Illustration by Jason Ford of a woman peeking through a telescope

A friend of mine works as an archivist at a large university that collects rare documents of all sorts. She tells me that a major issue with collecting anyone’s documents that were created after about 1990 is that the really desirable documents don’t physically exist … or, rather, they do exist but they’re lying comatose inside a 1995-ish laptop. Not only that but the structured electrons that constitute any given file inside that 1995 laptop are drifting away, as electrons apparently do. Depending on a laptop’s architecture, its drive will erase itself at a half-life rate of about 15 years. This has many implications.

For the archivist, it means that the paper they once collected – manuscripts for novels, notepads, UN speeches and what have you – no longer exist, or never came into existence. What paper material that arrives for archiving now is more ephemeral: thank-you notes, ticket stubs, dinner-table seating plans and cocktail-napkin sketches. Manuscripts now exist almost entirely electronically, and there’s apparently not that much interest in a laser printout of a book in its early stages, or even in the final drafts where a back and forth with an editor is evident. Archivists want the first draft only, and they want it written by hand, the thinking being that with handwriting you have a true neurological record of a book’s pregnancy and birth.

This is a bit fetishistic and, in 2014, not too likely to happen. The need for authorial gesture in the face of high tech is not unlike the New York art world of the early 1960s, where the abstract expressionists (with their near-religious obsession with dribbles and stroke being a manifestation of the id) were in the winter of their vanguard, while the newly emerging pop artists – with their technological, unsentimental rejection of brushstrokes and the paintiness of paint – were next in line to steal the crown.

In the universities, older archivists just want to retire and flee the building, leaving the digital archiving issue for the youngsters to deal with. The youngsters can’t wait to rise to the challenge but, as of yet, there’s no widely accepted protocol on how to acquire and permanently store files from the early digital era. Of course, the golden fleece for the young archivists is a writer’s old laptop, dozing away at the back of the hall cupboard. Its files may be disintegrating but this is where the archivist can take the true measure of a writer or politician – or pretty much anyone, you included.

Getting past the issue of cables, adaptors and plugs (“Honey, where did I put the 1997 DPX GM9/PC-KNW changer adapter?”) and assuming that the laptops have been kept in a temperature-controlled environment, the archivist of the near future might be able to graze on the mind of a novelist or statesman or artist with a level of voyeurism unprecedented in the realm of research. It’s all there: not just book drafts or worthy letters to Pen but everyday correspondence, shopping history, browsing history, email history, porn history, gaming history – materials that one can only describe as, logarithmically and insanely, too much information.

So how does one take what is historically valuable without straying into the laptop’s scarier neighbourhoods? As it stands, the only protocol is to have the archivist and the laptop donor sit at a table together and go through the files one by one (assuming the files are still legible) and say yay or nay, keep or delete – with the archivist there to ensure that the file creator doesn’t go in and delete those bits that make him or her look bad. Question: does posterity really need that flame email sent to Adobe at 1:30 in the morning in 2007 complaining about their relentless update emails? No. No it does not. And not only is this one-by-one process astonishingly slow but intrinsic to it is a distrust between the creators of the documents and those whose goal is to preserve legacy. It’s easy to imagine Winston Smith sitting waiting for the clock to strike 13 while an archivist asks why an archive donor cancelled their subscription to Martha Stewart Living in 1965.

But then, looking at laptop and cloud archiving technology like this is like looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Do I want to look at four different versions of a book from first draft to final manuscript? Maybe, but probably not – that’s for academics in the year 2525. What about sealing documents for 100 years? Unsurprisingly, embarrassment and shame live far beyond the grave and this is a donation path taken far less than one might think.

Here’s the most important question: what would I really like to see? Well, here’s a thought: many writers email themselves a copy of their novels at the end of every day, using the cloud as a back-up mechanism. Imagine if one were able to take all of those daily backups and then place them into a sort of stop-frame animation, one could see how an author constructs their work: words per day; words cut and pasted; paragraphs deleted; items shuffled about; typos; notes to self. Then, when the editing process begins, one could watch how a novel is hacked and pruned and reshaped – an organic process displayed in a dynamic organic mode. This would be a fascinating new way of appreciating a book’s creation – a visual language to describe a verbal process. And while this is just a fanciful idea, it does point out a chasm that now exists before the old manuscript and the new, and gives a taste of a visit to the archives of tomorrow.

Douglas Coupland is the author of ‘Generation X’. His latest novel, ‘Worst. Person. Ever.’, is published by Heinemann


Letters in response to this report:

Archivists want documentation in its original form / From Mr Matthew Snyder.

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