There are two things I don’t understand about the Sony hack. First, why does anyone with the ability to accomplish such an impressive hack want to live in North Korea, when they could clearly sell their IT skills for millions in the global market?
And second, why are people such idiots that they continue to write stupid or outrageous comments, and put them in emails saved to the company’s mainframe? A similar example happened recently at the University of Sydney, where Barry Spurr, a professor of poetry, had his racist, sexist, obese-ist and generally nasty and stupid emails revealed by the press. He resigned this week.
One of my favourite email stories comes from the 1980s, when news about a secret deal between America and Iran – the Iran-Contra scandal – was bubbling along. Oliver North’s secretary in the White House, knowing he was being investigated, shredded all the printouts of emails and documents, blissfully unaware that they were backed up to the White House computer.
As a historian, paper trails are my business, so even electronic paper trails are intriguing, but the implications for future historians are serious, if governments and business decide not to commit anything to print in future. Governments have no doubt learned from the Wikileaks affair that some things should not be put in an email.
I regret that as a historian, because it means that diplomats and other government officials will be less prepared to commit their views to print, even the ephemeral print on a screen, but will operate more on the basis of the truly ephemeral spoken word.
I also regret that as a global citizen, because often it is only when someone finds the right formula of words and sentences, and commits their views to writing, that they think through exactly what they are saying.
When government policy – or the policy of a film company – is formulated by spoken rather than written instructions, there’s no paper trail to check what was said. Just lost words in the ether.
Did Henry II really say ‘Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?’ We will never know. We know only that Becket was later killed – subsequently or consequently? We also know it was a really stupid policy decision, but in an oral society, policy can be made on the basis of a rash statement – or no statement at all, just a nod and a wink. In current terminology, a case of plausible deniability.
Now it’s Sony. Business records are different from government records. Businesses don’t need archives in quite the way that governments do, because businesses don’t change abruptly in the way that governments change at an election. There is not the same separation between politicians, who come and go, and career bureaucrats, who are permanent, though this is changing.
Businesses need to keep records because a paper trail is necessary for legal and account reasons but informal discussions tend to get mixed up with the primary purpose of the correspondence.
The business records that I know, from 200 years ago, were full of incidental chatter about associates and rivals. I am always delighted to find occasional scurrilous reference to ‘our mutual friend’ – a common phrase in business correspondence, as Dickens clearly knew – and will be very sad if they disappear as a result of this latest data dump.
I doubt if they will though. We all chatter on the Internet, gossiping with our fingers, as once we did face to face. The consequence is occasional embarrassment and a loss of privacy, as FaceBook decides I can be tempted by advertisements for river cruises and reducing belly fat.