Recording and Communication

Before I reach the main body of my post, allow me to say that a new story has appeared in the ‘writings’ section.

There is a distinction, that seems to be forgotten nowadays, between writing that is meant to be record and writing that is meant to be communication. The first should be permanent, because the record has to last a long time; ideally, eternally. The second should not be. It needs to last only until the message it was intended to convey has been conveyed. After that, it can be erased.

Historically, this distinction has come naturally, perhaps because making something permanent was expensive, and only done when necessary. Inscriptions on a rock, like the tombs of the Pharoahs in ancient Egypt, are permanent. The same Egyptians who made those tombs wrote on wax tablets to calculate taxes. No wax tablets remain.

In the same way, before the manufacturing of paper came into the West, you would write on parchment only what needed to be preserved – books of great value. For everything else that had to be written, you just wrote on birchbark. It decayed quickly, so it was no good for records, but it worked fine for communication.

Then paper became commonplace and books were written on the exact same material as letters. That meant books decayed just as quickly as letters. The more important books, of course, were printed on finer paper, but even that couldn’t last for nearly as long as a simple inscription in a stone obelisk.

Today, the distinction seems to be completely lost. What should be permanent is made out of such weak, easily destroyed material that it cannot last for more than a few years, maybe decades, certainly not centuries. And, now that we use computers for everything, the two seem to be at times conflated. What should be permanent, what is a record, is stored on floppy disks, hard drives, CDs, DVDs, etc… and these formats come and go so quickly that no single physical recording can last for long. And once a format has been out of use for long enough, all the data stored in it that hasn’t yet been transfered to the new format is unaccessible.

But what should be temporary is never forgotten, not as long as the computer it was sent on still lives. Casual emails are stored, recorded, are never erased, and years after they can resurface years later as evidence against the sender or recipient. All because the sender forgot that, while email is indeed merely a method of communication, everything communicated through it is put into a permanent record that cannot be destroyed, except by the people who have access who aren’t likely to destroy it anyway – why should they? It’s not their email, they won’t be embarrassed by it.

The progress of technology is an amazing thing. A few kilobytes on a floppy disk was once huge; now it’s nothing. Probably no format we use today will be relevant ten years from now; the newest, like HD-DVDs, will probably still be used, but will be nowhere near the cutting edge. Once where we used pen and ink to scratch out symbols on parchment, we use a keyboard and store books full of information on one small circular metal disk.

But I don’t think it can be said to be altogether good. Or, rather, maybe it would be entirely good if we knew how to adjust to it, how to retain necessary distinctions that were so easy to keep in the past, but that have to be forced today; but we don’t. And if this distinction of recording versus communicating can be so easily forgotten when we have the technology to no longer be forced to worry about it… what other forgetfulness is just around the corner?


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