Digital History

I wrote a love letter today, for myself. It wasn’t meant to be sent, but I wanted to mark a moment, a feeling; and I realized the only way to do so was to hold a pen in my hand and move it against paper.

Concrete evidence of the intangible.

And it got me thinking, about how things are noted, recorded, even kind of ‘lived’ now. We record so much of life through digital text. The records of my loves and heartbreaks for the last five years are mostly digital: photographs downloaded to a webpage. Courtship marked by e-mails. I would be hard put to find a record of interaction without plugging something in.

The history of this time period will be the same way. The concrete articles that mark what passes diminishes as more and more information can be passed quickly through a technological medium. Paper is inefficient, and it costs more… more resources, more money. There’s nothing lost by transferring a history to digital archive. Or is there?

I don’t have much first hand experience of oral narrative, but I know something was lost in the translation when people stopped handing down a legacy of spoken word to their children. Textual memory replaced the oral narrative a long time ago in most cultures, and this is considered beneficial; because exact facts could be saved and archived. History didn’t need to rely on faulty human memory or subjective translation to keep itself intact.

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Well, yes it did, didn’t it? Information interpreted by the human brain never stops being subjective; it’s just the weight of ink behind a word tends to give it credence. But children lost something when the anchor of their family’s narrative stopped being passed down through their life. History is an anchor. When you know the stories that came before you, there is a greater sense of belonging and place. In the face of so much future and so little past, I think most people feel lost.

Text brought a lot in the door, but took a price with it. Other stories opened up. Other people’s histories and imaginings became accessible to everyone. This is still amazing; to have the world so easily accessible.

Now with the information age there is an overwhelming mass of experience, information and personal narrative to explore. So much so, that the openness of information has lead to less exploration. It’s always there. There is so much. People have to cut a small path through the forest of words or be lost in it. There is a lethargy that accompanies those who have great privilege, but lack that sense of responsibility that comes as a natural result from holding your family’s history close to your heart.

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It’s weird how cyclical our ‘progress’ ends up being. The cutting edge of technology brought back antiquated art-forms, nearly extinct since the rise of the telephone: letter writing (email), and the slow developing of acquaintance with strangers. It also allowed the rekindling of conversation for pleasure.

Technology and convenience lead the American family to become isolated from the congenial days when friends would travel and visit each other for a fort-night, or linger over a repast for three hours. The drive to achieve took care of that. Efficiency supplanted connection. The nuclear family evolved, a small, self-sufficient unit who could learn their news from the television set. Mothers apologizing to the neighbors for lingering in the doorway for too long a chat. “I must get busy, the day’s half over.”

Families became more and more isolated, sending their elderly away to old homes; their children off to day long education at an earlier and earlier age, until now, suddenly (well, not so suddenly) the art of acquaintance is rekindling over the world wide web.

What is this, a blog? A diary, maybe, but also a community. If I’m interested in reading and being read I will go and ‘visit’ a new contact, and leave my calling card, a comment. If that person is curious, they may visit in return. A courteous exchange takes place, and over time we develop an acquaintance. In small increments my time spent in the company of their words increases, till one day, I may have spent a week or a month in their company, simply because I enjoy that person’s outlook.

A full circle scenario… but again, without their facial expression, without a good meal between us, something has been lost in the translation.

And I feel the need today to take pen in hand and write my feelings down. An exercise in concrete reasoning. I have no ‘use’ for this piece of paper, except to hold onto and remember. In this era of the gigabyte, while I lean further into the electronic hum of impermanent information, this piece of paper for me symbolizes solid ground.

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13 thoughts on “Digital History

  1. Wonderful piece. I agree. Paper is solid, not binary numbers. It’s tangible and real. Does writing on paper express more emotion than on a cold keyboard? Perhaps. When I write love notes it’s always by hand.

  2. I’m glad I popped in here before the weekend gets rolling. I enjoyed this very much. Your writing is lovely, amuirin. Just lovely.

    You’ve also echoed (in a much nicer way) thoughts I’ve been having lately about my time spent on the internet. I enjoy all sorts of conversations whether it’s here in cyberspace or with a group of people hanging out in my kitchen. I think the trick is to keep it all in balance.

    I’m old fashioned enough to like paper (ok, I’ll admit it…I LOVE paper and could spend all day in stationary store), but smart enough to know this is the wave of the future. That said, I still write some letters by hand. I also keep a handwritten journal that I plan to give to my granddaughter as a way of passing down my stories.

  3. stevo- thanks for kind words. :) I was gonna put a chinese symbol but decided I better not experiment with the unknown. …your comment got me thinking about an article I read about how motion influences brain activity. You actually think differently when you use one hand to write with a pen, as opposed to two hands to type. A lot of writer’s who learned on type-writers express trouble trying to write on a computer keyboard because the more powerful, and deeper strokes of their fingers on typewriting keys has actually become intrinsic to their creative process. Same with people who are used to writing long hand. But people are adaptable. It took a couple months of writing everyday before the motion of typing helped click me into the creative process.

    Robin- That’s a wonderful idea… I wish I had all my grandmother’s stories written down. I forget the details and hafta ask her over and over. And the stories do change a little with each asking, but that’s okay too. I am so glad you liked this post, for some reason I was particularly thinking of you reading it when I wrote the second half.

  4. A good piece, there is some quality about the tangible piece of paper you can hold in your hands and jot random thoughts upon. I’m not sure what it is, I find in my fiction writing that I’m far more likely to get writer’s block at the keyboard and that with a pen and paper combo, that block tends to go away. More thoughts flow smoother that way, I’m not so sure but some of the better stuff I’ve ever put into words was not typed at the keyboard.

  5. You’ve inspired me to write a post about the same topic (might take a couple of days to get to it). Too many thoughts to get together on the spur and too many for a comment. Great piece and refreshing new look.

  6. To the overall theme of your piece, I say only “yes”.

    I like your new image header. I like it more as a header than the full picture. I think it is because without the water, the roots of the very cool floating trees don’t seem to be reaching for anything.

    I think that the semantic loss due to time for textual materials is larger than it is for orally transmitted information. Words change their meanings. A story or myth transmitted orally will change in accord with the change in the language but a text won’t change. Almost none of us can read Gilgamesh in the original and those few of us that can must surely miss some of the cultural references.

  7. david- *pounces* you’re a fiction writer? really? what genre? Have you written a book? How long did it take? huh? huh? How did you get started? Why can’t I get started? tell me, tell me, tell me.

    aos- dammit, u indian giver. I know you’d write a post in a way that made me go ‘ohh yeah… didn’t think of it that way.’ I guess I’m not actually allowed to *demand* that you give it up, but I ‘strongly encourage’ your take on this to meet the light of day. Whaddya say? You fired the Wednesday videos, so there’s a niche.

    handward- that makes sense… yer right. oral narrative evolves. Does digital, do you think?
    ‘flitting betwen hilarious and not hilarious but clever’… I donno if yer talking about this blog. If so, ty. *curtseys*

  8. You so hit on what’s missing and you lay out the shortsighted path we took to get there. You’re always so “right on” that it’s hard to play favorites in terms of your posts. But this is a ‘come back to the well’ keeper. Awesome.

  9. On rereading your piece I realized it really did say most of what I would’ve, so I have abandoned the idea of writing my own. But I come down quite heavily on the side of the recorded text if only that my poor memory would make oral storytelling impossible for me. I think the compromise of this digital realm and family myth is something like I have been planning to do which is hand off my blog to my daughter (or access to it) when she gets older. (One of the issues that I have seen in my own family is the covering up of event versions that though interesting, they didn’t like, which would have been harder to do if it weren’t oral).

  10. Ok, but only for you..but give me a few days to think about it….you are a hell of an act to follow. Its a topic where I come up with a position and then think, “but then on the other hand”..(and isn’t it first nations giver these days?).

  11. Pingback: Stop and Wonder: What was I thinking? « Ass of Steel

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