Thursday, March 29, 2007

A new Dark Age?

The historian Ben Macintyre wrote an article in The Times the other day voicing his concern that “there is a real danger that technology will leave much of the electronically written record marooned and illegible.” His central point is that while we document our lives better than ever before – in computer documents, a welter of emails and billions of text messages – no-one makes much effort to keep this material for posterity in a way (ie on paper) that will make it easily accessible to the historians of tomorrow. His fear is that this era will become a new Dark Age, as impenetrable in a thousand years’ time as the period after the Roman Empire is to us today, and illuminated only by a few remaining sagas, perhaps works like Harry Potter. Disturbing a thought though this is (I suppose because it confronts the human instinct to be remembered by posterity), having had a lengthy think about it I think his worries are exaggerated.

Macintyre’s worry is one peculiar to modern historians. His excellent latest book Agent Zigzag uses newly released transcripts from interrogations of a famous double agent, Eddie Chapman, by the British security service MI5 to build a rich and fascinating spy-story. My own book similarly relies on hours spent mining The National Archives in London, looking for nuggets that I could use to tell the story. The thought that the often hilariously cynical observations of future civil servants and ministers might never see the light of day (and provide us with a future advance) strikes dread into the modern historian’s heart: particularly when one thinks of the promisingly confessional effect that email seems to have.

The archives of the British government since its vast expansion in Napoleonic times are an amazing, and completely extraordinary resource. Few other countries in the world have such a comprehensive record of modern times. But the danger in relying on them overly is that they encourage us to exaggerate the importance and effectiveness of government. Reading through the archives makes one quickly aware that much of the time officials and politicians are buffeted by what Harold MacMillan famously called “events”. That – with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight – is precisely what provides the entertainment.

In truth historians of most other periods and of wider society have to put up with written records that are fragmentary at best. Science increasingly can help to fill in the gaps: from long dead humans’ hair and bone for example we can tell what they ate, far more reliably than if we could have interviewed them ourselves. Forensic techniques, as I discovered in my research, open other doors. And legal records, like lawyers’ briefs, and court reports, or transcripts of inquisitions taken as the thumbscrews were turned continue to be produced in hard copy. Our concerns about the rubbish we throw away today, and its biodegradability will not be shared by future historians, who will be able to build an incomparably detailed picture of our lives tomorrow from the landfills of today. And who knows what ingenuity will enable people in the future to decipher electronic data from the zip-disks we throw away.

That said, Macintyre makes a basic point. History emphasises the achievements of life’s hoarders. So if you want to guarantee yourself a prominent position in the history of today a thousand years from now, print off and file your emails.

1 comment:

Patrick Kidd said...

E-mail and electronic communications, if properly archived and transferred to new formats as technology advances (how much documentation is held on the old 5.25in discs that can barely be read today?), may prove to be more durable, or at least less at risk of destruction, than paper records.

Didn't bombing during the Second World War wipe out one of the censuses, after a direct hit on the archive? And then there was, to quote Sir Humphrey Appleby, the "wonderful flooding of 1963 when all sort of embarrassing documents were destroyed"...)

The risk with electronic data is that it may be too easy for civil servants to be leant upon to delete certain embarrassing files rather than archive them. But I suppose it was ever thus. Isn't that why shredders were invented?