Thursday, November 06, 2008

The War, Dead Trees and Obama

It was an historic event. It was memorialized in countless millions of expressions of exuberance, reflection, fear and hope. Later, someone made a documentary about it and in doing so relied upon all those expressions. These came in the form of photos, letters, news articles and other physical detritus that encapsulated the emotion, urgency and meaning of one of the 20th century's formative events. World War Two was the subject of Ken Burn's The War which aired last year on US television. During this broadcast, I wondered how future generations would capture the same raw emotion that Burns relied on in reading back to viewers the letter home from the soldier on the front.

Not all of this primary material was easy to find. A good proportion will have been found in attics and basements or even dumpsters. Is there an electronic version of the box of great uncle Tom's letters home found in the demotion of that row house? I think not. While there is significant collection and documentation of experiences of the Iraq War for example, will this material be retained? In many respects the ability to capture this experience may be easier than generations ago; Blogs and email make this easy. However, how much of this electronic material will be retained? How will historians access the digital equivalent of all those letters and photos that formed the basis of The War? News reports and 'formal' media will be easy but it is the real life experiences that could be lost.

I am unsure of the answer and this post has been circulating in my head for months since I watched The War last year. I was lacking a punch line but in the last several days I have marveled at how thousands and thousands of people rushed to purchase the dead tree edition of the NY Times to capture the most important political event since reconstruction. Ironic given the imminent demise of paper based media. Our experiences still need to be legitimized by seeing them on paper. Perhaps the moment we cease to need this legitimization and believe in some type of substitute will come to be the true moment we gave up print forms for electronic. I wonder however, whether any of us are cognizant of this dilemma and it will only be when the alternative is forced on us will we really know what we have given up.

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