Here’s a smart piece that addresses the issue, from The New York Times Magazine:
But increasingly we’re not leaving a record of life by culling and stowing away physical journals or shoeboxes of letters and photographs for heirs or the future. Instead, we are, collectively, busy producing fresh masses of life-affirming digital stuff: five billion images and counting on Flickr; hundreds of thousands of YouTube videos uploaded every day; oceans of content from 20 million bloggers and 500 million Facebook members; two billion tweets a month. Sites and services warehouse our musical and visual creations, personal data, shared opinions and taste declarations in the form of reviews and lists and ratings, even virtual scrapbook pages. Avatars left behind in World of Warcraft or Second Life can have financial or intellectual-property holdings in those alternate realities. We pile up digital possessions and expressions, and we tend to leave them piled up, like virtual hoarders. At some point, these hoards will intersect with the banal inevitability of human mortality. One estimate pegs the number of U.S. Facebook users who die annually at something like 375,000.
I think about this a lot, maybe because I write for a living as a journalist and non-fiction author. I like to think my work will live on for decades or more, stored as it is within the databases of the many newspapers and magazines I’ve written for since the 1970s. I’ve written many personal stories for publication in print: about getting married, getting divorced, returning to church, and know that millions of strangers who have read them, like those who read my blogs, “know” me as a result.
But I don’t have kids or even nephews or nieces, so I also know that all my beloved family photos, and those of my sweetie — my favorite image, being cuddled by his Mom as a baby — will end up as detritus or, maybe, in some flea market bin.
Same with my journals and notebooks, decades of insights and observations. Gone.
But I worry about the loss of all the paper artifacts so many of us now disdain and no longer use — letters sent through the mail and kept, whether love letters or documents — that make up our individual and collective histories.
On the morning of 9/11, one of the most poignant and terrifying artifacts were the burned shreds of paper that floated all the way into my sweetie’s Brooklyn backyard from the fallen Twin Towers: invoices, letterhead, faxes…
Think of all the men and women we’ve come to know only through their letters and journals over the centuries, even milennia, from Herodotus to Pepys, whose diary of daily life from 1660 to 1669 is considered one of of the world’s greatest. I love (geek that I am) Montaigne’s travel journal, from 1580.
One of my favorite songs, Virginia Woolf, by the Indigo Girls captures the profound connections we have with the long-dead through their writing:
They published your diary
And that’s how I got to know you
The key to the room of your own and a mind without end
And here’s a young girl
On a kind of a telephone line through time
And the voice at the other end comes like a long lost friend
So I know I’m all right
Life will come and life will go
Still I feel it’s all right
Cause I just got a letter to my soul
And when my whole life is on the tip of my tongue
Empty pages for the no longer young
The apathy of time laughs in my face
You say each life has it’s place
The hatches were battened
The thunderclouds rolled and the critics stormed
The battle surrounded the white flag of your youth
If you need to know that you weathered the storm
Of cruel mortality
A hundred years later I’m sitting here living proof
What will you leave behind?
Does it matter?