Tonight I happened to be watching a bit of a TV show on archaeology, during which they looked at a 16C drawing of a tattooed woman. Someone said, "Why is this the only thing we have? How can we know what other people of this era looked like?" The obvious answer was, "Because they didn't have cameras back then, with people taking a million digital photos of everything that moved or looked mildly interesting." But it is an interesting question, one that historians grapple with, if they're any good. Who records history? Why? Is the history of war, for instance, recorded mostly by the victors? Is our social history recorded by the rich and literate? In that case, where are the stories of the poor and illiterate?
This question has given rise to the oral history, where someone interviews a wide range of people in order to get their experiences of being alive during a certain time. In Australia, Wendy Lowenstein has done this with Weevils in the Flour, and in the US, Studs Terkel is famous for his oral histories. They tell us the realities of poverty, starvation, and women killing themselves with Lysol because they couldn't afford a more expensive poison.
But this led me on to thinking about other issues with recording who we are, as well as what we are creating that reflects our lives. Think about this - any photos that you take right now are almost certainly digital. If you save them on your computer, or on a CD, or on a USB drive, you have absolutely no guarantee that they will survive. Your computer will die (any writer will have had the experience or know of someone who has lost everything through a hard drive failure). CDs, once thought to be the ultimate indestructible storage, are now being shown to fail within five to ten years. I've had a USB drive fail on me recently, and another that is showing signs of dying.
If you print out your photos from your digital source, as I do, they are often printed on cheap paper with cheap inks. How long will they last? Not as long as those old prints your grandparents owned, that's for sure. If you print them on your home printer, probably even less. As for text, again anything on your computer can be gone in an instant. (Computer failure has overtaken "the dog ate my homework" as the prime excuse for late assignments - no, we still don't believe most of them.) When I got married, we asked the celebrant for a copy of the ceremony text, which she printed out on her thermal printer - I don't dare go and look because I know from experience that it will have faded and now be unreadable.
Scrapbooking? How many people are using acid-free products? If not, within time your paper and glue will both cause staining and irreparable damage. A friend of mine spent many years on a family history and has spent the time and money to have it printed on acid-free paper and bound in leather. Gee, just like they did in the old days. Her work will still be around in 500+ years. Not much else that's being produced right now will do the same.
What if we have some kind of nuclear winter (caused by goodness knows what)? What will survive? For a start, anything digitally stored will probably be useless. Remember all those old 8mm home movies? Who still has the old projector setup so they can be watched? And if you transfer them onto digital video, in twenty years time you'll be in the same boat. I may well sound like a total Luddite, but for me, digital technology and storage is incredibly fast and convenient, but I never assume it will last. Books will. And so will language. We are still reading texts produced hundreds of years ago (with a little translation help) because they were recorded on paper and stone and parchment - things that, despite weather and other disasters, have lasted and endured.
I suspect that the paperless office will continue to be a myth, simply because at some level, most people believe digital records are not permanent. As for the ongoing razzamatazz about ebooks and digital books and all that other stuff - yes, our next generation may well discard books as a way to educate themselves and entertain themselves. But if it all disappears, they'll be back begging for a library card in five seconds flat!