There is a certain irony in the fact that I became aware of the Unesco Memory of the World Programme whilst researching the most ancient artefacts. Wikipedia says that the initiative was launched to ‘safeguard the documentary heritage of humanity against collective amnesia, neglect, the ravages of time and climatic conditions, and wilful and deliberate destruction.’
The quote from Dato’ Habibah Zon, Director-General of the National Archives of Malaysia, highlights how much of our heritage and history we owe to the written word and symbol that have come down to us over the centuries.
Global literacy is probably higher today than at any other time. Access to technology increases daily and the ease of use allows us to tap our words directly onto a screen without ever producing a hard copy.
Our words are released in various electronic forms. Much of what we write we will delete to ‘save space’. Even more is forgotten once we press ‘send’. Billions of words float through an unseen medium and are held to ransom by our growing technological expertise.
What happens to our words when a new system replaces the ones we now know? Will they all be backward compatible? I doubt it. How many people outside of institutions with legacy computers still have the means to read a floppy disc? What of our legacy then, when there is nothing on which we can locate, display and read our blogs, ebooks, online journals and memories?
Writers may not write primarily for posterity, but there is an undeniable link between what we have read and what we write. Even were we only to have ever read newly written works, by the time we reach middle age we have known half a century of changing literature… and most of us have read works created at least a century earlier, as we have shared the stories that delighted our parents and grandparents. Some go back even further; to read, for example, the text of the Book of Coming Forth by Day… the Egyptian Book of the Dead… is to read words written over three and a half thousand years ago.
It isn’t just the great documents of history that are of value. Great granny’s letters and journals, for example, reveal much about Victorian life… and the trenches of WWI. Your journal tells the small things of life in the 21stC… the silly things we take for granted because they are ‘normal’ for us, yet which could be the missing piece in a puzzle in centuries to come.
History is not made only by the great and good, but by each and every one of us, every day… it will not be up to us to decide what is of value in a thousand years. It will be simply a case of ‘what is left’.
The oldest written document is a form of pictographic script, possibly Sumerian, dating back some five and a half thousand years. We do not understand what is written on the fragment… we know only that it is a direct link with the words and world of our ancestors. It is part of our history… part of the history of the words I now type.
My research of the graven stones scattered across our landscpe leaves me with more questions than answers. The enigmatic petroglyphs are the only ‘written’ record we have from the Old Ones who lived here many thousands of years ago. Perhaps everything we need to understand them is there for us, but we cannot see it, simply because our mindset has changed so much. Perhaps, in five thousand years, our grandchildren’s many-times-great-grandchildren will look with just such puzzlement and wonder at what fragments they have of our history.
In these days where handwriting is a dying art, where texts are ephemeral and we confide our thoughts to the fragile bellies of computers or the nebulous Cloud, what will we leave for the future?