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<nettime> The Human Phenome Project
Kevin Murray on Sun, 21 Oct 2001 23:33:16 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> The Human Phenome Project

Below is an excerpt from an unpublished book 'Shock of the Old', that
explores the atavistic narrative which is nascent in the digital revolution.
It is probably more adolescent than most other contributions, but it may be
useful as a vehicle for considering the 'other side' in all this.

One of the curious phenomena in the early days of the Internet were virtual
cemeteries. This speculation extends the idea to its logical conclusion, to
consider how the information grid might be mapped onto deep human concerns.


The Human Genome Project concerns the genetic structure that defines
humanity as a whole. While it has much to say about the shared plight of
people on earth, it does not relate to the qualities that make each person
separate and individual.

With the aid of a global computer network, it becomes possible for the first
time to conceive of a register which includes all the individuals that are
alive on the planet. Since most records of births, deaths and marriages are
being stored on computer already, it is simply a matter of linking those
databases together. What's required is a common platform for information
sharing-and the good will to achieve it.

Although difficult to achieve universally, there is a wide enough catchment
of information to establish a working system. It would then be up to
international agencies to assist third world countries in setting up
computer systems so that their population might be counted on this global

To start dressing up this speculation, let's say that there is a congress in
Milan which defines an  international code for phenome registration, PEP
(Phenome Exchange Protocol). Once established, a demand arises to have this
information ornamented with more individual details. Just as the Hypertext
Markup Language developed from plain integration of text and image to the
highly-featured code that we have today, so users start demanding an ability
to extend the plain details of birth and death with biomemes-biography,
epitaph, home video, last words, etc. Besides the obvious issue of data
storage, the granting of this individuation requires an additional code.

Luxor is an 'add-on' to the Human Phenome Project which allows for the
extension of basic data with more individualised categories, memory engines
and linkages to related web sites. The purpose of this accessory is to
inflect raw data with an expression of human concern-in most cases the loss
felt by those left behind as well as a demonstration of pride in their
achievements. The MPEP (Mnemonic Phenome Exchange Protocol) system enables
the legacy of individual lives to be shared globally according to mutually
agreed conventions.


MPEP kills two birds with one stone. The problem of data storage and privacy
is solved by transferring responsibility of the memorial  material to
visitors. Each record evolves through four stages: private, public, trash
and oblivion. The life of a record begins with information restricted by
password to family and friends. With the passage of time, this information
becomes public and therefore accessible to anyone until it decays from lack
of attention. The code which regulates this development attempts to humanise
a potentially sterile medium.


A record is divided into two domains. The inner domain is accessible to
those with a password, usually family and close friends. As long as the
material conforms to MPEP 2.0 standards, the record can be ornamented with
whatever is deemed appropriate. This can include school photographs, video
of birth, answering machine messages and even the customised algorithm used
by the Newton to recognise its owner's handwriting. The main constraint is
the hire of disk capacity from a registered service provider.

The outer domain itself consists of two layers. The base consists of the
phoneme data (sex, gender, place, etc). Upon this skin is placed a unique
string of ideomemes that distinguish the case from all others hitherto
recorded. The ethic at work is termed abnormalisation-each individual should
be represented by a unique set of categories, e.g., female, Hindu, New York,
clarinet-player, favourite colours maroon and green, barracks for Yankees…
New idiomemes are developed whenever sometime attempts to register the same
identity string that has been recorded for someone else.


The allocation of new idiomemes within MPEP is often politicised. While
there are always amateur sporting groups seeking to register their activity
as a legitimate idiomeme, the more contentious issues relate to those on the
margins of society, such as religious cults, criminals, sexual deviants,
terrorist organisations-sometimes hostages are taken to press demands for
MPEP recognition. Many choose to register their own identity strings during
their lifetime-alternatively the executor of  a person's will is given this
task in consultation with family. Registration is usually marked by a
special celebration which involves a handwoven bracelet featuring the unique
identity string. A profession of testamentary designers evolves to assist in
the mark-up of records with biographical material and interactive features.

The life of a record echoes that of its subject. While the outer record is
accessible as soon as the individual's death is registered, the certain
inner components could be restricted to a circle of individuals, family and
friends, who possess the required password. However, to guarantee that this
knowledge is not lost once it ceases to be relevant, the contents of the
inner cache are 'delivered' when a certain period had elapsed without it
being accessed with the password (countries differ on the time set for
'gestation', from 15 years in England to 6 months in USA).


Once published, the record's innermost secrets are brought to the surface.
To maintain the active participation of the memorial community and prevent
the overstock of data, each phoneme contain a sub-program called Lethe. If
the file is not accessed for a period of time, this virus begins devouring
bytes. For a period, it is possible to restore a file. When you access a
file in decline, you are granted the choice whether to grant reprieve to the
contents with a dialogue 'Refresh?' Those who say 'yes' must leave their
name with the file in a relay chain of donors. After a number of
generations, records acquire a string of 'relays', testimony to the concern
of the living.

If this system had been in place in ancient Egypt, how many individual
records would be 'alive' today? Perhaps more impressive would be the six
hundred or so names responsible for carrying the torch of memory.


With this structure in place, it is possible then for anyone online to
thread a memorial journey through the maze of records.

Anna in Norway looks up people whose ancestors come from her village. Finds
Dieter in Vancouver who belonged to the class of 1955 in Wilsmere College.
She notices a familiar face in the school photograph which, in response to
her cursor, takes her to Sigismund whose inner material has just been
exposed, revealing him as the 'lost uncle' of her neighbour, who in reality
fell in love with Dieter, following him to Canada, but then marrying a
pastry cook, whose recipe for strawberry shortcake Anna downloads for later
reference before following the its attribution to the mother, whose record
has recently been infected, so she decided to refresh it and add her name as
the third donor, after the daughter.

Journeys through Luxor are charged with archaeological adventure. There are
three professionalised groups officially charged with maintaining the
network. Testimonial Designers accredit records as networthy. 'Angels' deal
with any minor irregularities or disputes about storage, accessibility and
transitions. And 'Sextons' perform the more routine spade work of backing up

This professional core is complimented by a network of confraternities
devoted to maintaining lost memories, often for one particular biomeme.
These digital confraternities hunt out neglected records which they refresh
in time before they are abandoned. The more aggressive go into third world
countries with undeveloped registration programs and attempt to save souls
for uploading.


Luxor does have its roots in the material world. On every new moon, a
ceremony is conducted where the online files are backed up and stored in a
special cemetery structure known as a Cine-Rom. If a major catastrophe
occurs then there is at least a tape backup kept offline. Backups are stored
for at least a year before being overwritten.

Cine-Rom is a glass and steel structure located in the middle of the
Victorian cemetery. A modern open plan office adjoins it; it is only here
that alterations are permitted to the record status. Visitors arrive at the
front office where they take a number from an automatic dispenser. A LCD
noticeboard announces the next free desk. The visitors then go to a
semi-private workstation where they can enter or delete material with a
special password. At this point they can also change the restrictions on
their site materials. They can work on either their own site or, if they are
accompanied by all other password holders, they can alter the status of


Forecast for Melbourne Issued at 1050 on Sunday the 21st of October 2001
Fine and sunny with light northerly wind and an afternoon seabreeze. Max 23

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