Tracking the E-Past

Perhaps you're curious what the government had to say about nuclear safety on a long-gone website. Or what a now-defunct pro-Taliban site posted just after Sept. 11. Or when Microsoft first popped up in early Internet chat groups.

Or how about the mid-'90s online musings of John Walker, the American who became a Taliban partisan?

All this information, hanging in the Internet ether, is being brought down to earth (i.e., any computer) so future historians can mine this digital mountain.

Consider the Internet Archive, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that has collected some 10 billion Web pages, more material than the largest traditional library. Many of these pages have long since vanished or been replaced by updated versions.

Another resource: a massive collection of online conversations from Usenet, an electronic forum that dates back to 1979. This is available through the Google search engine. The curious can find what high-tech pioneers were saying to each other in the dim and distant early '80s.

The amount of such material is boggling - and, for many, beckoning. Those who want to grasp mankind's progress through the decades ahead will increasingly have to follow the footprints in cyberspace.

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