Dear Michael: An Open Letter From The Present About The Future Of Your Past

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San Francisco, CA

21st January 2011

Dear Michael Moore-Jones,

I just finished reading your thought-provoking post –  “A Future Without Personal History” – over at ReadWriteWeb and felt compelled to write you this note. I was particularly taken by your concern that your entire generation will grow up without ever having written and mailed a letter, and as such will leave no permanent record of their lives.

Hell, you know you’re getting old when someone fifteen years younger than you is bitching about the state of the modern world.

Still, yours was an argument well presented; certainly better than I could have managed at the age of sixteen. And I was with you all the way. Or at least all the way up to your conclusion where you suggested a solution to the problem of guaranteeing a sustainable record of your life: “copying and pasting communication from all different formats into different documents stored both on hard drive and in the cloud.”

It’s on that point we part company.

In fact, if you really want to create the kind of historical paper trail your parents (and mine) will leave behind, you’re going to have to do far more than simply copying and pasting your tweets and emails and saving them in the cloud.

For a start, trust me Michael, in fifteen years members of the Millennial generation will have many technological regrets, but one of them will not be a lack of personal history online. Data has a habit of sticking around, albeit in fragmented form, particularly when we don’t want it to. Given the number of backups – and backups of backups – and copying and pasting and retweeting that goes on today, 2025’s 30 year olds will live in a world where every detail of their life is recorded and archived somewhere in the cloud. Every underage drink or youthful indiscretion; every photo taken during their 10,957 days on earth; every SMS declaration of love and every piece of online trolling. It’ll all be there – somewhere – just waiting to come back and bite them in the ass. Backing all of that up will just ensure that it’s all easier to find.

But what it won’t do is present a coherent personal history, any more than a million footsteps in the snow can adequately describe the journeys of the people who left them.

To blame the demise of physical letters is to conflate medium with message. The reason why people hold on to old love notes and take pleasure in reading the journals of those long dead is because, generally speaking, people who took the time to mail a letter or keep a private journal did so because they had something to say, a story to tell, love to declare or forgiveness to beg. You could print out every tweet that most people have ever written and the value of them wouldn’t even approach that of a single line from Anne Frank’s diary or one of Byron’s – or Orwell’s – letters.

And yet, Michael, for all your youthful conviction that every problem must have a technological solution, you remain fundamentally right. Our obsession with social media and email has resulted in a world in which most people have no interest in ensuring a lasting historical record of their lives. And it’s a problem not just for your generation, but for mine and for my parents’ and for every generation that has access to computers and the Internet.

Thanks to Twitter, Facebook and email, people of all ages have so many outlets for self-expression that they are left with neither the time nor inclination to collect their thoughts into a journal or even a letter. After all, why spend hours – even years – writing something for a far-off audience of one when you can spend seconds to reach an instant audience of hundreds, or thousands. The more we evolve away from the notion of deferred gratification, the more pronounced the problem will become.

And yet… The fact that the problem is largely attitudinal, rather than generational or technological points to a solution that is equally age-agnostic. Last year I decided to quit social media in order to focus more on blogging. In fact, shortly after I made that decision, I realised that moving back to blogging wasn’t the answer either – and not least because writing about my life for a wide audience is perilously close to being my day job.

Instead I resolved to use the time I would have spent tweeting and updating various statuses to keep a paper journal again. Not for profound thoughts or Bridget Jones bullshit, but rather as a sensible way to sift through the dozes of events of each day and record – with context – anything I might like to remember in future years.

Similarly, I’ve rediscovered the joy of letter writing. A useful side-effect of everyone using email and phone calls is that almost no-one receives letters in the mail any more. So when they do – no matter if the sender is a friend, a prospective lover or just some random shmuck – it stands out high above the noise. As a result, in the past months I’ve enjoyed correspondence with countless people who I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to reach, and I’ve been reminded of the thrill of seeing familiar handwriting in my mailbox.

So, Michael, if you’re serious about this whole personal history thing, I’d urge you to shut down your laptop for a few hours and pick up a pen. The rewards might not be quite as immediate as sending a tweet, but trust me when I say the long-term gains more than make up for it.

Oh, and if that isn’t enough to convince you, please accept my assurance on one other thing. Chicks dig guys who send them letters.

Yours in anticipation of a bright future for the past,

Paul

P.S. Wear sunscreen

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