THE BLOG
03/05/2008 02:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Email Is Changing the Way We Communicate and Historians Are Worried

Email is the workhorse of modern communications at work and at home. Yes, we still use letters -- mostly for bills and other unrelenting official forms. Office memos are morphing into CYA missives for the files. At home, we no longer write personal letters except the warm greetings in our annual holiday cards. Email, and it's offspring, text messaging, are the primary written connectors in our hurry-up, get-it-done, get-it-now, ADD society.

While they may be the pace-car for today's written communications, not everyone is happy about emails. Some feel they're time-wasters and stressors as we slog through endless organ enlargement offers and dire warnings about 'dinners of death," while deleting that one important message that was mis-routed as spam or "bulk" mail.

Email is also ammunition. Because we often snap off emails in emotional haste, they are showing up in great numbers in therapy offices and divorce courts as in "See what this butt-face said to me?" The old admonition about memos now applies to emails: never put anything in an email you don't want to show up on the Internet, on the nightly news, or in court.

But, back to the future. There's a treasure-trove of computer-generated communications sitting out there amongst business, government and significant people that is not available to historians and biographers. There is no way to access, manage and use it. So, what's the problem? Apparently, it's the future. Without these digital communications, generations who follow will lose opportunities for valuable insight and understanding as to the who, what, why and how of our lives, says Peter Gottlieb, State Archivist of Wisconsin. But what about privileged communications between leaders? There are some things that simply need to be said privately. Well, yeah, that's why we have telephones, which are supposed to be private, unless you're on the phone with Presidents Kennedy, Johnson or Nixon, or you're a member of organized crime, or using a cell phone in which case anyone can listen in.

A nation without history is like a nation without a memory, says author and historian, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Which is why historians are so concerned about email communications and the petabytes of digital memory being lost. As a result, there are several experimental projects underway to try and solve the vital information gap that emails present for the future.

One of them is an unprecedented affiliation between our government's National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and the University of San Diego's Super Computer Center. A whole bunch of brain power, money and computer expertise is being spent to develop an archival system to access, store and manage computer generated information of the federal government. "Advancement and discovery in the 21st century is driven by data," says U.C. San Diego's Super Computer Center Director, Fran Berman. "Preserving our most valuable digital assets is critical for the future," she says on NARA's website.

You can shred a document in your office and it's gone. You can erase a tape recording and it's blank. You can delete your email, delete your trash and trash your computer but your email is alive -- somewhere, on somebody's server. One of the challenges for experts is how to access this vast amount of digital writing, pick out what ought to be preserved historically and separate them from the mundane, says Wisconsin's State Archivist, Gottlieb.

As for archiving and managing the personal emails of historically significant people, that's a whole other problem. People are trying to figure out that system and all its tricky legal and privacy issues. Tough job. NARA has been at their super computers since June, 2006, but no success yet. But if they do succeed, how different the tone of these future historical correspondence might look and sound. Would the famous Thomas Jefferson and John Adams correspondence have the same impact if they had been emails?

"My dear good Dude,

I am SITD and :-[ upon hearing about U no who. I'd like a F2F with him but it's not 2 B.
Please deliver TLC 2 U'R beloved Mrs. Adams.

Here's a ^5 to U, my old friend.

Thomas

TRANSLATION.....

I am still in the dark and super bummed upon hearing about you know who. I'd like a face-to-face with him but it's not to be.
Please deliver tender loving care to your beloved Mrs. Adams.

Here's a high-five to you, my old friend.

COMING: Pt 2: Is Text Messaging Changing Our Written Language?