(This was originally written a few years ago, but I'm modifying re-posting it from my old website)
Emails are like old fashioned love letters. They are written on parchment using a quill, sprayed with perfume and sealed with wax. They are hand-delivered on horseback. They are read and perhaps re-read. They are replied-to and cited.
But they are private.
Love letters are personal, and so their privacy is fine. But much of our communication isn't private, nor is it supposed to be. Many of our discussions are meant to be in the public domain - so they can be openly refined until they're qualified to be acted upon.
Human communication used to be entirely oral. We had no writing, or writing was symbolic and was meant for the accounting of taxes and tithes. When we had a great idea, we would go to a public forum and present it. The idea would be argued. Perhaps it would be a discussion on a bench by the market, and it wouldn't be thought rude for others to overhear and join the discussion.
We've had the convenience of letters for so long now that its notion has spilt into email. We've had email in a largely unaltered state for so long now that we're using it in ways that we really shouldn't. We're using the "private" format of email for discussions of public interest.
There was a time when an entire book would be written to argue an idea. Back then, the very best replies would come in book form. The value of writing is such that it can be delivered further than the author can go - even beyond death. Most importantly, writing allows time for an author to construct their ideas in a way that's outside of the pressures - and social skills - of public discussion.
The internet used to be such that it wasn't particularly obvious how to leverage both the advantages of writing and the advantages of a public forum. We were pretty innocent. But these days we're not. I just have to say "forum" and I give away the contemporary technology.
But a forum is something that's controlled by a third party, and it needs to be a common meeting-point to the two (or more) authors who want to publicly discuss ideas. They all need to have an account. In most cases they each need to be an existing user before any sort of discussion can begin. This isn't particularly optimal.
These days there are lots of blogs, and we have a sort of semi-forum response possibility with comments in them. But why haven't we seen more essays being written as responses to essays? We certainly haven't seen anything the calibre of a whole book responding to another whole book, but perhaps smaller chapters could be written?
I like the idea of the linkback. It lets an author know when an article has been cited elsewhere. I think that this can and should be much more broadly used.
Back to email. I cannot imagine how many great ideas I have currently stuck in my 64,000+ emails. No I didn't personally engage in every conversation, but I kept them all. But why? I can't possibly go over a fraction of those emails. Even given the rest of my life I probably won't. But in the rest of my lifetime, I may dip in and find just one single idea. Just one small thing to build on, and the rest .. gone?
I know the phrase "the internet never forgets". People who use it are naive.
Do we even know what we're going to do with people's online presences when they die? Do we even know the first thing about how to get at a person's online persona? Accounts may eventually expire, and whole websites and their services may vanish. All of those bits may get re-used, but there are so many ideas .. so much knowledge .. possibilities upon possibilities which have never ever seen the light of day.
Just think about all the things you do which are currently and reflexively private which could benefit the public domain. Who cares if you're embarrassed about these things now. Would, on your death bed, you be willing to donate the sum of your experience back to the world? Even the smallest thing may be of value to someone somewhere. Every drop every individual contributes adds to the ocean of ideas.
In the end, the very end, all you are and everything you have ever done in your entire life amounts to progeny, creation and memory. Imagine the loss if most of your ideas have been private and are allowed to die with you - chained to emails, locked behind logins and tossed into the sea.
But if during our lifetime even some small portion of our unnecessarily-private conversations were instead made more public, then there is the smallest chance that even a single idea could escape the event horizon of the black hole of death.
I'm neither talking about creating some selfish summary of our life, nor some kind of time capsule during life nor even some flawed recreation after death. I'm talking about the unbiased freeing of all the unnecessarily-private ideas, so that anyone else out there can find they inspiration they individually need. New ideas aren't created in a void separate from culture. Those ideas are bettered when culture is freed.
Very smart people make very smart emails. Ideas of incalculable value. Ideas that could easily be made public when they are first made. That initial deposit into the public domain means that during their lifetime there can be additional participation on that idea.
The original author of the idea - perhaps with their expert opinion or unique perspective - can be re-engaged. There's a big difference between reading the muddled writings of early Plato and talking with Socrates.
Even very dim people occasionally have bright ideas. Or some accident can have the right wanderer stumble upon the right idea. The source doesn't matter, ideas being universally free is important regardless of the source or perceived quality.
So there's the idea of making it more culturally accepted for us to have non-private-conversations and their ideas be as non-private as possible. But I've always been intrigued by the idea of computer archaeology. I'm sure one day I'll either be corrected or I'll find a better term to express this. The notion is that a researcher can crack open a person's "e-life" and study them.
Yes I see how this is surely a dark idea. The security-minded would stop here, take a deep breath and give that gritted-teeth bulgy-eyed head-cocked look. Existing persons in fields I'd rather not know existed would easily claim that they've been doing/working on this for decades. They probably really believe that too. Cute.
There's a difference between the sort of broad pretend-security-check and the deeply personal recovery of a person's electronic soul.
Their ghost in the machine.
I've had the great pleasure of doing computer archaeology. From going through old software compilation CDs, piles of disks and FTP archives to individual abandoned or donated computers. The selection of software, the configuration of the software and all the actual data produced by it. It's all valuable to me.
There's something.. honourific about pouring over someone's electronic remains. The careful and respectful analysis and cataloguing of the data. It's perhaps a bit like going through an old movie and picking it apart for clips to make a collage with. There's a feeling as though one stumbled upon a good short story, and more by that author is being hunted for.
Have you ever seen a really great movie, and realized that it's by the same director as another movie you like? Or an actor you know and love from somewhere else demonstrates compelling ability in what you're currently watching?
Do you remember the feelings you had when listening to a song in a new breaking genre of music that would become one of your favourites? Or perhaps it's something as simple as a song used somewhere in a movie you saw, and you reached out over the internet to find out who sung it.
This is the sort of passion an information archivist has.
Mike Wesch (youtube, website ), Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University and 200 students at Kansas State University made a video called A Vision of Students Today. Throughout it is a haunting instrumental piece. Thankfully the piece is cited in the end credits and it was easy to track down.
- The artist is Tryad (t r y ^ d)
- The piece is Waltz Into the Moonlight
- There's more by that artist
There's much more by that group. It turns out that a couple of other pieces from the same creator group really speak to me. That little bit of work I did to learn and get more has enriched my life.
What if that original video were private? I think of it now and I feel as though something would be taken away from me. I also feel that same way when I think about all the possibilities which are being locked up every time a conversation is made private when it doesn't need to be.
Email strands ideas - ideas great and small - on a deserted island from which they may never return to the commons. We must make a conscious effort to free our conversations and their ideas, without personal bias as to their value, to let others stumble upon them and find their own enrichment.
Ideas want to be free. Ideas need to be free. We are social creatures, and we as individuals and as a society benefit greatly by being social. Open communication is the foundation of all of our education, our science and technology, our economics and politics, and all of our creative arts. It is the reason our culture and our civilization have flourished and continue to flourish.
Get the ideas out there, and the next challenge is to provide open tools and the skills necessary to sift through it all. We've taken baby steps to that end, and hopefully those tools and requirements for their use will stay open enough for the public benefit. But all of this is another topic for another time. (Support network neutrality! )
This bit of writing was inspired by an email. I didn't lock these ideas down in a reply to that email. Are you glad?