History lost in the digital age

May 24, 2015
Gerard ter Borch
Gerard ter Borch

A letter from a friend in London arrived the other day. It was like an artefact from pre-historic times. “Look! A letter,” my friend began in her neat script. I can’t remember the last time it happened. Can you? American Express and the gas company send me snail mail, and every charity in the country – I’m on all the lists. No-one else.

Whatever you do, don’t feel sorry for me and drop me a line. The last time I lamented the death of the personal letter, in a column for the Sydney Morning Herald, every high school English teacher in the state assigned their students to write me a letter; and every person with time on their hands did, too. Years later, I still feel guilty that I ran out of steam before I’d replied to them all.

I’m not lamenting the death of the letter this time. I’m no Luddite. But I’m wondering what it means for future generations – for family historians, academic historians, biographers, and archivists – when there are no letters to provide a window on our times. No love letters, no letters from the battle-front, no letters to reveal a revered writer’s wicked, gossipy side.

But what’s the problem? I hear you say. They’ll have so much more: Facebook and email, Twitter and Instagram, and blogs….maybe even this blog….. Everyone’s a writer (of sorts) today as well as a photographer; everyone’s documenting their day, sharing their breakfast and their honeymoon and their husband’s infidelity online. It’s not all superficial; some of it is thoughtful and/or self-revelatory. Historians and biographers of the future will be in clover.

That’s what I thought. I believed what we create online is permanent which is why we’ve advised our kids not to post on Facebook anything they wouldn’t want their grandmother (or future employer) to read. But now I know it’s more complex: project forward not 10 years but 100. The vice-president of Google, Vint Cerf, recently warned that we face a “forgotten generation, or even a forgotten century” (ours) because our digital lives, far from being preserved forever, may sink into a black hole.

Last week I was on a panel to discuss the topic From Letters to Twitter at the Sydney Jewish Museum as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. A bit of research beforehand revealed a debate is raging 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. There are tens of millions of blogs. More than a billion people are on Facebook. And unlike earlier centuries, the ‘peasants’ are documenting their lives today. We’ll know from first-hand accounts how it feels to be poor and oppressed.

Sure, most people depict only the sunny side of life on Facebook but emails and private Facebook messages to friend or lover, and some blogs can be as personal as any letter. If you don’t believe me, read this. The problem for future historians and biographers, the optimists argue, will be an excess of words. So please delete, delete, delete.

Representing the other side is Lisa Murray, the historian at the Sydney City Council. She gave a Tedx talk recently with a floppy disc in hand. Remember the floppy disc? All the digital information people stored on floppy discs in the 1990s is practically inaccessible today. Even if the discs are in good condition, who has the equipment to find out what’s on them? The technology has moved on. Murray told of a social historian who was writing the history of Sydney’s City Recital Hall and wanted a list of the performances from its first ten years, starting in 1999. It wasn’t available. The computer system had changed. The digital records of ten years ago “are harder to access than paper records of 100 years ago,” Murray said.

Google’s Cerf said people digitised material to preserve it but the programs and hardware needed to access the material might not be around in the future. “If there are photos you really care about, print them out,” he said.

National libraries are taking steps to preserve masses of digital material they deem important by today’s standards (I was chuffed the National Library of Australia has chosen to include my website in its digital archive). Clever people in 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 history. But the problem of securing our digital lives for posterity, it turns out, is far from solved.

It’s funny that the humble letter, if protected from mice, water 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 in future. My London friend is the last of the letter-writers. And because she’s so ill, this letter is more than an historical artefact. For me, it’s a treasure.

Do you miss letters? What’s been gained and lost? I’d love to get your comments on this.

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