Emails and Paper Trails

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?

Another film that caused offence Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Another film that caused offence
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

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.

11 responses to “Emails and Paper Trails

  1. Michael Piggott

    Excellent post Marion. Paper trails, archives,”primary source” digital information – photos etc etc generated by governments AND business AND not for profits etc etc are absolutely vital to historians. And yet, why are they so often so silent about them? Here’s a question: how many historians commented on the National Archives of Australia’s draft new selection policy? See How many are fed up with libraries and archives pumping out treasures exhibitions and digitized content (photos, newspapers) which is relatively easily digitized while vast collections of absolute gold (e.g. large collections of personal papers) remain unsorted because there’s no bang-for-the-buck return in the labour intensive work of sorting them and no staff any more qualified to undertake arrangement and description work? Huh? Answer? Sadly not nearly enough.

    • Thanks Michael – and thanks for the link. I agree – there’s a bias in what is selected for digitising that has unfortunate side effects. So newspapers on Trove get cited, those that are not are never referred to, and anything handwritten goes to the back of the queue!

  2. residentjudge

    Picking up on your point about Trove newspapers, I think that it’s quite troubling that the easily-accessible newspaper on Trove with its own particular political slant will be cited, while undigitized papers with their opposing political slant will be overlooked.

  3. Yes I agree. There’s a lot built into the order in which things are digitized. The other distortion, I think, is that some newspapers – I’m particularly thinking of the Sydney Morning Herald – are digitized elsewhere (Google Newspapers). I don’t find the digitized SMH nearly as accessible, and it gets left out it I do a search on a term in Trove.

  4. I should add, on the political slant, that I complained to Trove earlier this year that The Worker, an important left wing paper edited in the early days by William Lane, wasn’t in Trove, while mainstream Brisbane papers like the Daily Mail and Brisbane Courier were. I was to,d to make a case for it, and I see it’s now there. So I think they are generally quite responsive. They have yet to do Lane’s other paper, athe Boomerang. Hint, hint!

    • Agree but then again I do have a family connection. William Lane was my great uncle and did have two aunts and an uncle born in Cosme, Paraguay.

      • Interesting. I once taught a student who was Ernie lane’s son – are you his grandson?

      • David Lane

        No. I am the grandson of John Lane, William and Ernie Lane’s brother. It could have been a grandson at least of Ernie Lane. The children of Ernie Lane like my father and my aunts were born in the 1890’s to early 1900’s

  5. Reblogged this on A Biographer in Perth and commented:
    Great post at Historians Are Past Caring on the effect of hacking on the archive of the present. I’m going to trust in people continuing to leave revealing traces in every medium.

  6. Reblogged this on In the mailbox and commented:
    An interesting take on the Sony hack, with some comments on the role of archives, and the influence of digitisation on the writing of history.

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