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?

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14 Comments on “The durability of communication”

  1. anna notaro Says:

    Ah! I happen to remember Pegasus, it was the email client I used in 1995 for a Mac (yes there’s a Mac in my past:)
    Actually, the issue you touch upon here, digital preservation is widely debated in the mediasphere, the whole idea of what constitues an ‘archive’ is now reconsidered, in brief the discussion includes questions such as: How does the physical archive change and adapt in the face of new technologies?
    When is the archive not an archive? What is the difference between the archive and the collection?
    How should we respond to the growing number of images available to us in the digital archive, as increasingly we are exposed to photographs for which there are no original viewing contexts available? What is the value of these decontextualised and dematerialised documents to the researcher as historical evidence?
    How is the institutional archive to respond to questions about the democratization of the archive, not only through the process of digitisation and online access but also the growing use of more interactive forms of viewing/sharing with web 2.0?
    It is a rich and timing field of enquiry…

    • jfryar Says:

      I think this is where the Cloud comes in. In the future, you won’t have a hard disk-based physical copy of your emails. They’ll be out there somewhere stored away for you or future generations to access.

      How would they read them? Well we already have computer systems capable of reading through texts and sorting by the information they contain. As the recent computer victory over human contestants in the quiz show Jeopardy shows, machines can pull information and file it away, and make subtle connections between that information. I suspect in a few years they’ll be better than us at doing that. The possibilities are quite exciting. For example, with access to thousands of sources, a machine might be able to connect historical information in a way we’ve missed.

      All someone will do is type ‘Ferdinand’s take on the points system’ and away it’ll go. The system might even be able to give you a summary of salient points from 250,000 emails, documents, articles, etc. Humans won’t have to worry about the context. The machines will work that out for us!

      • Vincent Says:

        History isn’t in the connections. It’s in what you leave out.๐Ÿ™‚

        • anna notaro Says:

          Indeed Vincent u have a point, also it might be worth questioning what lies behinx our somdtimes obsessive desire t
          o catalogue etc we might understand then why the whole issue of the archive has become so central in the digital age

        • jfryar Says:

          But does everyone in history leave out the same parts? In which case a machine might be able to fill in the blanks in one source with the non-blanks in others. And it might be able to do this in a more subtle way than we can given the sheer volumes of information it could process.๐Ÿ™‚

      • anna notaro Says:

        Jfryar, there are some important implication in adopting the cloud archive, which have to do with ownership and control, as this book convincingly argues, http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/leadbeater10/leadbeater10_index.html
        Interestingly the ‘cloud’ as term has beren around since the 80s, it indicated the internet then..

        • anna notaro Says:

          *latent OCD* Vincent I was more thinking along the lines of a desire for immortality, that human aspiration to leave behind an indelible trace of our (temporary) presence. Monuments perform a similar function…

        • jfryar Says:

          Well I used the term ‘Cloud’ in haste but a more appropriate phrase might be the ‘Neb’ for ‘nebulous systems’. I can’t help but feel we’ve come full circle – I remember dumb terminals and logging into a mainframe to run software hosted on it. In many respects, we’re returning back to the same idea some twenty years later.

          I agree there are implications in adopting a ‘cloud’ archive, but I don’t see the difference between this and what currently happens. If you want to access original historical texts, you generally have to apply to a museum or university for permission to study them.

          As computer storage becomes larger and cheaper, I see no reason why museums or universities would not bid for the digital archive to store on their own servers. I could see a time when Facebook is gone, a relic of the past, and all the users long since dead. But someone wishing to study that aspect of our culture could simply log into the museum mainframe and gain access to the ENTIRE ‘image’ of Facebook, bought for a tidy sum like museums do aready with artifacts.

      • Perry Share Says:

        It would be fascinating to see what a data-mining process would make of 250,000 emails. What type of FvP figure would emerge? Would it in any way reflect the ‘real’ FvP?

        I’m afraid that if that same programme was let loose on my thousands of archived emails, it would paint me as a figure obsessed with the minutae of academic management, which I’m not really๐Ÿ™‚

        Plus, of course, a few years’ worth of Popbitch emails that constitute a somewhat jaundiced view of the world of popular culture!

  2. cormac Says:

    Do you keep all of them Ferdinand, or do you sort them first? Due to lack of storage space, I have been deleting emails all these years – I only keep important ones, which is about 1 in 10. It does make it a lot easier to ind somehing!
    My real worry is that my blog and all its courses will one day be deleted, thanks to some oversight at WordPress

  3. Perry Share Says:

    Pegasus was great!

  4. anna notaro Says:

    forget about archiving email, the American Library of Congress is building the Twitter archive
    http://radar.oreilly.com/2011/06/library-of-congress-twitter-archive.html
    For Tweetters out there, now we know!

  5. Dave Says:

    Think what it means for organisational records and corporate memory!


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