As a non-historian (like you, I suspect), it seems to me that the views of great minds of the last few hundred years are often garnered from private letters they had written or received. Maybe it was C.S. Lewis writing to J.R.R. Tolkien (probably about who had the best initials), or Thomas Jefferson’s exchanges with John Adams. Presumably, these letters are left behind to family, who eventually choose to share them with the public.
I wondered, then, what will come of the enormous mass of hidden human knowledge (and noise) that is email. When I die (Ray Kurzweil be damned), I will have left tens of thousands of emails locked up on a server. Most will be of no interest to anyone. Some will include private information about myself, my family, or others. I imagine, though, that there are some exchanges in there that might have some value to someone. It’s not my legacy that I’m wondering about though – it’s those email exchanges by much greater minds.
I wondered, then, if digital artifacts, like email and photos should eventually fall into the public domain. Not during the authors lifetime. Not even for years after. Only after enough time for family and friends – those who might be affected by the contents of such correspondence – to pass on. 50 years? 100 years?
It’s not an issue of licensing and privacy (I’m sure smarter people than myself have figured that issue out long ago regarding private letters). Rather, it’s an issue of access and permanence of technology.
Imagine if the Lincoln letters were trapped in a datacenter somewhere in a password protected firstname.lastname@example.org account. Maybe when we die, our digital assets should be copied into a time-release digital safe-deposit box. In 100 years, we learn what Obama was sending from his blackberry, and what you and I thought about the time in which we live.
Maybe I’ll just start CC’ing a copy of all of my email to The Future.