Inheriting Email

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 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.


4 thoughts on “Inheriting Email

  1. It’s an interesting thought and to some degree you’re right. However, I’d like to think that the ‘public’ discourse over the past decade has expanded so greatly in the past decade that future historians will have a massive selection of data to cull from. Weblog posts, Tweets, Flickr images, Diggs, and all over the other new expressions of self are public in a way that was never possible before.

    In the past historians relied on newspaper reports or a small set of collected journals to gauge the concerns of the general public. Those sources were of course biased and random. The journals of Samuel Pepys, for instance, are often cited by historians of 17th century England… but they’re the thoughts of one man who happened to keep a detailed record of current affairs. In contrast, in the future blog posts could be an extraordinary record of the general populace’s thoughts, hopes, and fears… from a massive sample. Of course this relies on those blog posts being recorded in some way that can be relied upon in the coming centuries, but I have faith we’re up to the task.

    Your emails may (or may not) be lost… but I anticipate the future historian will have much more information than ever before to study.

  2. A very interesting point to make, I agree with Burka on that much. However, I would argue that it takes a lot–a whole lot–for data to stop existing unless it is held in a Flash-style medium (usb/flash/solid-state drives) because even a hard drive torn apart, in the roughest shape possible, can be restored to a decent amount of usability with the right computer forensic technology.

    This does however lead me to images of historians and anthropologists locked in closets, dusting grime off of antique hard drives containing the documents that lead to true globalization through the birth of the internet.

    Even if we don’t have a public storage space for all of this material–although I imagine if you suggested this roughly in Google’s direction, a project would jump up devoted to it–likely our data centers will be the choicest culturally-important archaeological sites in the future. Especially if we change communication mediums again, like the jump from mail to email, or traditional letters at intervals to constant text messaging.

    Very interesting.

  3. Interesting post Steven, and certainly an important issue to be thinking about. Motivated by similar thoughts, the PowerHouse Museum here in Sydney ran a pilot Email Australia project to gather email messages from the public, to become part of an archive of Australian email for future historians. This was modeled on a similar Email Britain project run with the British Library.

    Daniel, your comments about having access to lots of public conversational data are valid, but clearly lots of interesting and ephemeral information is locked up in email communication. This, of course, also includes political and commercial information that is otherwise unrecorded. While blogs, twitter, the web etc. will clearly be extremely valuable for future historians, anthropologists and so on, email provides a record of contemporary life that simply isn’t replicated in other mediums.

  4. Hi Steven-

    Your cousin Kathy here, I like your site! Sorry I’m off topic but I have a question to ask you, could you please contact me?


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