Personal History Lost In The Digital Age

A letter from a friend in Holland arrived the other day. It was like an artifact from prehistoric times. We used to write regularly in the late 1970s and '80s after we had met on a tour of Amsterdam. I had gone to Holland on a the break from my studies at Oxford. He had arrived from Belgium for a quick weekend holiday. We hit if off immediately.

I check my snail mail box infrequently these days as all my bills come to me electronically and hardly anyone writes notes anymore. However, on this day, after sorting through all the junk mail, there was actually a letter with a handwritten address to me. I knew immediately who it was from. What a delight. What a thrill. I quickly opened it. "Surprise! Snail mail," my friend began in his proper European script. I can't remember the last time I wrote to anyone aside from emails or a sympathy card. So finding this letter in the mail was like a special gift that even Amazon couldn't out-perform. I carefully sliced open the envelop and started to lose myself in his story. I was immediately immersed in the minutia of his life as I read about his on-going adventures.

I regret the death of hand written letters. I have bundles of cards and notes that my father wrote to my mother throughout their 68 year marriage. I have even more letters that my mother wrote to me beginning with the day I left for college. There is nothing equal to looking at an envelop from long ago with handwriting that is immediately identifiable and wondering what memories will be sparked by opening it. It's part of the writer's history and my own which I cherish - even more so the older that I get.

What does it mean for today's younger generations and their progeny to no longer have hand written confirmation of their existence and their history? What does it mean for families, academic historians, biographers, and archivists - when there are no letters to provide a window on our times. No love letters, no letters from the battlefield, no letters to reveal a revered writer's wicked, gossipy side. No letters with long ago hidden secrets, no pictures or hand drawings.

I find that writing in script uses a part of my brain that typing emails, twitter, Instagram, and Facebook does not tap. I linger over writing a letter. I visualize the person to whom I am sending my letter and reflect back upon our lives, our experiences (together and separately), and I carefully and lovingly select my stationery or card.

"But what's the problem?" I hear you say. We each produce more information about ourselves on the web daily than we ever did in years gone by. Everyone is a writer (of sorts) today as well as a photographer, videographer, blogger, etc., documenting every aspect of their daily life. From what they are eating in the moment to their sexual preferences, to their infidelities, to gory details of their latest surgical procedure, to their politics, to their social prejudices, and their gun collection.

While way too much is out in the electronic webisphere about us and much of it we have a hard time getting rid of, in fact, it is not permanent. Vinton Cerf, known as the "father of the internet" is a V. P. and prophet at Google. He has repeatedly warned that we face a "forgotten generation, or even a forgotten century" (ours) because our digital lives, far from being preserved forever, may disappear into a black hole."

It seems that there is a raging debate among historians and computer geeks about, well, not the death of the letter, but the permanency of what's replaced it. One side argues we're living through an explosion of personal writing and documentation unprecedented in human history - think memoir; there are a plethora published annually. There are tens of millions of blogs. More than a billion people are on Facebook. And, unlike earlier centuries, the poorest and most illiterate among us are documenting their lives every second of every day. We'll know from first-hand accounts how it feels to be poor, oppressed and grossly violated by both male and female privileged people of every color and political stripe.

The problem for future historians, biographers and genealogists, the optimists argue, will be an excess of words. So please delete, delete, delete. But wait. There is a bigger problem. Think back to the early days of the internet and the public's access to it from their home office. The information typed onto the screen wasn't stored on a hard drive, a flash drive, or on the "cloud", it was stored on a floppy disc. Remember those? All the digital information people stored on floppy discs in the 1990s were external. Today that information is all but inaccessible. Even if the discs are in good condition, who has the equipment to find out what's on them? Digital records of twenty-plus years ago are harder to access than paper records of 100 years ago. Think microfilm.

Google's Vint Cerf said people digitize material to preserve it but the programs and hardware needed to access the material probably won't be around in the future. "If there are photos or documents that you really care about, print them out," he says. And, who should know better than the man for gave us the internet.

People in the future may find ways around long-lost passwords to access digital files. Maybe Facebook will release to historians a dead person's private messages after 50 years (if the company has kept them, and is still in business) Surely, we're smart enough not to lose our written history. But the problem of securing our digital lives for posterity is far from solved.

It's funny that the humble letter, if protected from light, water, mice and the shredder, is still the most enduring document. You just need your eyes, you don't need to crack a code to read it; and it might be easier to track down than an email will prove to be in the future.

My Dutch friend is the last of my friends who writes letter or cards. I haven't seen him in many, many years so for me he will always appear in my mind's eye as he did at the age of 23. There's something comforting about that.

Do you miss letter writing? What's been gained and/or lost. Please leave your comments.


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