Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, December 10, 2009

forgetting and remembering

When my colleague Adam Keiper wrote his incisive review of Viktor Mayer-Schönberger’s Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, little did he or Mr. Mayer-Schönberger know that Tiger Woods would show up to illustrate the dangers of an environment in which everything is remembered. Or did they know . . . ?

The fear of losing or forgetting has long been a motive engine of our culture. It was that fear that produced the scriptoria of medieval monasteries; it drove (along with other forces) the creation of the printing press and all technologies of mechanical reproduction. Thomasina Coverly, in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, asks how we can refrain from weeping when we think of all the great works of the ancients that have been lost: seven plays by Sophocles, for instance, when according to tradition he wrote 123. We might add that Beowulf survived in a single manuscript, as did the works of the Gawain poet; what if still greater works from the ancient world and the Middle Ages never made it to us?

Are those worries behind us now? Will we indeed devote our energies to covering our tracks and erasing our embarrassments, confident that everything that matters will be remembered? Probably not altogether. It’s hard to imagine that we might ever again lose — barring nuclear or other equally extensive holocaust — finished and published books, but the state of drafts and plans and sketches is a constant worry for libraries and archives. (Do we have a machine that can read an eight-inch floppy disk from a 1984 DEC computer, containing a file written in WordStar? And if we do, will the disk still have data integrity? — after all, no one knows how long these things last.) Likewise, many of the films made in the first decades of motion pictures have already deteriorated beyond any hope of recovery.

Some archivists have been encouraging figures of public significance to record their email passwords somewhere so that afte their death their correspondence can be retrieved. That may be the last thing that some of them want, except for those exceptionally shrewd ones who keep one email account for posterity and another, or several others, for whatever they’re ashamed of. Thus some people have expressed incredulity that adulterers busted by their text messages didn't have batphones set aside for just that purpose. But take all the precautions of that kind that you want: you’re still dependent on your correspondents’ being as secretive as you are. In that sense the modern playboy is no safer than the adventurer of early generations who wrote long passionate letters to his inamorata and at the bottom added “P.S. Burn this.”

Looking at the overall picture, I tend to think that we’re in strange territory right about now: the only documentary evidence certain to be preserved record the behavior that we’d rather forget, and have everyone else forget. Anything potentially scandalous has an indefinite shelf life. But things of value will always be under some kind of threat — even if books, thanks be to God, are safer now than they ever have been.

(P.S. I'll be out of commission for the next few days. Have fun without me.)
(P.S.S. Delete this.)


  • Perhaps the most critical issue confronting us today is not so much what gets preserved as who will preserve it. To what extent would the productions of medieval scriptoria or the printing press be accessible today without the existence of libraries? While libraries are not eternal (e.g., Ashurbanipal’s, Alexandria’s, Qumran’s, Caesarea’s, Cassiodorus’, et cetera), they do have a better record of survival (and remains) than individuals and corporations, and they exist for rather different reasons. The internet may be a type of universal library or archive, but few of its content providers or managers are concerned with long-term access or committed to digital curation.

  • I saw Viktor S-M talking about his book on C-Span last weekend. His speech was one of the most fascinating I've heard in months. It was more about the dangers than the desirability of preservation, if I remember right. Sobering.

  • It should be PPS post-post script. Sorry to be anal.

  • Thanks for the correction, Anon. I will leave the original in place as testimony to my shame.

Post a Comment

[Basic HTML tags can be used in this comment field.]