Two weeks ago I told you about my return to writing with pen and paper. And true to my word, this article was originally written with a simple mechanical pencil on paper. Maybe it is to do with my recent interest in art, or perhaps I feel freer to write with a pencil, since mistakes are more easily rectified, but I’ve found it a lot easier to recently to write in pencil on paper than any other medium.
This is a far cry from my usual style of writing, which has been exclusively digital. The push to the digital age is relentless. Blogs, email, websites, Facebook, Twitter, ebooks. In some cases this is a boon; instant access to information, ease of transmission of ideas.
But what of books, letters, memos, diaries, journals? What of the simpler forms of communication?
Historians can tell you a wealth of information about Norman England thanks to the detailed records in the Domesday Book. In 1986 this was digitised onto laserdisk to “preserve” it. Now, that information is difficult to access due to hardware problems, software limitations, and copyright disputes. But the original Domesday Book, in paper and ink, still exists.
Paper does not last forever. But with care and attention, it can last for centuries.
Letters and diaries of monarchs, politicians, writers and artists, give us unique insights into their lives. The most celebrated diarist in history, Samuel Pepys, provided us with contemporary records of such historical events as the Great Plague, the English Restoration and the Great Fire of London. Since its first publication in 1825, his diary has been in continuous print, in one format or another.
At no point in human history have so many people had so much access to information, combined with the ability to record their own experiences. But digital is an ephemeral format. It does not exist, except within codes and machines many of us barely understand, and reliant on commodities that may become scarce.
Machines advance, formats change. Card, tape, floppy disk, CD, DVD – the method of recording information advances, and there are no standards of compatible format – Apple, Windows, Linux, .doc, .txt, .pdf, .odt – choose, and choose wisely, for the next update may render your work unreadable.
We risk being both the most recorded, but least known generation in history. If legacy formats barely a quarter of a century old are now unreadable (whether through lack of hardware, or the degeneration of the information), what hope for historians of the future to look back on us?
On a recent visit home to my family, I looked through a box of old photographs, birth, marriage and death certificates, some over 100 years old, and I asked myself what record will future generations have of me? With computers and digital photography, I disappear from physical records from the age of 27 onwards. Beyond the barest official documents, my life and my writing are digital. This is part of the reason I am now writing more in longhand. For posterity, to leave a mark, a record, however egotistical that might seem.
Memories are short, and digital memory is unreliable. Life is simply too ephemeral to entrust to the ephemera.