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Sources for Future Biographers

“I believe that I have read all of Dickens’s extant correspondence, published and unpublished…”

This is the first sentence of the acknowledgements section in Peter Ackroyd’s excellent biography on Charles Dickens. Reading through this 1000 page book it becomes clear that Ackroyd was indeed able to incorporate an amazing amount of letters and other types of written correspondence to form an as complete as possible image of Dickens.

As you and I well know however, the written letter is a dying species, so I can’t help but wonder what other types of source material a historical biographer 200 years in the future would use when he wants to write about a historical figure from our own time, where a person’s entire life is practically stored in the digital cloud. On the one hand you have the obvious sources, such as e-mail, Facebook or Twitter (which makes up in pure amount of raw information what it lacks in richness), but the number of potential sources that can be used is expanding all the time.

To see what else is there, I just have to look at all the different services I am using  — and yes, I sometimes fantasize about being famous enough that someone would write about me in the future. Another rather obvious source is this very same blog. A lot of ready information can be obtained by reading through my posts. But also look at online services like Google Reader for instance. What RSS feeds am I subscribed to? What articles did I star? What tags did I use? There are countless other examples. What notes have I written and kept in my Evernote account? What articles have I saved in my Pocket account? What YouTube videos have I tagged as my favourites? What files have I synced in my Google Drive? What books have I bought on Amazon? What music have I listened to in Spotify? What games have I played on my XboX and when have I played them? Will people think I wasted too much time playing video games when they go through my achievement list? And of course there is the all-important question: What do all these things say about me, if anything at all? What associations and perceptions do they conjure up in other people’s minds?

Privacy has become a very relevant topic during this digital age. How large a role does or should privacy play in the case of biographies? Imagine that 200 years from now a biographer would want to write a book about you: would you be ok having this stranger pry into your online records or would you have second thoughts about what to keep or what to delete (if it even helps)? Then again, is this really that much different from what happens now? Did Dickens, or other historical figures for that matter, always suspect, especially in his younger years, that future biographers would pore greedily over his every single word of every single piece of surviving written correspondence to get a glimpse of the details of his private life and personality so that it is subject for the entire world to see? Would he have been more careful with his words?

Interesting questions for sure. Now if you don’t mind, I’m off to find some intelligent and sophisticated articles on the Internet to save them to my Evernote account. And I guess it’s time to delete all those Backstreet Boys songs from my Spotify account and replace them by Chopin and Mozart.

1 Comment

July 9, 2012 · 22:06