Online, in fact, it’s far easier for me to trace the development of many key ideas from the 1700s than it is from the last half-century. When it comes to the coining of 18th Century words, for example, copies of most paper books have simply sat in libraries ever since publication, waiting to be scanned and released into new digital life. Today, by contrast, much of the key digital data that authors and historians need if they are fully to unpick present intricacies – from the origins of words and ideas to political debates or even revolutions – is either locked away or lost within a few years of its creation.
At the heart of this lies what you might call the paradox of ephemeral communications. Their instantaneous, insubstantial ease is perfect for sharing and debating the most important questions of our time. But it also breeds a newly knotty historical problem – because all this sharing and debate mean precious little, in the long term, if you don’t also know what people are talking about.
With not only diaries and letters but even the relative permanence of email starting to look like something from the last century, it’s a problem that is only going to get more acute. There’s much to celebrate in the power and inclusiveness of new media. Historians researching early 21st Century life from the year 2312, however, will have their work cut out for them – and find that their chances of success depend disproportionately upon those private companies who own so much contemporary social history.
Our descendants will surely be grateful for a record that reflects more than marketable data and consumer preferences. As to preservation, though, the problem may be intractable. Between private profits, the privacy of personal histories and our hunger for perpetual renewal, “history” itself may be a concept ripe for rethinking: not so much the objective sifting of sources as a living thing, perpetually remade across networks for which there’s no time but the present.