Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Future of History

I wonder, sometimes, how people are going to be able to write histories and biographies in the future. The age of the electronic media is going to make that more difficult, I think. Or is it?

In days gone by, if I wanted to write a biography about someone, I would consult, among other things, their letters, and possibly their journal. People would keep the letters that they received from someone, and these would later feed the biographer’s hunger. Are you keeping all the emails that a (soon-to-be-famous) person has sent to you? Are you storing away their tweets, their SMS messages? Are you keeping all of your own, across several changes of computer and telephone? Will I, as a biographer, be required to trawl through someone’s Facebook page to extract relevant information? Will there be some kind of lasting blog record of their life? What about photographs? I think we are deluding ourselves if we think that the digital age has facilitated the preservation of a photographic record of someone’s life. How many photographs that you have taken will survive for a year, ten years, a hundred years? I know I have lost many digital photographs over the years. I have no negative from which to make another print. Will future generations even be able to read whatever device our photographs are stored on? I apologise for this avalanche of rhetorical questions.

Information on electronic media, as abundant, valuable and useful as it is, is ephemeral and vulnerable in a way that information stored on paper, film or other physical media is not. It is difficult to accidentally delete or record over a film, a photograph or a letter. Of course such things can be lost; but so can electronic media. Where did I leave that memory stick? I am reminded that the problem of confidentiality is also much more acute in the electronic media. A document in my desk drawer is in no danger of being stolen by someone half way around the world.

The job of the biographer or the historian of the future may or may not be made more difficult by the dominance of the electronic media during this age. It will certainly be different.

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