Ars Longa, Data Brevis

I do almost all of my written correspondence by email these days. I’ve always liked communicating in writing, and I generally take email-writing as seriously as I ever did letter-writing. I’m not one of those people who writes emails like:

dude u wanna go 2 the game? I got sum tix lemme know

I appreciate the objectivity and re-readability of the written word, but the latency of paper mail makes for conversations that seem very slow indeed these days, so I hardly ever send any.

But for all their atavistic and ponderous physicality, words printed on paper have a tendency to stick around, either until someone throws them in the garbage or the building they are in burns down. Electronic media, however, are frighteningly evanescent. I have several friends with whom I have corresponded regularly over the years, and I have drawers full of letters dating from my childhood all the way up to the mid-90s or so — but hardly anything since. In the past decade I have changed email addresses several times, and have owned a succession of computers, each of which has sooner or later dropped dead. I’ve managed to hang on to some of my old email in various backups on various media, but much is lost, and I expect none of it would be if it had been old-fashioned paper mail. Some of it is on floppy disks, which I can no longer get at because computers don’t have floppy drives anymore, and some is on old CDs, which no doubt will soon be obsolete as well. But the old letters in the drawer are doing just fine, as are the old books on my bookshelves. I even almost lost an entire book I had written (on the now utterly unimportant topic of how to do a good job in a recording studio): two computer drives died in quick succession at the same time that the hosting company where I had also backed up a copy went out of business. I managed, after a frantic search, to find a single copy on an old floppy drive.

I realize that a disciplined backup policy would go a long way toward solving this problem, but even so it isn’t the same. First of all, writing on paper is its own backup; it has a permanence that bits on a magnetic disk lack. Also, paper requires no associated technology for subsequent extraction of the data; you just pick it up and read it. All that is required is daylight. Furthermore, electronic media all look the same; one’s reaction upon opening an old trunk and finding a bundle of letters is going to be quite different from finding a bunch of floppies or an unlabeled CD.

I started, a year or two ago, to go through all the email I still had copies of and print it out, but it was just too tedious, and there was just too much of it. (There is a certain irony in the fact that I find myself in this position, when nowadays I write electronic-discovery software for a living, but there it is.)

On the other hand, once a digital document crosses a certain threshold of publicity (once, for example, the major search engines pick it up) it may well become almost immortal, like it or not — as I’m sure I’ll find out the next time I’m looking for a job, or trying to cross the border.

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  1. JK says

    I can come close to feeling that I can assure you, it’ll always be out there somewhere. That’s why I sign,


    Posted June 28, 2008 at 12:18 am | Permalink
  2. Charles says

    When I first came to Korea, I didn’t have an email account. Back then, most people I knew only had email accounts through their universities, etc., and when I graduated, that went out the window. So every week I wrote these massive missives to my parents, using an old-fashioned ink-dispensing utensil on dead-tree media. I wrote hundreds of pages of letters. I know this because some years ago my mother photocopied every single one of these letters, put them in a huge three-ring binder, and gave it to me as a present so I would not forget what life was like when I first got here. This link to the past is very precious to me.

    Sure, I still have emails that I have written over the years, but like you said, it’s not such an easy thing to just “flip through” emails like it is to flip through letters. I sometimes miss the old days of handwritten letters. This nostalgia usually lasts until I actually try to write something of substantial length by hand. Then the pain and cramping in my fingers overrides the longing for ye olde days.

    Posted July 1, 2008 at 5:02 am | Permalink
  3. Although I love the thought that you can put ‘avatistic’ and ‘evanescent’ in the same sentence, I’m going to suggest that this works partly because of the typing/backspacing/editing that electronic media affords. It allows us to edit a lot more afterwards (I’m sure you’ll wanna rebut this, but still…)

    I can’t remember the last time I wrote anything aside from my signature. In my case, the keyboard is hugely helpful because I’m left-handed and writing requires me to push the pen across paper which really is a pain.

    Salim Ismail

    Posted July 2, 2008 at 4:16 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Hi Salim,

    Forgive me, but actually those two words were used not in the same sentence, but adjacent ones.

    There’s nothing I’d rebut in what you’ve said — I lean heavily on the editing capabilities my computer permits, and I do very little writing with a pen these days, save for the occasional crossword.

    Posted July 2, 2008 at 11:17 am | Permalink