E-Communications Are a Bane to History

eNews and Views: Written records have proved invaluable to historians. What will they make of instant messaging?

"The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days--perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more."

Those were the first sentences written by Sullivan Ballou, a major in the Union army, in his famous letter to his wife in July 1861, just weeks before he was killed in the Battle of First Manassas in Virginia during the Civil War.

Volumes have been written about the Civil War, its famous battles and those who participated and died in them. Threaded throughout the rich tapestry of the war are the hundreds and thousands of letters collected by historians--letters that were sent by presidents and generals, privates and private citizens.

These letters detail the horrific incidents of battle, the mundane day-to-day existence of a soldiers life, the love of country that drove them into battles they knew they wouldnt survive. They discuss the central issues of the war and the more personal issues of their lives.

They give us, 150 years later, a view of the war and of life during that time that we otherwise would never have had.

It makes one wonder what will be around for people 150 or 200 years from now to read that will give them an understanding of what life is like for us now.

We dont write letters anymore. At least not many. When mail arrives, there are bills, magazines, junk mail, but very few letters, save during the holiday seasons. And those are usually just quick notes jotted on cards.

The invention of the telephone began a trend away from putting pen to paper, although because calls cost money, letters were still written. But now we have e-mail and instant messaging--amazing technology that quickly has become a cornerstone of personal life and the business world, where decisions need to be made as quickly as possible.

Theyve given written--or at least, typed--communication an immediacy that makes everything instant, yet fleeting. Your sister can IM you about her latest promotion. Your brother can e-mail you about the birth of his son. And unless you save it to somewhere else on the computer, its gone the minute you shut down, or when you finally clear out your inbox. Not much is left for posterity.

Granted, not too many people would be eager to read what others have written to their friends or relatives--although Sullivan Ballous very personal letter to his wife speaks loudly of his time in history and the events surrounding him. Taken as a whole, letters written now could give future generations particular insight into ourselves as a society and the world in which we live that might not be captured on disks or tapes.

In recent interviews, historian David McCullough has said he relied heavily on the letters and diaries from John Adams and his wife in writing the critically acclaimed biography of the second president of the United States.

McCullough also has lamented the fact that few people write letters anymore, meaning that future historians will not have the luxury of such letters when looking back at us and our era.

Technology has fueled a tremendous expansion of our economy and those of other nations around the world. Its changing the way business is done, has made many people millionaires and has allowed many more to build a good life for themselves and their families.

Unfortunately, when we are gone, we will have left little behind to tell people what this time was like for us.

E-mail eWEEK Department Editor Jeffrey Burt