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.