Biomedicine

Living Memories

Memory holds us together. That’s why it’s crucial to record the DNA of every species-and to archive the Internet.

Our tiny dive boat bobs on the crystal blue Flores Sea, about a mile from the primitive Indonesian villages along the shore. I tighten my fins, swig a few test gulps of air through my scuba gear and am about to roll in. Suddenly, a black beast the size of a minivan explodes out of the water. The enormous splash rocks the boat. “Manta ray,” our divemaster says. “They’re showing off. Like puppies. Okay. Now you, jump in.”

Underwater, no one can see you sweat. I shrug, roll into the water and descend through schools of neon and Technicolor reef fish into the coral jungle. The weird growths, the psychedelic formations-giant corals, some like moose antlers, some flaming red with spikes, some like brains-make for a surreal scene. It’s like swimming into a Dal painting.

I float over to a couple of big groupers. They’re the size of large dogs. As I watch, three or four miniature, delicate “cleaner” shrimp hop fearlessly into the mouth and gills of the first fish, who waits politely for his cleaning. It’s a little like a car wash. Then there’s the boxer crab, whose front claws appear clad in big white boxing gloves-which turn out to be two fluffy white sea anemones. The crab carries these poisonous creatures constantly, jabbing them at prey like an aquatic Muhammad Ali.

Even the most seasoned divers are overwhelmed by the parade of bizarre life forms that dwell in the reefs. In the face of such dazzling beauty, it is shattering to realize that the world’s coral paradises are perishing at an alarming rate. Almost 100,000 square kilometers of reefs have died; experts estimate that within a few decades, 60 percent of the reefs will be dead. No doubt, extraordinary species are being extinguished even before they’ve been discovered. It made me wonder: who’s keeping tabs on this?

Many of the animals I saw were easy to find later in the reef guidebooks. But some I couldn’t find at all. How would I know if I had found a new species? And what would I do if I had? Is there an institute in Sweden to call to have such a thing verified? Do they need a DNA sample, or a whole specimen or what? Professional biologists would know what to do-but shouldn’t there be some way to tap the energies of countless amateurs? After all, the search to comprehend the natural order didn’t begin or end with Carolus Linnaeus, the 18th-century Swedish botanist who devised the modern taxonomic system of identifying life forms; weekend naturalists have much to add to communal knowledge.

Naturally, the Internet is where much of this is happening. The National Biological Information Infrastructure (www.nbii.gov), for example, knits together the biological databases of hundreds of companies, universities and government agencies. At the grass-roots level, the Tree of Life at the University of Arizona (phylogeny.arizona.edu/tree/phylogeny.html) exemplifies the amateur and academic urge to classify. It’s a community-authored phylogeny of earth’s life forms. So if you did find a strange fish, you could probably uncover an avenue online for reporting it.

But an even more remarkable effort is just beginning. Amid this taxonomic flurry, something quite fundamental is strikingly missing: the genes. That’s where the new All Species Foundation comes in. Founded last year, the foundation aims to record all of the earth’s genetic information. Its manifesto (www.all-species.org) begins, “If we discovered life on another planet, the first thing we’d do is conduct a systematic inventory of those life forms. This is something we have never done on our home planet.” The organization’s goal: “Within the span of our own generation, record and genetically sample every living species on earth.” In other words, build a comprehensive DNA zoo. Accomplishing this will require massive philanthropic input, new biotech tools and the observational powers of a vast population of weekend naturalists.

I learned of this foundation from board member Stewart Brand, of Whole Earth Catalog fame, who has yet again placed himself at the epicenter of a seminal infotech movement. And like many of the loftiest scientific undertakings-sequence the genome, put a man on the moon-this one is so audacious that it seems almost daft to attempt it. Yet there is so much that must be learned. Biologists estimate that only about a tenth of earth’s species are formally known to science. Maybe it’s just a hundredth. At the rate we’re going, many species will be extinct before they’re even discovered.

The All Species folks aren’t just accumulating a massive collection of beetles. It’s the DNA they’re after: the core record of life on earth. Sequencing the human genome was just a small step for man. University of Texas at Austin biology professor David Hillis quipped that after the All Species work succeeds in 50 years or so, biology can become a predictive science. Computers may beat nature at “sim-evolution.”

While the Net has become a natural medium for sorting out nature, what will sort out the Net? That’s the mission of an equally audacious project called the Internet Archive (www.archive.org), launched several years ago by Brewster Kahle. Before most others, Kahle realized that the bits people were flinging online could be bottled up and archived.

This isn’t as crazy an idea as it might seem. Think of the problem personally. Everything you utter in a year amounts to about four gigabytes of digitized speech. That’s half a DVD disc, or four postage-stamp-sized memory chips. In another 50 years, say, a lifetime of spoken output will fit in one of those sugar-cube-sized terabyte stores that surely are coming. This dramatically changes the way we think about the record of our lives, as individuals and societies. The roughly 18 million books in the Library of Congress add up to about 18 terabytes-less than $40,000 worth of disks at today’s prices. This means that the Web-which is now the de facto sieve for capturing social output-may be, though evanescent, containable.

When he established the Internet Archive, Kahle acquired a building in an old army barracks in San Francisco; he envisioned the archive as something of a national park for bits. Now, much of the Web is contained in a bay of hard drives in the basement. “It’s a Sisyphean task,” says Kahle. As they pushed the boulder up the hill, the archivers thought, Since Web pages change over time, why not record with that in mind? So recently, they’ve built a “Wayback Machine”: a browser that lets you set the time. If you want to surf the Web as it was back in, say, 1996, just turn the dial.

Why do these efforts matter? Few things are more precious than the record of experience, whether it’s distilled in a journal or encoded into DNA by evolution.

Consider horrific extinctions. When marauding empires want to kill a culture, they cut out its heart. The Romans sacked and burned Alexandria. The Nazis burned books and people. The Khmer Rouge murdered teachers and artists, obliterating the cultural soul of its country. Al-Qaeda stabbed at the heart of modern capitalism-the World Trade Center. Shortly after the buildings imploded, office papers fluttered into the gutters of Brooklyn, miles away. Undoubtedly many companies, running close to the bone, couldn’t afford to safely clone their archives in more than one place. Those companies are out of the corporate gene pool forever. Even when people are fortunate enough to survive, the irrevocable loss of institutional memory, as recorded on paper and disks, makes rebooting a business impossible. Fire insurance is nice to have, but if your house burns down, insurance can’t restore memories.

If the surge in computer development has taught us anything, it’s that computer memory is so cheap and getting cheaper, so large and getting larger, that it ought to be considered free and infinite. And in a sense, the Internet makes transmission free, too. For the same reason a diffuse network can survive all but the most massively widespread catastrophes, diffuse memories cannot be extinguished. A little like DNA, the bits reside in active vessels and can be transmitted into the future.

Human beings survive as a species because we flock together. After a tragedy, families and communities draw closer. We reach out and hold onto each other. This is why we touch, and why we love. For the same instinctive reason, we gather our memories and cherish them. Pools of community memory gain depth and power over lifetimes. They allow us to reflect, to project and to carry our understanding beyond the here and the now. If you believe that earth’s living memories should live on-both the human record and the natural record-then you have to believe that efforts like the All Species Foundation and the Internet Archive really matter. But it is still a shock to many that such intrepid enterprises have scarcely begun.

This is my last column for Technology Review. The fledgling process of archiving global life and human thought is a profoundly important note to end on. The world is being transformed by technology, more radically now than ever, and it has been a pleasure to share my thoughts on things that matter.

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