Probing Question: How has technology affected written communication?

pen and ink
Ron James Norminton

For many who grew up in the pre-email era, the handwritten letters we've received from loved ones are treasured mementos of our lives and relationships. In the age of email and instant messaging, such "snail mail" letters are often disparaged as an outmoded system and have become increasingly rare. Though technology has made communication easier and faster, did we also lose something irreplaceable in the bargain?

Yes, says John T. Harwood, senior director of teaching and learning with technology, part of Penn State's Information Technology Services. "When my grandmother wrote me a personal letter, it was a single copy and was all the more precious. Now some people write one email to their whole family and it's not as personal."

Technology is a double-edged tool, believes Harwood. "At its very best, online communication is profoundly democratizing," he notes. One study suggests that ninety percent of American college students have an account on Facebook, a leading social networking Web site. Twenty-five percent of students write a web-log, or blog. "Students are using the Web to comment on society and question what they experience in the world," Harwood says. Penn State is encouraging this trend by rolling out a new service making blog-publishing easier for faculty, staff and students. (A pilot version begins Sept. 24 at http://blogs.psu.edu.)

Yet, Harwood cautions, "We are creating huge amounts of wonderfully expressive human communication through email, blogs, and instant messaging but a lot of this is not going to survive for very long—or no one will be able to access it." Our immense volume of electronic communication only exists as long as its medium does, he explains. "If you want to know what a departmental Web site looked like 10 years ago, we don't have it.

"In my basement," Harwood adds, "I have files stored on two PCs from the mid-1980s, the age of floppy discs. Since floppies have gone the way of eight-track tapes and are useless to today's computers, those files are trapped with no way to retrieve them. The computers will eventually be recycled and the files lost."

Digital communication change represents a loss to our cultural and historical record as well, he says. "When future scholars search for correspondence to better understand the great leaders and artists of our times, what will they find and how will they find it?"

Sometimes paper is better, believes Harwood. For example, writer Ernest Hemingway meticulously saved his manuscripts, un-sent letters, recipes and receipts. This paper record has allowed Penn State Hemingway scholar Sandra Spanier to track down Papa's letters all over the world and collect them in an annotated 12-volume edition to be published by Cambridge University Press. "Fifty years from now," Harwood says, "where will historians like Spanier be when they're looking for their data?"

While Harwood predicts that the march of technology will continue to yield better, more powerful search engines, "you can only search what has been preserved and digitized. Who will fund the preservation efforts? Individuals have no hope of creating a durable archive unless they print out everything and save it—a truly daunting task."

Advises Harwood, "If you really want to preserve a letter, print it on acid-free, 20-pound weight bond paper and put it in a specially designed room like the Special Collections area of Pattee-Paterno Library. It will last for centuries!"

John T. Harwood, Ph.D., is senior director of teaching and learning with technology, part of Penn State's Information Technology Services. He is also an associate professor in the College of Information Science and Technology. He can be e-mailed at jth@psu.edu.

Last Updated September 10, 2007