How President Obama's BlackBerry Threatens History

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I worry that President Obama's use of his BlackBerry will rob future Americans of history. I know it's fashionable among tech writers to laud the President for sticking to his guns and become our first Crackberry in Chief. But electronic communications are fragile, as we learned from the previous administration's cavalier, one might even say illegal, regard for keeping records. By depending on his smartphone, I believe, our current president's missives are in real danger of being lost to future generations.

I'm not saying the Obama administration will be as secret and deceptive as Bush's proved to be with e-mails and other official correspondence. But by depending on a Research in Motion's proprietary service, who can guarantee that 100 years from now its file systems will be able to be accessed by the technology in use by scholars and writers in 2109?

After all, how many researchers today have access to systems that let them read recent government files stored on 5 1/4-inch floppy disks, of which there are many? How about slightly older 8-inch floppies, of which there are quite a few? And what about the millions and millions of files that can only be read by rapidly disappearing 3 1/2-inch floppy drives? And even if they do have the hardware to load the files, do they have the proprietary software to read them? Will they in 100 years?

I doubt it.

Over the weekend I was reading in the New York Review of Books Robert Darton's concerns and hopes for Google's efforts to publish as many library books as possible on the Internet. Darton focuses on the copyright issues that have evolved from the Enlightenment ideals of our Founding Fathers' Congress, who wanted to limit copyright terms to 14 years, to today's Congress that bows to the will of Mickey Mouse instead of the people by extending copyright to over 100 years.

In Darton's essay, he observes that much of the thinking behind our Enlightment-era forefathers took place in letters, the e-mail of the time. The great thinkers of the day, Jefferson, Franklin, Voltaire, Rousseau, and others, he writes, "debated all the issues of their day in a steady stream of letters, which crisscrossed Europe and America in a transatlantic information network." To understand the thinking behind why our Founders wrote the limiting copyright law into our Constitution and why it's so important, it's vital to have access to not just the law itself, but its intellectual heritage.

By depending on his BlackBerry, President Obama risks losing the intellectual context of his thought process. The only way to avoid that fate is to print off every single e-mail he gets and thumbs in return, a doubtful prospect.

History, however, is at stake. In 1976 I was pawing through the papers of Alexander H. Stephens at Emory University in Atlanta when I came across a letter from President Abraham Lincoln. Stephens was the vice president of the Confederacy and had been working on a separate peace agreement with the Union and wanted to meet Lincoln in Hampton Roads, Virginia to seal the deal. The letter I had held in my hands more than 100 years after the fact was the Union leader's response to the meeting.

Thank goodness President Lincoln did not have a BlackBerry. The Hampton Roads peace conference came to naught, but the paper trail left by Lincoln and others is an exceptional piece of U.S. history. Without that trail, the hope and treachery that went behind the event likely would never have been known and we would be the lesser for it. Let's hope that somehow Obama's communications can be saved as well.

This story, "How President Obama's BlackBerry Threatens History" was originally published by Computerworld.

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