Maybe my dad isn’t so crazy for printing out every flipping thing he does on the Internet, including email:
- Many of the kinds of documents that historians of prior wars, and of the Cold War, have taken for granted—memoranda, minutes, and the routine back-and-forth among assistant secretaries of state and defense or among colonels and generals in the Joint Chiefs of Staff – simply no longer exist.
The problem is not some deliberate plot to conceal or destroy evidence. The problem – and it may seem churlish to say so in an online publication – is the advent of e-mail.
In the old days, before the mid-to-late 1980s, Cabinet officials and their assistants and deputy assistants wrote memos on paper, then handed them to a secretary in a typing pool. The secretary would type it on a sheet of paper backed by two or three carbon sheets, then file the carbons. Periodically, someone from the national archive would stop by with a cart and haul away the carbons for posterity.
Nobody does this today. There are no typing pools to speak of. There are few written memos.
Eduard Mark, a Cold War historian who has worked for 15 years in the U.S. Air Force historian’s office, has launched a one-man crusade to highlight, and repair, this situation. He remembers an incident from the early ’90s, when he was researching the official Air Force history of the Panama invasion, which had taken place only a few years earlier. “I went to the Air Force operations center,” Mark says. “They had a little Mac computer on which they’d saved all the briefings. They were getting ready to dump the computer. I stopped them just in time, and printed out all the briefings. Those printouts I made are the only copies in existence.”
That was a decade ago, when computers were not yet pervasive in the Pentagon and many offices still printed important documents on paper. The situation now, Mark says, is much worse.
Almost all Air Force documents today, for example, are presented as PowerPoint briefings. They are almost never printed and rarely stored. When they are saved, they are often unaccompanied by any text. As a result, in many cases, the briefings are incomprehensible. [Slate]
The irony here is that one of the great benefits of the digital revolution was supposed to be the elimination of the need for a paper trail – now it appears we either need some kind of automatic backup system or were still going to have to use an awful lot of paper or lose the nuts and bolts of history.