Tuesday, June 19, 2007

History, Technology And Canonical Records

The Tenured Radical, one of my favorite bloggers, has an interesting post up today about how the systematic erasure of e-mails and the use of non-governmental servers by members of the Bush administration presents a real challenge for historians. As this is a topic I have thought quite a bit about, I was going to post a comment. However, I have decided that it is a topic worthy of a full post.

I am an avid user of technology and have been for years. I began regularly using e-mail in the late 1980s. Back then, the system was a Michigan Terminal System (MTS) device. Connection was via a VT100 emulating dumb terminal, that connected through something known as a Gandalf box. The only way to keep a record of e-mails back then was to print. This was not a simple system.

After MTS, I moved onto a VM/PROFS system. This offered more options, but was still pretty primitive. Again, the only way of making a record was by printing. I still have a few print outs from those days, when I got e-mail that I considered to be of particular significance, from important people. It was during this period that it first became possible to access e-mail from home via dial-up modem. However, there was still no really handy way of archiving e-mail. Between these two systems, I have no ideas how many e-mails I sent or received. However, with the exception of the few print outs, I know that they are all gone.

The next step was to move to a UNIX e-mail system. I have been with UNIX (and more recently Linux) ever since. UNIX offered much better opportunities for saving things. Indeed, I still have e-mail records from years ago, stored on my various systems. Again printing is/was still an option.

Over the years, e-mail has changed a great deal. Once upon a time, almost everyone answered almost all their e-mail, as there were so few people connected. Those were the glory days. Now, e-mail comes in an avalanche. There are message from students, messages from administrators, messages from colleagues, messages from various mailing lists and, of course, there is always spam. Even when one deletes the dross, this makes for a great deal of e-mail. Most days, I get 40, or 50 (not counting spam). On a bad day, I have got nearly 300 (again ignoring spam). Indeed, on one memorable day, I got over 2,500 e-mails, due to a technical issue.

As I write, the Inbox on my current machine has over 19,000 messages, and that is with all the rubbish removed. When I backed it up today, the Inbox alone filled almost an entire CD (in fact, until I deleted the Trash e-mail folder, it would not fit onto a CD). That is a great deal of data. Now, I am not too likely to be of great interest to historians, but if I were, working through all that stuff would be a Herculean task. If important people have to deal with similar kind of volumes, this could present a problem. I always felt sorry for Leibniz scholars, who have to deal with his roughly 15,000 surviving letters. My e-mail alone, for just a couple of years, would present a far more daunting task.

Another problem arises due to the fact that e-mail records are likely to be incomplete. Even the most uptight person usually does not back up their files, especially e-mail files, often enough. There are other problems too. Hard drives fail, taking e-mail records with them. Much of this can be handled by using centralised servers, but it is seldom done. A further concern arises from the fact that e-mail forgery is also pretty simple to do. Unless one has a good understanding of the ever shifting standards associated with e-mail headers, it can be very difficult to distinguish genuine e-mails from potentially fraudulent ones.

However, the problem of e-mail that Tenured Radical describes not the only one. She mentions the use of cell phones, but what about other increasingly common technologies, like Instant Messaging systems and Skype conversations and chats? It is doubtful that records of these are ever kept.

This brings me to the topic of blogs. We all appear to have some kind of quite faith that the folks who run Blogger and similar systems will retain our texts. However, the question of how long this will happen is an open one. Even a simple software upgrade can wreck havoc. Also, once again, it is relatively trivial for blog owners to keep re-editing their posts, deleting comments, editing comments and even forging comments. Again, technical methods can be used to deal with these issues, but they depend upon access to detailed technical data, that may, or may not be available. Furthermore, technical methods like the use of proxies and IP spoofing, which are not really that difficult to deploy, can complicate matters immeasurably. Thus, the question arises about the kind of contributions to the historical record blogs and their comments will actually leave. Do blogs matter, in this way?

When thinking about matters like this, I suddenly feel very happy that I am a philosopher, not a historian! That being said, historians have been in their business for quite a while. I am certain that they will develop methodologies to deal with these issues. It will be quite a challenge though. Good luck to the historians, is what I say. I will be very interested to know what they come up with.

The CP


Blogger Tenured Radical said...

Nice comment, CP. It also brings into perspective how relatively email is: I was htinking hte other day that I wish I remembered the day I sent my first email -- I think it must have been in 1992 or 1993. How could I have known what arevolution that would be in how my life would function?


6:43 AM  
Blogger anthony grafton said...

Great response to a great post. My own first emails were in the early 90s--and I too had no idea of the tidal waves that would follow. I sometimes think back with nostalgia to the mid and late 90s, when I wrote and received many more detailed, personal emails than I do now--because, as CP writes, the total number I and others had to deal with was so much smaller. Sigh.

As to historians--oy. It's not just email that frightens me. A grad student in our history of science program tried to write the history of an operating system, using documents made public by discovery during a lawsuit. There were more than a million documents, far more than he could ever read, so he abandoned his dissertation and went into IT (where, I gather, he has prospered).

On the one hand, the materials vanish: on the other, they overwhelm us. It'll take some doing for historians to deal with all this.

7:22 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Listed on 
BlogShares web stats Site Meter