Memory and the paperless world

Published : Dec 30, 2005 00:00 IST

Raphael Weiser, former Director of Manuscripts and Archives Department of the Jewish National and University Library, inspecting a vintage manuscript by Isaac Newton in Jerusalem. A file photograph. - LEFTERIS PITARAKIS/AP

Raphael Weiser, former Director of Manuscripts and Archives Department of the Jewish National and University Library, inspecting a vintage manuscript by Isaac Newton in Jerusalem. A file photograph. - LEFTERIS PITARAKIS/AP

On the gains and losses of the age of information.

SPARE a moment to commiserate with the historians and biographers of the future. The communications revolution has provided many of us with incredible access to all sorts of information and exchange, and opened up undreamt of possibilities. But in the process, it has reduced our need for - and therefore use of - paper, or any other physical form of aid to memory. And by doing this, it has destroyed for the future what used to be considered the essential sources of knowledge about what will become the past.

Consider, after all, what it means to talk of recorded history. It was recorded because there were forms (usually paper) in which the individual and collective thoughts, discussions, decisions, exchanges, agreements, disputes, accounts and other activities of societies were recorded and therefore available for dissection and interpretation. The preservation of these memorabilia is what has enabled us to know what little we do know about the past.

It is true that there are now other forms of preserving the past - audio and video recordings which can be archived more effectively and in a more space saving way than the stacks of books, files and manuscripts which clog up libraries. It could even be argued that these provide more accurate and evocative accounts of past events than could the written representations of individuals.

But memory is inherently selective and subjective - that is surely part of its attraction. Social memories are rarely based on objectivity, and are much more influenced by experience and are filtered through contemporary decisions about what is important.

Most historians would be the first to admit that a major source of joy in their craft results from wading through this complexity, remarking upon differences in perceptions of the same event, and sifting through this their own assessment.

Much of this joy - or even information about differences, or all the subtle details that inhabit the footnotes to amuse discerning readers - would be lost to the historians of the future. And there are other non-trivial effects. Increasingly, communication through email is not just reducing the incidence of letter writing, but is also rendering most of us incapable of indulging in it.

The email interaction is transient by intent and design. It supports a lack of attention to details of syntax and spelling, and certainly does not reward stylistic invention or sophistication in the use of language. Also, because it appears to be so prosaic and so businesslike, it does not encourage either profound reflection or indulging in what may seem to be unnecessary detail.

But think of all the fascinating biographies that were possible only because of the letters to, by and about the subject, that could be accessed by the biographer. How many of us would like to be remembered by our emails?

There is another loss of the information age, delectably documented by Michael Bywater in his magnificent book Lost worlds: What have we lost and where did it go? (Granta Books, London, 2004) The book is a hilarious yet profound compendium of societal losses, one of which he classifies as the loss of texture. This deserves an extended quotation (from pages 235-236.):

"Consider the pre-computer desk: a litter of papers, large and small, handwritten, printed and typed, coarse and fine; letters in varying hands, envelopes of various sizes bearing stamps from all over the world. Here are books, annotated and bookmarked; here is a typewriter with its ribbon and its heavy steel frame. Here are photographs and drawings, coins and banknotes, documents bearing seals and counter-signatures, pristine originals and faded carbon copies, correction fluid marking the palimpsest of human error, dog-ears distinguishing what has been well-thumbed from what has been largely ignored...

"Now consider today's equivalent. All is stored on the network and accessed via mouse-clicks on a clean glowing screen. Everything is the same: an image seen through glass. We touch nothing, mark nothing, smell nothing. In the new world of IT, it is not just the desktop that is a metaphor: everything is a metaphor, where nothing yellows with age and everything is clean and new. We become creatures of sight alone, our whole attention focussed on a hundred and fifty square inches of expensive glass.

"We have lost something in the process. Not just texture. Something more. The computer makes everything retrievable, but it does not retrieve everything. Only the surface. Scratch that surface and - look! - more surface. The rest is lost."

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