I recently finished reading Joseph J. Ellis's Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, the final chapter of which is about the John Adams/Thomas Jefferson correspondence, which lasted from 1812 until 1826, when both men died on the same day. In many ways, it is remarkable, considering how easy it is to destroy paper, that these letters are still around and available to the reading public. It is even more remarkable, however, that the Adams/Jefferson correspondence is not unique. Throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, it was common for people to write letters and preserve them for posterity.
People still preserve communication. In fact, our society has become so communication-saturated that it seems almost impossible not to preserve communication, since the digital forums through which we transmit our communications often do the preservation and archiving for us. Still, while I have a digital record of all of my e-mail sent since 2005, I have no hard copy to speak of. Should I buy the proverbial farm, so to speak, kick the fatal bucket, or shuffle off the mortal coil, my family and friends will have no access to my digital correspondences unless they know the password for my e-mail account. My question, therefore, is this: what happens to such digital correspondences when the forums or technology that produce them become outmoded and obsolete? What will happen to your g-mail archive--or your blog, for that matter--when Google goes bust?
In many ways, we now approach written communication as something relatively disposable. To be sure, written communication has never been more popular. Text messaging, for example, has enabled people to carry on conversations in real time without ever opening their mouths. E-mail and online message boards have made correspondence faster and easier. Blogs have given everyone (including me) the opportunity to become a published writer--even if they have nothing to say. What is more, Facebook and other social networking sites have made it possible, via the "status update" feature, for people to create an hourly (yea, even a minute-to-minute) written record of their daily activities. No other era in history has written more than our own. Yet, what are the collected works of our era but words written on the swift current of an ever-widening river?
Two hundred years from now historians will likely face two problems. First, in their efforts to analyze and interpret our day and age, they will be overwhelmed with the surplus of digital junk--digital photos, documents, etc.--that they have to sift through in order to get at our heart and soul (provided, of course, that the technology needed to access our digital junk is still around). Second, once they are through sifting the digital junk, they will struggle to find our heart and soul because the forms of written communication that we have used to express ourselves most personally--text messages, e-mails, blogs, Facebook statuses, etc.--have been written on forms of disposable digital media. After all, what text-message conversation will outlast a cell phone replacement or an old cell phone plan? What e-mail will survive a discarded or forgotten e-mail address? What minute-by-minute Facebook status record will survive Facebook's inevitable demise? The fact of the matter is this: unless we actively archive our words on some enduring medium, they will be lost to time.
In Founding Brothers, Ellis makes the point that Adams and Jefferson were writing not only for themselves, but also for the generations of Americans who would follow them. That is, they wrote deliberately and with the knowledge that their correspondence would survive. Today, it seems, we often write without much thought for tomorrow. Will our posterity want to read our text messages? Will they want to know what our Facebook status was at 7:32 am on Tuesday, January 27, 2009? Maybe. Maybe not. I am willing to bet, however, that they will want to read something of substance from us--something that reveals, on a personal level, who we were as a generation.
Ernest Hemingway and his contemporaries were called the "Lost Generation" because they were perceived as being morally lost in the post World War I world. In many ways, today's generation is rapidly becoming a new lost generation--a "Lost Digital Generation," if you will--because what it has to say is written instantly, received and processed rapidly, and then immediately deleted.