Let Us Now Praise Anonymous Men (with help from the NSA)

Earlier today I got an email referencing a passage from a letter James Joyce had written to his benefactor; later tonight I plan to finish reading this Anne Applebaum review of Stephen Kotkin’s new biography of Joseph Stalin, in which she also mentions the work of previous historians in assessing the man’s life and the availability of his (admittedly edited) correspondence to inform their judgments.* For somebody my age or younger (and probably for people a good many years older than I am, too) the idea of communicating via letters, let alone via letters that you would carefully preserve somewhere, is bizarre. To be sure, Stalin’s or James Joyce’s letters, both sent and received, were probably more likely to be saved than others, but obviously even somebody today of similar stature wouldn’t be corresponding with his or her contemporaries in the traditional sense of the word. One imagines Barrack Obama was not communicating with, say, Rahm Emanuel by handwritten letter during the first years of his presidency.

But even if the letter-writing has stopped, the communication obviously hasn’t, and it’s interesting to speculate as to where it’s gone, what media it now occupies. Surely some of the things that once were committed to paper by painstaking penmanship have been for decades conveyed instead by phone. Unless both parties to the conversation happen to have been avid diarists, who knows how much information has been lost to historians as a result? On the other hand, in the last twenty years or so, email, texts, and all kinds of other forms of electronic communication have proliferated with amazing speed, so at least by volume, even on a per capita basis (to adjust for the obviously larger world population) it seems likely that the average person (to say nothing of the average Important Person) is producing a lot more in the way of written communication than 100 or 200 years ago. And for people in important roles probably a lot of it has been saved (though not, it would seem, if you work for the IRS), so it’s entertaining to imagine this extrapolated into the future when presidential biographies will feature BBM or instant messenger exchanges instead of excerpts from, I dunno, telegrams.

But considering the question of whether or whose digital communication will be preserved gets at the other oddity exposed by the juxtaposition of Joyce’s and Stalin’s letters being available for later researchers with our current modes of correspondence. Their stuff was around to be read almost exclusively because they were Important People. To the extent that other people’s letters survived for future archival historians to pour over, it was because they, too, were some combination of fairly important or at the very least wealthy enough to have been educated and done things like “maintained correspondences”. And it seems reasonable to assume that this becomes only more true the longer back one goes. By comparison, things like texting and mobile Internet access today mean we (or the NSA, more likely) could theoretically cultivate and preserve an unrivaled record of human thought and interaction, one which, unlike any set of archives prior, would contain all the banalities, trivialities, inanities, and other -ities that time and disinterest usually consign to the rubbish bin. Imagine a cultural historian in 2200 with access to the all the world’s electronic communications; instead of relying on the self-selecting subset of people who actively keep diaries or the random chance of preservation our posited social scientist would have direct visibility into the thoughts and communications of vast portions of humanity. Better yet, he or she could afford the daily lives of random citizens the same scrutiny and gravity currently reserved for Important People – it would be the ultimate in Annales School-esque history.

It is of course a little absurd to imagine the NSA conducting its surveillance in the service of future graduate students’ PhD theses, so allow me to propose an alternative: a voluntary data collection program, run by a non-profit foundation like Wikipedia, in which contributors sign up to have all their texts, Snapchats, emails, BBMs, etc. collected and compiled, with the caveat that they will not be made available for 100 years after their death, and then only to institutions of higher learning. To be sure, you would be likely to attract contributions from a very specific type of person, but it’s at least a start towards making up for all those letters we aren’t writing and saving these days.

*Also, no, sometimes I don’t sleep much. Why do you ask?