Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Blogging in the Wind

Today I, once again, got a couple of credit card offers. I did what most people do with them - I threw them away. Credit card mailings, for the most part, are ephemera. In historical jargon, that word refers to those documents that are rarely preserved, usually because they are considered unimportant in their own time. Laundry lists, receipts, newspaper inserts, flyers stuck under your windshield wipers, junk mail - all ephemera, generally lost to time. Such documents though, because of their rarity, can be extremely valuable. The menu of a medieval lord's dinner, to say nothing of a peasant's dinner, is an exceptionally valuable document simply because it allows us a window on daily life that we can rarely see. And I guarantee that when the little boy in the picture is old enough to start working on his dissertation, "Household Debt and the Great Crash of 2014," he'll want to see those credit card offers to understand just how they suckered all those people into financial ruin.

This is my concern about blogs. While blog records are in fact being preserved on giant servers all over the world, electronic records, even when people want to keep them, have a limited shelf-life - and I'm not convinced that, say, ten years out, twenty years out, anyone will think it important to preserve these records, anyway. If this extraordinary record of the voices of millions of ordinary people is indeed going to survive, we must all make a concentrated effort to see that it happens. There are a lot of issues here - I intend to write about them much more.

By the way, one of the best ways to preserve a document is to throw it away. Biodegradation in most landfills, notably those that are dry and protected from the water table (actually, it's generally the other way around), is quite slow. Some of our most important sources for ancient documents have been landfills. I highly recommend Rubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage by William L. Rathje and Cullen Murphy for anyone who wants to know more.


Grandmère Mimi said...

FYI, Dr.T, I am told that you should shred those applications for credit cards, as it's possible for someone to steal your identity and open an account in your name. I don't know if that's true or not, but I have begun to shred them.

Dr.T said...

Well, I don't have a shredder, but I do often rip them in half.

binky said...

Did you see the research done in landfills about the "meat shortage" of the early 1970s? Because of the lack of decomposition, researchers were able to go back to the 1970s in landfills, and what they found was that there was an increase in discarded meat. Turns out it wasn't a shortage, but a run on meat. If I recall correctly it was connected to National Geographic, or the garbage project.

Dr.T said...

That book is by the the Garbage Project guys. They mention identifiable meat found in Roman landfills! They've reached a lot of counterintuitive conlcusions in their work.