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Ephemera

September 13, 2009
Image via Wikimedia Commons
in the public domain.

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.

Paul spent a glorious Saturday wandering around Hampton Court Palace, and marvelling at the paintings, tapestry and even graffiti that still remains 500 years on from the reign of Henry VIII. Yet there are buildings that were built and demolished within living memory. They don’t make them like they used to…
6 Comments
  1. September 13, 2009 3:03 am

    I’ve often wondered about all of this. It’s still a difficult question for me but it’s one of the reasons for putting together my unpublished and self-published work into a Print On Demand collection – so that it can sit on my bookshelf for many years to come.

  2. September 13, 2009 3:54 am

    Firstly, thanks for including my essay in your carnival. It’s great to be part of such a creative group.

    Very interested to read about your return to writing with pencil. I think I’m struggling with typing everything straight into the computer because revisions are too easy and there’s no end to them. That’s why I’m also reverting to pen and paper. It give the RSS a break too:) Keep up the great writing!

  3. September 13, 2009 9:07 am

    I think there is something both beautiful and cathartic about writing long hand. While I love my fountain pen and ink (I actually went and bought more paper today to start morning journalling again) – I only ever write in my day to day diary in grey lead. Perhaps it is both the permanence and ability to erase it that makes me only ever write in lead pencil in it.

    And you are right about diaries and journals etc. I have a box of them under my desk at home and I marvel at what is contained in them. I would always be reluctant to print off my blog because it would seem wasteful – but having lost a whole swath of emails from an important part of my life when my hotmail box got maxed out over a holiday break years ago …. I realised the unreliability of digital storage.

    I must give creative writing a go with lead pencil .. I imagine it has a completely different asthetic and feel.

  4. September 13, 2009 12:33 pm

    I can’t agree that electronic media are more ephemeral than paper– although accessibility may be an issue. Jodi, you may have lost all those emails from your inbox, but I can almost guarantee they’re backed up somewhere. If there were a really good reason (say, a court order), hotmail would be able to produce them.

    The thing about paper is that, other than a published book or magazine, there’s usually only one or a few copies. (Didn’t we all use to hate typing up legal forms in triplicate?) E-communications _invariably_ produce copies of themselves that are mostly invisible to the casual user, but are stored, mirrored, and backed up hither and yon. Again, not all those copies are accessible and even finding out where they are isn’t necessarily easy. But they are there. Look at some of the high-profile lawsuits lately where all the relevant paper documents were shredded, but e-mails and e-memos got produced in evidence.

  5. September 14, 2009 3:07 am

    Tiel, I think that’s certainly true in the short term, but I’m talking about the longer term.

    If a digital copy is inaccessible, or we lack the hardware tool to access it, then it is worthless – it may as well be lost forever. Microsoft won’t hand over copies of deleted emails just because I accidently deleted my trash can, or because a historian wants to read the correspondence of the recently deceased. And will Microsoft even be able to access their servers 100 years from now? Will Microsoft even exist?

    I’ve got floppy disks going back about 20 years that no longer work, and even CDs have been found to denature at an alarming rate. All of these systems rely on silicon chips that developed a supply issue only a few years ago, and electricity which may itself be in short supply in the next few decades.

    I can drop my laptop and lose my work. I can drop my pad and pen and my words don’t vanish. Electronic writing doesn’t exist, it is all simple code reliant on temperamental hardware and non-standard codes – as I type these words, my computer could crash, and if it happens before I hit “submit comment” then these words are lost forever. That’s ephemeral.

    I don’t want to come across as a Luddite, especially given how excited technology gets me. But I’ve become more and more wary of giving over total trust to digital capture. For me it is a tool, but not a system. It backs up my hardcopy work, and my hardcopy work backs up the digital.

  6. September 14, 2009 9:24 pm

    I never knew this about King. What a great story. I love reading inspirational stories based on real events.

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