The durability of communication
On the hard drive of my computer I have, at an estimate, some 250,000 emails that I have sent or received over a period of just under 20 years. Some of them are either very short, or really boring, but even if you discount these I have thousands of emails that document what I have thought or said or what others have said to me. They are a diary, and a notebook, and a miscellany of ideas. Are they also useless?
The early emails were written or received on a PC using an email client called Pegasus. For much of that time I had both a Windows computer and a Macintosh (don’t ask me why). When in 2003 I migrated to a Macintosh-only system, I moved all of my emails to a rather complex but amazingly versatile client called Mulberry, which I still use. Because Pegasus mail isn’t easy to export to another program, I had to do it by copying, bit by bit, all my emails to an IMAP server and then re-copying it back to Mulberry. Since then I have more than doubled the size of my email archive, so I would hate to have to do it again.
But actually, what would happen to all this stuff if I were to fall under a bus this afternoon? I ask this in part because, over the past year or so, I have been taking some time to read through some of my late father’s correspondence, much of it either hand-written or typed. It is a bit of a nuisance working my way through a couple of dozen dusty boxes, but on the whole this correspondence is very accessible. But what if the next generation should want to do the same with my correspondence, say in 30 years time? Always assuming that it hasn’t by then long been deleted, would they have any chance of being able to read it at all? What program would they use? What equipment would be able to load it? In fact, will it all just be lost?
What is the answer to this? Leave aside for a moment the self-important assumption that anyone would want to read my stuff. Just accept that there will be some people whose emails will be of interest to future historians. How will they access them? Indeed how will they be preserved at all?
I have contemplated printing out some emails, as paper copies are still the most reliable archives. But hardly 250,000. And if not that number, how many, and which? As technology changes at such extraordinary speeds, is everything we have written doomed to be lost?