Monday, January 15, 2007

My baby, she wrote me an e-mail: A dimension to the shift to electronic communications I hadn't considered is the impact on historians and novelists. We are losing not just an entire genre, that of the epistolary novel, but also a valuable research tool. In the era of e-mail, people simply don't write letters the way they used to. Worse still, email are much more likely to be lost. Physics World muses on this brave new world:

Historians at the American Institute of Physics (AIP), who are working on a project to document the history of physics in industry, have encountered hints of how the Internet and computers are transforming scientific communication.

E-mail is, of course, cheaper and encourages quicker thought, and it introduces a peculiar blend of the personal and professional. The AIP historians have also detected a decline in the use of lab notebooks, finding that data are often stored directly into computer files. Finally, they have noted the influence of PowerPoint, which can stultify scientific discussion and make it less free-wheeling; information also tends to be dumbed down when scientists submit PowerPoint presentations in place of formal reports.

Generally, though, these new communications techniques are good for scientists, encouraging rapid communication and stripping out hierarchies. But for historians, they are a mixed blessing. It is not just that searching through a hard disk or database is less romantic than poring over a dusty box of old letters in an archive. Nor is it that the information in e-mails differs in kind from that in letters. Far more worrying is the question of whether e-mail and other electronic data will be preserved at all.

One can lose letters, of course, a classic case being much of Planck's correspondence thanks to an Allied bomb in the Second World War. But the challenges of electronic preservation are more extensive and immediate. As AIP historian Spencer Weart notes: "We have paper from 2000 but we can't read the first e-mail ever sent. We have the data, and the magnetic tape – but the format is lost." Weart is fond of quoting RAND researcher Jeff Rothenberg's remark that "it is only slightly facetious to say that digital information lasts forever – or five years, whichever comes first", meaning that information lasts only if regularly migrated to another format.


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