I first started asking this question some years ago (1998 to be precise) after reading Noel Mostert’s Frontiers (1992, London: Jonathan Cape), a very comprehensive history of the Xhosa people and the Eastern Cape. It was also about the settlement of that part of South Africa by Europeans. Rich source data were found in letters written by settlers and the journals they kept, some in public repositories and others in private and family collections.
But then people wrote letters and kept journals. We still do this today, but we do it differently. Typically I make, and collect lots of notes on Evernote. I also keep a journal of sorts using the same software (there are of course lots of journaling software out there). I blog, and like others use different sorts of social media services. Of course I write many, many emails during the course of the day. Much of this documentary activity gets backed up in cloud services like Dropbox and Skydrive. Emails get archived (mine after a year). I tend to back these archives up to Dropbox but I suspect that many people don’t and they just get left on local drives or deleted. Many corporate backup drives get archived or dumped altogether after a certain time. What I don’t know is how long all the backups in cloud services last. Companies don’t last for ever. Google, for example appears at the moment on many fronts to be have been there forever. But this is still a very young company (established the same year as I read Frontiers). Even if these companies last for many years, how long will the data they backup be there?
My point is that the documentary evidence that we generate today far exceeds that of our Victorian forefathers. But it seems very ephemeral..
The irony is that we are starkly reminded by the Snowdon revelations of GCHQ/NSA activities that everything we send (by email) or backup, or post to social media sites, is very much in the public domain, and accessible with anyone or any organization with the technical knowhow. But much of it will not be accessible to future social historians, because it will not be there. How many people print out their sent and received emails, and keep them in a safe place? I keep my blogs on my local drive, and back them up. But, if I assume they contain information that might be useful to social historians in the future, where will these historians find them?
Are we therefore no longer creating our own documentary histories? At least part of this is what has created our knowledge of our own societies and cultures from the past and how this affects our future. Despite a torrent of documentary evidence being created in the electronic age, this may not survive after only a few very short years.
Back to my starting point and Mostert’s history of the Xhosa. African societies created their own oral histories rather than documented it in written form. The West has often denigrated such societies for not having a history and a civilization. We point to India and China with their many millennia of documented histories, as evidence of such civilizations. Will historians of the future have to rely on oral accounts of our heritage, of how people lived? Or will permanent electronic repositories be set up (and by whom) that capture our accounts of our unfolding culture and society? Are my concerns justified, or not?