New technology comes with a price

We will continue to back-and-forth over the fiscal implications of maintaining the U.S. Postal Service as we’ve always known it, although its latest attempt to cut its billions in deficits — ending Saturday deliveries, closing small offices — ran into a predictable wall of opposition in Congress. The trillions in the larger federal deficit notwithstanding, and never mind the steadily higher price of a postage stamp or a post card, we like our mail — even when less and less we use it for communicating with one another, when we mutter at the junk that clutters our mailboxes. Letter carriers carry far fewer letters than unsolicited catalogues, bulk-mailed flyers from chiropractors and personal injury lawyers and, in even-numbered years, oversized, four-color warnings that a vote for a certain candidate means certain doom for the Republic.

The Service got as far as reducing operating hours at some of its Arkansas outposts but no closures; the postman still comes on the sixth day, and sometimes he (or she) brings something valuable. Sometimes.

Which brings us to an article published last year in The New Yorker (delivered by the U.S. Postal Service) in which the irreplaceable Roger Angell assessed the problem thusly: “We’ve done this to ourselves, of course, and done it eagerly, with our tweets and texts, our Facebook chat, our flooding e-mails, and our pleasure in the pejorative ‘snail mail.’ “

He had a larger point, Angell: “Losing the mixed pleasures of just arrived letters may not mean as much in the end as what we’re missing by not writing them.” He meant the study of history. “If we stop writing letters, who will keep our history or dare venture upon a biography?”

Fixed-price unlimited long distance calling has done its part of the damage to our national memory, certainly, but the bulk of the loss owes to the e-mail and tweets and texts of Angell’s (and my) disdain.

“The digital era is the greatest threat to American history we have seen,” says Tom Dillard, recently retired as archivist at the University of Arkansas, who dismays more than disdains it. “It’s a lot easier to delete than shred or burn a document.”

Yes. And with one click, maybe two, of a computer mouse the very stuff of our present, soon to be our past, disappears. Digital messages, photographs, data — gone. Those back-up cyber-storage sites? Back up for how long? Until, quite likely, we decide “just dump it.”

Too, Dillard notes, light-speed changes in digital technology pose rather another problem: accessing what we may only think we have preserved. In his time as its archivist the UA library was given digital material in formats the staff could not open.

“And it’s going to get worse. Everything’s obsolete within three or four years, and it’s not to (manufacturers’) economic advantage to offer something that is compatible. Converting floppy disk data to CDs, for example, would be ‘impossible’ for the time and expense required, and it would be only a matter of time before that format was obsolete.”

And there’s more, maybe worse. You already know it if your kids or grandkids, perhaps even you, send text messages. “How r u?” “I J’boro 2day PB 2morow.” “Ant C dr hart trble.” “J back Iraq ok.” That we don’t save such “letters” could be a blessing. What, really, are we saving when we save it?

“The cryptic cyber-style has obliterated the ability of some many people to write in a normal fashion,” rues Dillard, who has seen dreary pages of it. “It’s really affected their prose.” Not to mention its content.

Not only as a historian does Dillard advise “printing everything.” The “delete” function of a camera phone can rob one generation of the pictures it takes of the next. And color hasn’t the lifespan, not nearly, of black-and-white. (When I asked Dillard if there would be a day when we mourn the departure of the tin-type — at least some of you may know what I’m talking about — he answered immediately, “That day already is here”).

So very, very much of the Arkansas and American experience is known to us only through the correspondence and images of time past. The record of time present is troubled, of time future perilous. As Dillard fears, “The transition to digital record-keeping is going to be the end of ready access to our documented past.”

Please Mr. Postman.