Imagine if the constitution of the United States had been drafted in Microsoft Word, with track changes and comments turned on, and each revision stored in SharePoint or Evernote. Imagine if the founding fathers had had email and we could read the discourse surrounding each iteration.
What were they thinking? If those digital records were available, we could find out.
In fact, many letters from our founding fathers are preserved and available online. Letters from the birth of our young nation are just the beginning of history’s long decrescendo, whose end follows somewhere past whispers from the Dead Sea Scrolls. These documents are treasures in our efforts to make sense of our history and to understand what our ancestors were thinking.
History also reminds us that these treasures can be liabilities—Henry VIII’s (possibly) stolen love letters to Anne Boleyn could have been the work of a long ago Bradley Manning of WikiLeaks’ fame. (On the other hand, these letters might not have been stolen, but simply misplaced, so maybe they’re more like the tweets of Anthony Weiner).
It’s not surprising that today we hesitate to delete our files and emails—they are a connection to our past thoughts and our past selves. Digital content may not reveal exactly what we were thinking, but what clues!
How many times have you forgotten what you did a month or even a week ago and looked back at your outlook calendar to see what you were doing, or reviewed an old email thread to jog your memory about how you arrived at a decision? How often do you look at your old photographs and marvel (or cringe) at who you were then?
If an archeologist of the future wanted to know about you, they’d sift through your email. They’d traverse your wall on Facebook. They’d crawl over your blog. They’d read your Word documents, tab through your presentations, ogle your photos, listen to your podcasts, and watch your videos. What did you tweet when you were in the neighborhood?
As the frequency of communication increases and the capabilities and variety of our mediums grow, the resolution of your digital persona sharpens. Even for the most reclusive or those most schooled in the ways of poker, a silhouette shimmers in ones and zeros, a digital tell leaking bits of past intent.
We should of course recognize the slight contrast between the epistles written by historical icons and the emails, texts, and Instagrams of us ordinary folks.
But who is to say what is treasure and what is trifle? How many of us think that someone may want to get to know our digital specters years from now, and save every byte? If reports on the rise of narcissistic personality disorder turn out to be true, it could be a lot.