Electric Memories - Karen King

I read this article in the Daily Mail not long ago about the skills that are being lost forever because of modern technology, everyday things such as writing a letter, printing photos and sending postcard as well as skills like reading a map.
It made me think about what information we are leaving our ancestors about life in the 21st Century. Many of the things we've learnt from the past have come from written letters, diaries and records. We know lots of information about the Great Fire of London, the Great Plague, the Coronation of Charles 11 and other events from the 1660's from the diaries of Samuel Pepys:

 We know about the early Saxons and life in the middle ages from written records such as the writings of Bebe or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.
Letters, records and photographs tell us about the World Wars and other historical events. Even in our own families, letters, diaries and photographs help us learn about our ancestors and are invaluable when we're tracing our family tree. But I have to admit that it's a long time since I wrote a letter, filled in a diary or printed out family photographs to put in an album. My photographs are on line, many on Facebook to share with other family members, I email instead of write letters.

However, computers are constantly upgraded and old software doesn't always work on them. I have many manuscript files that have corrupted on discs or are in a format I can no longer read. So when my descendants want to trace their family history what will they find out about me and my family? If only electrical evidence is left will they be able to access it? On an even wider scale, many records are now on line whilst paper records are increasingly destroyed or lost. Will historians of the future be able to access them? If all our memories are electrical will they at some point be lost? What memories are we leaving for future generations?


Anonymous said…
Interesting post. I think as things get more electrical, people will revert back to the old ways because they are more permanent, special and traditional. The more disposable fashion becomes, the more I see sewing magazines and knitting groups, and the more we send emails the more I hear people say they want to get a letter-writing set. I think and hope that our old skills of communication won't be forgetten.
Karen said…
I hope you're right, much as I love new technology I'd hate all the traditional skills to die out.
madwippitt said…
Eeeek! Not my post! Someone hasn't had the right credit for this in the heading!
Ann Evans said…
Interesting post, Karen. Been trying to trace my family history, and was thinking that it'll be easy for our descendants to trace the lives of the present generation, what with Google, Facebook, websites, blogs etc., but you're right, if technology failed us, there would be very few actual physical memories in the way of letters, diaries and proper photographs.
Karen said…
I've changed the name Karen B, didn't realise it was posted under the wrong name! It wasn't my doing, honest!
Karen said…
Hi Ann, yes I'm tracing my family tree too, that's what made me think about this. If technology fails then what are we left with?
Dennis Hamley said…
I hope, Anonymous, that you are right. The trouble is that once upon a time,if I wanted to find out important information for my books, I would get on the train with my British Library reader's ticket in my pocket and spend a couple of days with as near to primary sources as I could find. Now I sit lazily at my desk and fill my mind with second-hand, skimpy pieces of information from sketchy websites or Wikipedia. And I'm ashamed to say that now I live in Oxford and my application form for a Bodleian Reader's ticket STILL hasn't been signed by a responsible adult of standing whom I've known for at least two years. Yes, much is on the way to being lost but I fear an even more insidious threat is the inertia that IT in all its forms brings. Once, the quick fix now and again seemed all right. But now it's taking over and people like me who should know a lot, lot better are blindly allowing themselves to be suffocated by it.
Oh, if only I had met a professor in 2009 who possesses a nice fountain pen and a legible signature. But perhaps I did and I've forgotten. I must trawl my memory so I can go down to the other end of Broad Street and get among the primary sources again.
I'm in two minds about all this as well! I know exactly what you mean about the loss of primary sources -and books are at risk too. I've watched in horror as our local university library ditched masses of interesting books, before they moved to a new campus - I know because some of them - wonderful books about costume - are now sitting on my shelves. But - asked if I might be interested in writing a play about Joanna Baillie, a few weeks ago (The answer was yes!) - and finding that she had written a large body of work in the early 1800s, I went to Amazon and found a bound photocopy of an invaluable old out-of-print book at a very reasonable price. I also downloaded an edition of her poems to my Kindle, for free, and was reading them within an hour of the enquiry coming in! I've tackled this kind of research before and used inter-library loans, but they take forever, and increasingly involve so much red tape that the Amazon option was definitely better. Also, I'm slightly cheered by the availability of letters, photographs, postcards and other documents on eBay. If you don't use it as a source for these kind of research materials, I can definitely recommend it. For instance, I run a constant search for this village and have managed to acquire letters and old postcards - and I've used it all the time for my Polish historical research, managing to acquire bits and pieces of documentation I would never have been able to find before. I think the primary sources are out there, and the new technology is making it easier for us to access them. But I entirely agree that since people no longer write letters (even love letters!) future generations may struggle.

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