If you have something personal or private to communicate, you know where to turn. If you’re at work, it might be Slack. If you’re dating, it could be Tinder. For friends, maybe WhatsApp, or Messenger, or Snapchat, or any of a hundred other messaging apps. But it’s less likely—and growing even less likely every year—that you’ll be using email. Indeed, if you’re Indian or Chinese, there’s a good chance you don’t use email at all.
Just a decade ago, email’s technical and social protocols seemed permanent and universal; now, like countless technological institutions before them, their once-assured dominance has been replaced by an unstable messaging universe with none of the permanence and searchability of the email archives of old. Most of it is mobile-only, which prevents its contents from living on PC hard drives for years. What’s more, a growing subset of Snapchat-inspired messaging apps is deliberately ephemeral, with communications self-destructing after 24 hours or even immediately upon receipt.
Felix Salmon (@felixsalmon) is an Ideas contributor for WIRED. He hosts the Slate Money podcast and the Cause & Effect blog. Previously he was a finance blogger at Reuters and at Condé Nast Portfolio. His WIRED cover story on the Gaussian copula function was later turned into a tattoo.
This might seem like a positive development, given that we have no good reason to trust the governments and technology companies that dominate our lives. But don’t celebrate too fast. Because by leaving permanent messaging behind, we are also going to lose one of the biggest benefits of the digital revolution.
The current Cambrian explosion of impermanent messaging is in many ways a reaction to the power held by institutions whose ability to look into our lives is worrying at best and downright terrifying at worst. The group least likely to use email and most likely to use Snapchat is teens – that is, a group of individuals united by a universal fear that their communications might be intercepted by their parents. But adults too have conversations they want to keep from certain people–their spouse, for instance, or their boss, or their government. Even corporations have data retention policies that are designed in large part to delete most or all messages after a certain number of months: every ancient moldering email is a potentially explosive piece of evidence in some future lawsuit or government investigation. Once it’s gone, that risk magically disappears.
Increasingly, our lives on the internet are rooted in mistrust and suspicion. If you haven’t been hacked, then you have a friend who has, or at the very least you’ve read about massive hacks in the news. The government has had secrets stolen, most spectacularly by Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, as has the Democratic National Committee; Sony’s innermost dealings have been laid bare; almost everybody who has dated in the past couple of decades has worried at some point about revenge porn or other invasions of privacy. And so we automatically delete our tweets after a few days, we set our confidences to self-destruct, we have hidden conversations in the comments sections of old celebrity Instagram posts where even we won’t be able to find them in a day or two.
In a world where people don’t even trust fiat currency and prefer to gamble on bitcoin, it’s hardly a surprise that those same people would be wary of the indicia of Big Data. And while some people, still, might think it cool to live in a Black Mirror episode where all past communications can be called up and replayed at will, most of us, including Black Mirror’s creators, would consider such a service to be the chilling manifestation of a feared dystopian panopticon.
And yet, there was something beautiful and important about the more open and trusting internet of not so long ago, where people would store years’ worth of emails on carefully backed-up hard drives, and where searchability and permanence were considered features, rather than bugs.
We all save a tiny handful of items for posterity; we’ve done that for centuries. But there’s an enormous gap between what we think is going to turn out to be important and what actually does turn out to be important. It turns out that the historical record is much more interesting, and much more powerful, if we have the full thing at our disposal, rather than just that tiny subset that we thought at the time was worthy of preservation. Historians wanting to preserve contemporaneous documentation of World War II, for example, would surely spend a lot of time saving filing cabinets in Whitehall, even as the most illuminating and timeless documentation would end up being found in a 13-year-old’s diary in Amsterdam. That’s one reason why all your tweets from years past will reside at the Library of Congress forever. Your tweets from this year, however, won’t, and that’s a loss to future historians and researchers.
Our email archives are of much more than historical interest. In those terabytes of data has been found evidence of countless financial crimes, buried within incriminating emails inadvertently preserved for posterity. Libor trader Tom Hayes, for example, is serving an 11-year sentence today thanks to emails and other messages he sent while manipulating the world’s most important interest rate. Preserved emails also gave us the first glimpses of the Trump campaign’s attempt to procure dirt on Hillary Clinton from the Russians, not to mention Clinton’s emails themselves. And, most important, they have provided the contemporaneous accounts of sexual misconduct that have powered the #MeToo movement—accounts which might have been been private and confidential at the time but which, today, provide crucial evidence.
Working out exactly what happened during an alleged harassment is not easy: no one taped those encounters, and memories of trauma, years later, can be unreliable. But we had a couple of decades during which time personal confidences were often shared by email. Going back and finding those emails will often confirm stories, add forgotten details, and even reveal crimes that victims might later have repressed.
Many women, reading emails sent to friends and confidantes years ago, say they have been shocked anew not only by the details of what they went through but also by the feelings of powerlessness they felt at the time. Those emails are now being shared with managers and journalists and investigators, often to headline-grabbing effect.
Just a few years’ worth of email, then, have become an invaluable tool for delivering justice. Which means that evanescent messaging is plausibly an avatar for justice denied.
Our thoughts are still being documented, of course, more than ever. In a world where we’re increasingly communicating through our phones rather than in person, app developers are making it easier than ever to communicate exactly what we want to exactly who we want. The most successful apps, moreover, are the ones which most effectively reward the greatest quantity of communication: we’ve been trained by highly sophisticated Silicon Valley behaviorists to tweet or Snap or otherwise communicate almost every thing—really, everything—we think or feel or see.
But those thoughts will not be archived, will not be searchable, will not, in years to come, be capable of bringing down the malign and powerful. They will evaporate into digital nothingness, and justice will not be served.
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social experiment by Livio Acerbo #greengroundit #wired https://www.wired.com/story/snapchat-sending-metoo-down-the-memory-hole