Forever-Or Not: Nearly Anyone Today Can Inscribe His Name for Eternity on the Web or Have It Chiseled in Brick at His Alma Mater. Has the 21st Century Finally Delivered Immortality for All?

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WE HAVE A BETTER SHOT AT IMMORTALITY THESE days than we've ever had before--not literal immortality, of course, or the biological immortality that results from perpetuating our genes through procreation, but the lesser immortality that comes from leaving at least some mark for generations to come that says, "I was here, and this is who I was" For much of human history, only eminent artists or thinkers or public figures could hope to have their names live on in this way. But a canvass of the culture reveals that, in at least two ways, the kind of immortality that once was the preserve of the greats is now being democratized. Or so it is said.

Thanks to the Internet, claims D. Raj Reddy, a professor of computer science and robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, the possibility of "virtual immortality" is now available to everyone. Anyone can post material on the World Wide Web, and because the Web is impervious to the degradation that time inflicts on printed records, whatever it contains has the capacity to exist indefinitely in some form. True, Web sites currently disappear with alarming frequency, and so Professor Reddy might be overstating matters when he says that "we can feel confident" that our Web postings will become part of the "permanent record of the human race: But if what he says isn't true of every single Web site at this early moment in the Web's history, it's certainly true that, in principle and for the first time, the Internet offers the technological means whereby anyone can keep his or her work universally accessible indefinitely. That's why bloggers--those who on a regular basis post their autobiographical narratives, political musings, photos, and poetry online--so often express the inchoate hope that the Internet will allow them, as blogger Radley Balko puts it, to leave "their mark on the world" and achieve a kind of immortality (Balko, a 30-year-old "writer, editor, and wonk living in Alexandria, Virginia," currently gets a respectable 8,000 visits a day on his blogsite, theagitator.com). Blogger Joshua Claybourn, an Indiana University law student whose intheagora.com appears as a link on numerous other Web sites, makes no bones about the matter: "I admit to considering the blog's impact on my immortality."

In addition to the incipient promise of virtual immortality through the Internet, there's a second phenomenon that promises to bring a formerly restricted type of immortality within reach of us all. In days gone by, individuals whose names lived on after them affixed to buildings--museums, schools, universities, hospitals, and the like--were usually figures of some note. Now, with the burgeoning need for nonprofit organizations to raise private funds, anyone can have his or her name placed on an institutional structure--for a price. This might seem more like the plutocratizing than the democratizing of immortality but for the fact that "naming opportunities" are available to people of all income levels. Those of more modest means can, for lesser sums, have their names placed on a classroom, a bench, or even an individual brick. And they often admit to seeking what Tasha Thomas, a fundraiser at Grant Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio calls "a little bit of the immortality that used to be available just to famous people." "Call it an answer to the yearning for immortality," says The San Francisco Chronicle. "For a price, universities will carve the name of a generous benefactor in limestone or on an imposing building." Or a brick.

Are we really living at the dawn of immortality's democratization? Consider first the idea of immortality in cyberspace. We're unlikely to confuse any of the other Louis Armstrongs on the Web with the jazz great. But things are different for us ordinary folks. A certain Michael Wood, one of many people to post comments on a site for people with the name "Michael Wood," complained that "someone else's [view will be] mistakenly attributed to me: The Internet allowed Dave Gorman, who calls himself a "documentary comedian," to discover 54 other people who share his name. …

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