Do we really need an Internet time capsule?

Al Gore and AT&T ask students to upload pictures of their pet kitties for future generations to enjoy. Here's to online history!

Published July 12, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Time capsules are one of the oldest high school projects around. Kids thrill at the idea that you can put some historically relevant items in a box, pop it in the ground and -- presto! -- 50 or 100 years later, someone will know to dig it up and marvel at the way things used to be.

Now, the notion is being updated for the 21st century, thanks to the wonders of the Internet. Messages to the Future, the first official Internet time capsule, was launched Thursday in hopes of documenting life in 1999. The project -- sponsored by AT&T and endorsed by Al "I invented the Internet" Gore -- is asking American high school students to submit audio, text, video and photos that will be uploaded to an enormous Web site that will, supposedly, exist for the duration.

The project is oddly old-fashioned, despite its high-tech premise. Even the introduction from the project's author, Stephen Van Hecke, gushes in grandiose capitals "What a Grand Endeavor it would be ... for America's Senior 'Class of 2000' in all of the High Schools in every State throughout America to participate in a National Internet Science Project ... a Project that will create for the American people of the 21st Century ... a Permanent, National Cyber-Library."

It's certainly democratic; but it's also a bit backward in its thinking. Isn't the Web itself already a giant time capsule of forgotten sites that never die, a mass of home pages documenting pop arcana from our past? Will the Austin Powers audio clips and photographs of pet cats, duly submitted as "representative" of student life in 1999, be any different from what's already circulating around the Net?

Then again, considering the transient nature of digital data -- bits can disappear into the ether, without a trace -- perhaps a Web site that is intended from the outset to last forever isn't such a bad idea. Assuming, of course, that the Net as we know it is even around to "dig up" in 100 years.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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