Saturday, May 02, 2009

Celebrating the Physical

Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald is, in our opinion, the best syndicated columnist the local Pensacola paper runs. Maybe the best in the nation.

Today, his column from early in the week ["Bearing Witness in Wonder and Loss"], which celebrates books, LPs, photographic prints, and all such "physical" things, finally made it into the PNJ. (We'd link to the PNJ's version, but it will disappear too soon behind an over-priced firewall.)

Pitts begins:

Last week, I fell into conversation with a fellow named Bud and shared something that has been rattling around my head for awhile now: a sense that, as intellectual properties become ever more digitized, we are seeing the disappearance of, well . . . things. Physical artifacts that once were as much a part of every day as ketchup stains on your tie are now disappearing inside hard drives.
* * *
It's recorded music. I have a huge collection of CDs and vinyl albums that these days is used mainly for decor; when I want tunes, I turn to my iPod.

And it's photography. We used to have these things called snapshots, but no longer. Photos are digitized now.

And it's books, where you can instantly, cheaply download that novel or biography right to your reading device.

And it is, of course, newspapers. Enough said.

There's more, including a premonish ending.

As it happens, we've been contemplating the same subject recently, as we plow through ancient newspapers and very old letters for a research project on pioneer life that we're engaged in. There's a lot we can learn from our forebears. One thing is how conscious they were of later generations to come.

Despite often appalling and frequently life-threatening living conditions, a good many of the traders, miners, newspapermen, farmers, preachers, merchants, lawyers, doctors, soldiers, adventurers, housewives -- and even children -- who built the United States and settled the West took special care to write down and preserve their diaries, letters, and other evidence of what life was like for them. They did it, perhaps, partly to make sense of things for themselves; but from the evidence of their own words, mostly out of regard for future generations they, themselves, would never meet.

They wanted us to know our roots and to see the pathways by which we came to where we are today. Mostly, so we think, they hoped we would learn from their triumphs and mistakes.

In the digital age we now find ourselves in, are we exhibiting the same regard for our descendants-to-be? How will historians a century or two from now retrieve our emails? Those digital photos still left in the camera? Yesterday's IM? Tomorrow's text message?

Have we abandoned our own responsibility to future generations for our own digital convenience? It's a question that occurs to us every time we step into a physical library, pour over an old 19th century diary, or sit down with an elderly relative to look at her family photo album.

1 comment:

panicbean said...

What a wonderful post! We just wanted to pop in tell you that we heartily agree with you.

There is a silver lining to the downturn in the economy, as the libraries are seeing more and more people come through the doors.

The public library is one of the best systems in this country, and we need to fund them much better than we are doing now.

Cheers to you for this most excellent post!