The Internet is not an elephant

Now and then you hear an old-timer rant about how we young people never sit down and write a real letter anymore. (Young in this case is probably defined as under 75.) We’re too busy with our email, our Twitter and Facebook, our IMs and texts.

Clearly, they are technically correct. Nobody writes letters anymore. It’s archaic, a relic of a bygone era. It’s simple economics. In the old days, a letter was the best option to reach across a great distance and communicate with someone. Technology has changed the equation; many better options now exist.

Think of the oldest person you know. Consider life when they came of age. That’s when we set our expectations of how the world is supposed to work. I’ll use my wife’s grandmother as an example. She will turn 91 in a few weeks, meaning she was born in the spring of 1920, in rural Poland. Since then she has seen a lot, including the inside of a Nazi work camp.

What was life like when she came of age? Well, she lived in the country. She probably walked everywhere. Maybe she had a bike, maybe not. There was no Internet. There were no mobile phones. The television would not be invented until she was eight years old, but I suspect she did not personally see one until she emigrated to the United States after World War II. A trip to the next town over would probably have been a major undertaking, let alone a long trip (even one to a country next door, a fairly short trip by modern first-world standards).

I am not saying she rants about people not writing letters; I can’t say I have ever heard her say anything on the subject. But within her life experience, a letter was the best option for most of the time. Only after she was entering her 70s were better options coming into play: cheap long-distance rates and the Internet.

As I age, I find myself thinking about the longevity of the information artifacts we generate. In the beginning, I was mostly worried about digital photos. How could I ensure they survived? Unlike film negatives, digital storage technology changes quickly. Think fast: here’s a ZIP disk. Can you read it? No? What about this 5.25" floppy? 3.5"? What is the likelihood that the JPEG format will be readable by computers in common use when I am a grandparent?

These days, I am concerned about digital artifacts as a whole. My life is ever-increasingly digital, as it is with all of us. I have scanned and shredded most of my file cabinet. I get my bills via email. I communicate with everyone online, leaving no persistent trail (or so I hope). I haven’t used a film camera in years. My magnetic-tape videocamera is in a bag somewhere, but my Flip Mino and my iPhone shoot video all the time.

For the past ten years, I have been a member of Distributed Proofreaders, whose mission is to help Project Gutenberg digitize public domain works for safekeeping and distribution. We scan old books using OCR software, and then the hive mind goes to work. I and many others proofread scanned text. Others take the output from proofreaders and add formatting markup (italics, footnotes, etc.). After several rounds of work, a completed ebook is handed off to Project Gutenberg for publication. It is, for me, important work that I am happy to help with. Time will destroy all old books eventually; I believe they should be preserved for future generations.

I am currently working on a biography about William Cowper, a writer and poet who lived during the latter half of the 18th century. As with many such books, it is full of correspondence, which tells the story of his life. You get a feel for who he was, how he lived, how his relationships worked. I had never heard of William Cowper before I began scrutinizing these scans for errors, but I now find myself fascinated with his story.

I wonder: will anyone be able to write such books about us in a hundred years? How would they go about it? There will be so little left behind. Will your blog still be running for someone to analyze? Where will your emails be accessible? Your tweets? God help you, your Facebook photos from college?

They say the Internet never forgets, but I’m not so sure. I suspect that over a long enough period of time, the Internet will in fact forget. It will forget us all.