What Will Biographies Read Like in 100 Years?

I’m about half way through reading A. Lincoln, Ronald C. White Jr.’s NY Times Bestselling biography of Abraham Lincoln. Part of what makes the book great to read is that Mr. White regularly is able to pull quotes from Lincoln’s personal correspondences with friends, family members, and politicians. These are readily available online on the Library of Congress website as part of a project called The Abraham Lincoln Papers, consisting of some 20,000 documents. Without being able to read those intimate remarks, it would be much more difficult for me sitting here in 2011 to really get to know who Abe was as a person, beyond the public figure: the political issues he struggled with, the personal relationships that shaped his life.

Which got me to thinking – is it possible that with all of the technology and content we have available today, it might actually be more difficult to write a biography like this for someone living right now? I mean, I’ve got some 750+ blog posts and a bunch of tweets and Facebook posts and whatnot all scattered throughout the web, so really anyone who wanted to could write a basic biography about me without ever talking to me or anyone who personally knows me. However, if I were to die tomorrow, there is no stack of letters to leave behind. In 1850 people didn’t make phone calls or write emails, they wrote letters. Most of the intimate personal correspondence that I’ve had in my life has happened over the phone or via email (or in person, which is sort of irrelevant to the discussion since that also happened in the 1800’s). The phone calls are lost. The emails aren’t, but that’s not something that’s typically made public these days. I don’t think I’d personally care if my personal and work emails were made public after I died, but I’m probably in the minority, and I’ve never written or done anything juicy enough for a biography to be written about me.

A better example, since I doubt there will ever be a biography about me, is Barack Obama. We’ve got YouTube videos galore, countless TV and print interviews, speeches, Tweets, and more. But 40-ish years from now when he passes away, will The White House create an online archive of all of his emails? Will his family do the same with his personal emails? That doesn’t seem like something that would be very likely. So when I contemplate whether an author will ever have a way to access Obama’s inner thoughts in the way that Ronald C. White Jr. and others have been able to access Lincoln’s, my guess, as of right now, is probably not. Ironically, in this case, technology – or, more precisely, how our culture uses that technology – may be an inhibitor to future learning. And that kind of sucks.

4 comments on What Will Biographies Read Like in 100 Years?

  1. Tim says:

    Pretty cool thought Adam, I think it’s funny how secretive people try to be when they really have nothing of interest or worth while going on in their lives. If you want to read my email, go for it but I suspect you’ll be bored. Where you’ll find the juicy stuff from me is in my Skype and IM manifest, then again there is so much content and it’s often so random that I pity the poor fool who reads it.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      I think itโ€™s funny how secretive people try to be when they really have nothing of interest or worth while going on in their lives.

      Totally agree Tim. One of the reasons I prefer Twitter to Facebook is because of how it defaults to openness. Instead of a bunch of closed off groups, you end up with a social diary of the world that everyone can access and use. 50 or 100 years from now that data will be immensely useful, which is why the Library of Congress is archiving every single tweet.

  2. Rob says:

    I think there’s a lot more noise recorded than there was a century ago, for sure, but I think the important stuff will still make it out. People still do write love letters, still write postcard and still have journals.

    Do you think that in moving to a digital system for presidential (and government level) communications has brought with it different privacy concerns & plans for making information available in future. Do we know if governments have policies on this?

    Have you read the book “The Salmon of Doubt” by Douglas Adams? It’s a posthumous collection which was created from files on his computer – emails, letters, notes and half finished manuscripts. I think it’s an excellent example showing that a great biography can still be put together in the digital age.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Do we know if governments have policies on this?

      To the best of my knowledge they don’t. It’s such a new problem. In the US, I’m assuming that once a president has passed away and some time has passed that the Library of Congress will push to have some of their digital correspondence released. Whether it will happen or not will be interesting.

      I also added “The Salmon of Doubt” to my Amazon wish list, which means I’ll probably read it by 2015 ๐Ÿ™‚

Comments are closed for this post.