Miércoles 13 de Septiembre de 2006, Ip nº 170

Pity the historians of a deleted digital age
Por Melanie Reid

Ask most people how they begin their working day, and they will tell you they start it in their e-mail inbox. Lying there, they hope, in that delicious bold type, heavy with promise, will be a long list of vital messages: juicy gossip; notes of affection from scattered friends; jokes to circulate; perhaps even notice of the odd business decision or two from the boss which will enable them to get on with the day.

Increasingly, we live in our inboxes. Here are our business and home contacts, our friendships, our love life and our job offers, our bank statements and our hobbies, our shopping and our holidays. E-mail is as intimate or as impersonal a tool as you require it to be; as hot or as cold as you want; meaning you have at your fingertips the ability to flirt, sack, bully, gossip, research or communicate formally with a large team of subordinates. And to do so in nano-seconds.

E-mail is also addictive, and therefore, like all addictions, both a delight and a tyranny. Why, in the course of writing the first three paragraphs here, I have clicked my send and receive button three times. How sad.

No ping of anticipation. Nothing. Nobody loves me. Yet I open this same in-box with the heaviness and dread of a bulimic when I return from holiday, and must overdose on 300 of the things.
So it's useful; essential, even. It facilitates communication, shrinks the world and saves the office secretary a huge amount of work. But the whole concept of e-mail is a tragedy, for it is a ephemeral thing, a symbol of our short-termism and our disregard of history, transferring our records from the tangible to the intangible.

It's not that I'm a technophobe (well, not really), but I recognise e-mail for what it is: a symbol of a civilisation which is turning its back on measured thought and permanence; which lives in the instant thrill of the here-and-now-and-gone-forever. Instant gratification in an age of information overload; no time to savour anything.

Who needs a record of the past? Indeed, who cares a fig about the past? We, and our thoughts, are as dispensable as the delete button we hit with such ferocious regularity. And there's no going back. One cannot undelete what is lost for ever, nor reclaim the myriad of important, intimate nuggets of communication which would have shone like jewels in the future.

The National Library of Scotland, belatedly, is creating an archive of blogs, journals and e-mails written by leading Scots. Curators will harvest websites and inboxes for things of cultural significance, describing it as a "digital repository" containing what will come to be regarded as the manuscripts of the 21st century.

It all sounds very admirable: the e-mails of JK Rowling, Ian Rankin and Alasdair Gray captured for posterity. (JK's e-mails to her investment manager would be the best read of all. Except those are precisely the ones that will never be kept and never be seen.)

I hope I'm wrong, but it is easy to be sceptical about a) the archive's longevity and b) its ability to mine the important stuff. As any biographer knows, the best source of a person's soul are not the letters they keep for posterity, but those they never intended to be seen again: the casual opinion, the throwaway jibe, the expression of intense, hidden love.
For e-mails, magnify that effect a zillion times. Treasure troves of informal letters from famous people still turn up, decades after they were written. E-mails will never do so. Text messages, another vital source of information, have even less chance of surviving.

Plus, we must factor in the speed of technological change: the machines on which the NLS is storing the archive will be obsolete in, what... two years? Five at most. We need the material they hold to be kept, and remain accessible, for 200 years. Is there any evidence that electronic information can be preserved like paper? What happens when the DVDs decay?

Historians and biographers of the famous, I fear, face a very lean future in a digital age. But you don't have to be famous, or seek to research the famous, to feel a sense of loss, of a void opening up. We leave no footprints now.
Over a lifetime, most of us keep letters and cards from friends and family, a precious repository of love, wisdom and memories. I even inherited a letter written on a ship by a brave female cousin emigrating to Van Diemen's Land, as Tasmania was known, from Northern Ireland in 1783 - spidery ink on two sides of paper thinner than tissue that somehow travelled safely back around the globe.

But all this will go: the handwriting which gives its own separate clues to an age and an individual; the type of paper; the art of the envelope, the tear stains and the smell of long-forgotten experiences.

Oh, hit the delete key and stop being such a has-been.

  12/09/2006. The Herald UK.