998|ASHLEY DUNN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the cosmic scheme of things, the human concept of forever is just a blink. Love is not forever. Beauty is not forever. Not even Microsoft is forever.

But in the last few decades, the human concept of forever has undergone a revolutionary transformation because of the rise of digital information. Digital data truly are forever. The information can be forgotten, destroyed or misplaced--and usually is. But with the proper will, it can also be eternal--an unchanging stream of ones and zeros that can stare at the breadth of human existence and not blink.

The movement to archive digital information is well underway with such undertakings as Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.net), which has converted nearly 1,000 books and historical documents into digital form. These so-called e-texts in the collection range from "A Child's Garden of Verses" to "Zincali, Gypsies of Spain."

Brewster Kahle, the inventor of the wide-area information servers, or WAIS, system, has been working on a mammoth project called the Internet Archive (http://www.archive.net) that has been storing every bit of the Web it can find for future historians. He has already assembled about 4 terabytes of information--that's 4 trillion bytes--including a fascinating collection of 1996 election Web sites (http://www.archive.org/smithsonian.html).

There are extensive archives on the Internet for just about everything from digitized photographs to historical software to MIDI music files.

The power of perfect digital reproduction has begun to shift the very concept of what is history, pressing it beyond the veneer of great documents, ruins and archeological finds into the realm of common life.

David Blatner, an author specializing in books on computer graphics, launched a project last year, AfterLife (http://www.afterlife.org), to archive the home pages of deceased Web surfers. The project got started after a friend named Irv Thomas (http://weber.u.washington.edu/~irvthom/Realhome.html) expressed his concerns about the fate of his Web site after he died.

Thomas, a 71-year-old Seattle resident, had been a programmer for 30 years, but abandoned that work to write and philosophize about life. He published a book about his European travels on his site and archived an intermittent journal of personal musings, called "Ripening Seasons." Like many others on the Web, he had come to see his site not as just a collection of random links and pet pictures, but an expression of his life and experiences. It was as much an artwork as Da Vinci's Mona Lisa or Thoreau's "Walden."

What Thomas had confronted was the other edge of the digital sword: While digital information can be preserved forever, it also can be frighteningly easy to destroy. A single misguided keystroke or a missed Internet service payment, and a few megabytes could be lost forever.

Blatner saw AfterLife as a relatively inexpensive way of extending archival care to the creations of the common man.

After more than a year of sporadic volunteer work, AfterLife is still more a concept than a reality. Archiving forever is much easier said than done, requiring a steady flow of funds, which Blatner does not have, and a commitment that will far exceed his life span.

Blatner added that he is also unsure of what should be archived and what should be left to fade into the virtual ether. Should pornography be archived? Should hyperlinks be maintained? Should there be size restrictions? Should obituary-style memorials be allowed? Will HTML have any meaning in the future?

Whatever the answers, the basic idea of using the virtual world to capture pieces of our real-world lives has an undeniable appeal.

There are at least 25 sites now on the Internet that allow users to post virtual memorials on the Web. Most of the sites are connected to funeral homes or cemeteries.

It seems unlikely that many of these virtual memorials will get within even a few eons of forever. But Sharon Mnich, a Georgia Web designer who started the first Virtual Memorial (http://www.virtual-memorials.com/) in 1996 as a way to commemorate her grandparents, said the meaning of these sites is really not about eternity, but about the living and the here and now.

"The virtual memorials offer a way to celebrate the dash between two numbers on a tombstone," said Mnich, whose free site now lists more than 1,000 people. "That's all there was room for before. I can see these memorials becoming a standard part of life in the future. It can change a morbid part of life into a celebration instead."

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Please send Internet site suggestions to cutting.edge@latimes.com.

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