My mother sent me an old letter recently. It was a handwritten note scrawled across two pages that she’d written to her sister more than 30 years ago. My family had just moved to West Germany, where my dad was stationed in the Air Force, and in the letter Mom describes for her sister the tiny Eiffel village where we’d taken up residence. The letter’s contents are interesting in their own right, but its three-dimensional nature is what struck me first.
The letter was a physical object — a piece of paper that she’d scribbled upon and then neatly folded into an envelope and sent across the ocean to her sister in Kansas. It was a relic from a bygone age. In the age of email and text messaging, most correspondence no longer lives on scraps of linen that you can feel in your hands, but in the “cloud,” that nebulous modern ether. In fact, the letter Mom sent me was not the object itself, but a scan of it. I read it first on my phone, though I felt compelled to print it on paper for the second reading.
Mom’s sister had come across the letter while going through some old stuff. It’s the kind of thing that happens in the world of tangible objects. You set things aside because they have some sort of meaning to you, and there they sit, waiting for you to happen upon them again at a later date.
I can’t help but wonder if this kind of nostalgic stumbling upon will become lost in the digital world. For now, anyway, the cloud contains everything — all your old emails and the data files you’ve saved over the years. And that’s both a plus and a minus.
On the plus side, it’s all there. On the minus, the larger your mass of data grows, the harder it becomes to organize and keep track of it all. Sure, you can search for keywords or file names, but this method is only useful if you know what you’re looking for. It’s hard for me to imagine stumbling upon an old letter like Mom’s in my piles of old backup data. As time passes, even accessing old data becomes challenging.
In my early days of freelancing, I backed up my files on a zipdrive. Remember those? (If you remember floppy disks, you’re even older than I am…) I’m sure there must be a way to access all those PC Word ‘97 docs and old photo files on my modern Mac, but doing so would take some outlay on ebay and at least half a day of tinkering.
In the 2000’s I backed up data onto DVDs and CDs, but it’s only a matter of time before these become obsolete too. I keep my most recent data backed up on spare hard drives and in the cloud, but despite its aura of magic, cloud technology is far from impervious. At some point data centers will reach their capacity (or else start charging for storage space, at which point people like me will undoubtedly start dumping old stuff). We may think of the cloud as a magical place, but it actually resides in the physical world, and requires power to keep going.
Data centers are connected to our power grid, which is vulnerable to solar storms. A coronal mass ejection could easily knock out the power grid and potentially damage the cloud. Such events have happened before. A geomagnetic storm wreaked havoc on the power grid across the entire province of Quebec in 1989.
Digital media are inherently susceptible to loss. Formats change rapidly (what are the chances you’ll be able to open your Word ‘04 file in 30 years?) and, as anyone who’s ever had their hard drive fry knows, digital technologies are subject to fail in ways that books and paper don’t.
None of these facts are likely to sway me away from the cloud, but they make the handwritten word feel more timeless and special. A friend recently sent me a bottle of wine and a scribbled thank you note. The empty bottle is headed to the recycler, but I’ve added the note to my paper folder of correspondence. Someday, I may find it again and smile.
Photo: German handwriting, early 1900 by klepas.