Monday, April 13, 2009

The Digitization Of People

Frances Dinkelspiel has written a brilliant book about her great-great grandfather. Isaias W. Hellman left his native Germany, moved to pre-Gold Rush Los Angeles and proceeded to become one of the most significant financial powerhouses in California. Wells Fargo, Farmers and Merchants Bank, transportation, utilities, oil, real estate - all major Hellman investments.

Frances was among the 180-plus generous, talented and ambitious classmates I was honored to get to know at Columbia University’s Journalism School Class of 1986. Frances now lives in San Francisco, where she’s a scholar, writer, mom, blogger. She and I share the same publishing house, St. Martin’s Press. These days, many of our friends and classmates wake up every day wondering whether they’ll keep their newspaper jobs. Whether their newspapers will continue to operate. Whether The Newspaper as we know it will, like the polar bear and mountain gorilla, become extinct.

As I read Frances’ TOWERS OF GOLD, what struck me, aside from her concise, fluid and razor-sharp writing, is the same thing that struck everyone else who applauds her: Her microscopic research. Frances spent eight years digging through musty archives, countless boxes and newspapers, towering stacks of them (probably tons of that unwieldy microfiche and microfilm, too).

While we all wonder whether books, with actual paper, will be around in their current form in, oh, let’s say, a decade or so, what about Frances’s kind of scholarship? What about nonfiction?

Somewhere among the digital Kudzu of Webfomation, I found an article about how the stories that cavepeople told on their walls still exist. Think about it. Tales about prehistoric hunts, Egyptian hieroglyphs carved into pyramids telling us about being dead all still inform us, still legible for us to read and share.

Today, we leave our histories on hard drives, CDs and flash drives. They’re all devices susceptible to melting, crashing, destruction, getting misplaced. History wiped out within minutes, not millennia.

So what’s going to happen? When scholars begin sifting through the rivers of peoples’ lives, sifting for golden nuggets of their compelling histories, where could they pan for anything? Blogs? Facebook? Myspace? Twitter? We don’t even write letters anymore. We send emails. Billions of them, and the vast majority are deleted, aren’t they?

While Frances painstakingly pored through dust and must and actual paper that carries that rich fragrance of inky history in search of her great-great-grandfather, I fingered some cool-as-hell documents my own grandfather left behind. That’s how I made my way to THE PLUNDER ROOM, my novel. That, and Google.

We novelists don’t necessarily have to camp out in the very libraries we grew up to love to do our research.

But search engines have their pitfalls. I found in one Google that I was dead.

According to a Virginia publication, the “Daily Review,” John Jeter had passed away in 1893. The article, dated March 21 of that year, read:

Old Mr. Jeter Dead

John Jeter, an aged colored man of this place, died on Saturday last about six o’clock, quite suddenly. He was about town as usual on Friday. The old man was a familiar and well known figure upon our streets; for many years he has done the bell ringing and street calling for every auction that has been held. [John Jeter's photo at right]
Mr. Jeter was about ninety years of age. The funeral services were held yesterday afternoon; interment at Riverside cemetery.

Undoubtedly, Old Mr. Jeter was greatly missed.

So, too, will be the stuff of real scholarship when paper, which becomes yellowed and perfumey and offers a useful long-lasting record, gives way to fully digitized people whose histories, whose distant lives could vanish in one click.

If Santayana’s argument that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it, well … I guess I’ll stick with making stuff up.

John Jeter's novel, THE PLUNDER ROOM (St. Martin's Press/Thomas Dunne Books), tells the story of one slacker/paraplegic's mandate to salvage his family's proud legacy, an allegory of the national zeitgeist, the cultural and core-values erosion from the Greatest Generation to Generation X. He's currently wondering about his current projects.

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