It’s a familiar routine: you glance over your shoulder to confirm the lack of witnesses, unlock your post office box, and shield your eyes from the light that streams through your perpetually empty P.O. box. Since Thanksgiving break, I have received exactly three pieces of mail: a bill, a catalog addressed to the previous owner of my P.O. box, and someone else’s New Yorker, which I debated keeping but dutifully tacked to the Yale Station bulletin board instead.
There are only two people that send me mail on a regular basis: J. Crew (that’s a real person, right?) and my mother.
Everyone else has replaced letters and postcards with e-mail. In these times I suppose that’s acceptable — unlike an envelope, the worst thing that can happen when you open Pine is getting a “No New Messages” warning. There are plenty of reasons that e-mail has replaced old-fashioned paper communiques — it’s free (what college student can afford stamps?), you don’t have to leave your room (walking across the block to the mailbox is tiring), and easy to use (just try remembering someone’s ZIP code when you’re drunk, I dare you).
When one of the e-mail servers failed on Tuesday, 4,000 accounts were paralyzed. After seven hours without e-mail, my Pantheon-less friends spent dinner eagerly swapping explanations for why the server was down. I remained smugly silent, confident in my functioning server and its charming cries of “New Mail!”
But then someone slung one of those “it’s people like you” comments at me. By “people like me” they didn’t mean witty, endearing, very eligible single seniors. They meant people whose 2,325 messages in their accounts were overwhelming the server.
It’s not that I’m too lazy to purge messages or so exceptionally popular that my ability to delete e-mails is surpassed by inbox influx. I’m on a quest to become the Beinecke of the Pantheon network. Forget that drunk tirade you sent freshman year? Lose the forwarded list of Ivy League light bulb jokes? Blocked out what you said that’s had me ignoring you ever since? I haven’t, and somewhere I have the e-mail to prove it.
If I were really to build a repository of electronic missives, I’d have little competition. E-mail’s convenience also makes it disposable. It’s hard to justify long-term preservation of a medium whose unwritten bylaws permit salutations of “like, dude” or appear to have been typed on a keyboard with a broken shift key. Since most people do not even own their own envelopes, what other written record of their lives exists?
The libraries at Yale are stuffed with rare documents — including thousands of pieces of correspondence. Examine any scholarly work, and it would be difficult to find a list of citations that didn’t include at least one personal letter.
All you happy history majors who laughed at me while I struggled through organic chemistry will one day have to deal with science’s revenge: the shift of the historical record from written objects to binary code lurking somewhere out in cyberspace.
It isn’t practical to print the thousands of e-mails rather than save them. My grandchildren won’t find inspiration from e-mails with “printed for //capitoline/sam52” on the top. And it’s not worth saving messages on a 3.5-inch floppy disk that will one day be as useless as Oregon Trail software for the Apple IIe.
The impracticality of giving electronic information physical reality makes me wonder why I don’t toss my inbox in the Recycle Bin folder and just download bootlegged episodes of “Dawson’s Creek” or something. But when we all become rich and famous in 50 years, how will biographers reconstruct our lives? With a stack of bills and mail-order catalogs? The fate of the annals of time is ours alone to save!
It turned out that the server failure was hardware-related and not the fault of inbox pack rats. But it raised the question that plagues modern man: to delete or not to delete?
Sarah Merriman is a senior in Pierson College. Her columns appear on alternate Thursdays.