August 31, 2007
But in letters you get much more personal. You meet the writer as they are -- they're not worried about people reading the letter decades from now, they're not thinking about the public record. They're just putting some words on paper for someone they know, giving them advice or telling stories or encouraging them -- whatever the purpose, they're very much in the moment, not concerned about the longevity of the letter. Some of my favorite books are collections of these letters -- these things people never thought would be widely read. I find myself learning a LOT more about the writer, and their time, when I read their letters.
This post at the Thinklings blog got me thinking. Actually, it got me thinking again about something that I've discussed with my wife (the American Revolution scholar). "What are historians going to do with the late 20th-early 21st centuries?"
We don't write letters much any more. (Of course, my wife will tell you that I never write letters BEFORE I got the computer and Internet access, but I digress). We email, and email is a very fragile thing. All I have to do is hit one button, type one command, and it's gone. DELETED, as StrongBad would say. Computer forensics could find some of them, but fifty years from now they'll be gone, unless we save them all. And I don't know many people that keep all their email -- I've even deleted email from my "bottomless account" at Gmail.
Will historians of the future wonder about us? Or will they be so used to electronic communications that they won't think twice about it? Will they be amazed at the amount of paper correspondence that we still do have? Or maybe they'll just spend a lot of time poking through server records, wondering why the ruler of Nigeria spent so much time trying to get people to hide his money.
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