A couple of Monday’s ago, a post caught my attention on Twitter’s #MondayBlogs. The author, Samantha Tonge, found a bag of old love letters and spent an afternoon re-reading them and reconnecting with the emotions written on the pages. She wondered about today’s generation, reliant on their texts and email, which will never have the experience of re-reading old letters.
Looking at my generation, we’re probably the last of the letter writers, and I’m shocked when I contemplate this. My sons’ generation have never known the anticipation of checking the mailbox for a reply to a personal correspondence, the anticipation made sweeter for the wait. But the demise of letter writing has implications for history as well—our history. What part of ourselves will we leave behind for future historians?
While historical dates and facts are recorded in official records, they are sterile records. Without anecdotes, diaries, or letters, we can never fully get a sense of the people behind the events. What they did is less compelling than the question of why. Layer in the accounts of daily life, and a rich cross-section is preserved, allowing us to fill in the nuances of past cultures.
But today, people connect and record their thoughts and experiences through social media. I’m not knocking this; in fact, I’m delighted with the long-distance connections I’ve made which would have been impossible otherwise. But what happens when an email account or Facebook account is closed, or the owner passes away? What about the website when the blogger is gone? What have we left for the future?
Historically, our knowledge of the past has come mainly from the elite upper classes, as they were the most likely to be literate and have the leisure time to keep up a diary. This has limited our perception of the past. But today, with literacy at its height, even with the explosion of blogging, what is preserved one hundred, two hundred years in the future may be limited to popular media. Back episodes of news programs that documented world events? Check. But consider the endless loop of sensationalized ‘newsworthy’ stories that appear hour after hour on mainstream news. How much of it is relevant? Entertainment programs? Check. Do the Kardashians resemble any family you know? A historian might look back on these programs and infer the wrong conclusions.
Where does that leave us?
Hopefully paper and pen will not entirely disappear. People will continue to fill their journals with thoughts and observations of the world around them, and not rely on the digital world to remember them.
Who can we count on to do this? A writer.