The BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Tales from the Digital Archive’ set me off on a meandering route of imaginings this week. Apparently to keep up with the evolution on technology Libraries now accept the old computers, floppy discs and general digital ephemera as part of the literary donations from writers and other luminaries.
Where before it was boxes of scraps of papers, diaries and hand written manuscripts to be pored over by academics in white gloves, now they take the actual computers which are tended by IT specialists schooled in the art of opening documents in long superseded software without changing the date for ‘last viewed’ careful of inadvertently amending texts. The sweat and grease from the hands of researchers, and perhaps the odd spilled cup of coffee used to be the greatest danger to authorial detritus, now it is Windows relentless upgrading.
With the physical computer in front of them, exhaustive researchers and biographers can’t resist taking full advantage. They study screensavers, desktop images and the way in which the owner organised the files on the hard disc. Seeing when particular amendments were made to texts, they check the internet search history to see what research was done on the same day; they check patterns of usage of the computer to know what time of day it was customary for their subject to work. They can use digital analysis techniques to compare different versions of the same piece of work – ‘analysis that, ‘done manually’ used to take days.’
There will be no secrets from the literary scavengers, no quick little breaks to check the cricket score or today’s horoscope on line.
Now I’m not deluded enough to think that anyone will ever want to examine the organisation of the files on my laptop, but it did make me pause to think what might be revealed about me if they did; all those hours of random reading on the internet, those games of spider solitaire while I’m girding myself to get going, the checking of my email in the hope that someone will have sent me something amusing to divert me, the bitty way in which I draft blog posts; all those quarter finished stories, and bits and pieces that should have gone somewhere that didn’t; that story about the destructive nature of hope that I keep trying to get to work……
Maybe I should start deleting some of the history files. I still don’t know whether to believe the claims that it is impossible to really delete anything from a computer memory. If it’s true, why is there so much stuff I can never seem to find again?
Fay Wheldon was interviewed about the change in her own writing when she moved from writing long hand to using a computer. She believed that it had fundamentally changed the structure of her work. Hand written things tended to be more jaggedy and twisting, while things written under the discipline of word processing checking spelling and syntax, and with ‘cut and paste’ options, were much smoother and linear.
She commented that with a computer it is so easy to change words and phrases that there was much less significance in those changes now as compared to when it was a much more laborious and labour intensive task to complete. And anyway, she concluded, no-one will be interested in ‘old’ technology any more. She likened the current technological changes to the redundancy of monk copyists on the arrival of the Caxton press.
Only time will tell……
Meanwhile I’ll be doing the disc clean and defragging programmes just in case.