Who will read our email when we’re dead? 4 Comments

Who will read our email when we’re dead?

Maddie’s post reminded me of something. Back in the day, folks were writing physical letters to each other all the time, whether they were famous or not. There’s a lot of valuable information and insight about authors and their work in those kind of documents. I don’t know if people send emails in the same amounts, but I would at least assume that it’s not with the same level of detail, except perhaps between publishers/editors/writers. Let me make it clear that this is due to a myriad of reasons, none of which are inherently bad, and none of which is that people are becoming dumber or any rubbish like that.

But I guess something is going to get lost as the next generation of great writers dies off. Who knows what genius they stored on their laptops, locked away by a password, which is probably something as aggressively non-spectacular as a name and a birthday anyway. What are the ethics of breaking into someone’s email address and going through their correspondence once they’re dead? Is it different from physical letters, which aren’t so discretely categorised as ‘absolutely private’ when you write and read them? Are the circumstances different for ‘significant’ people and normal folks? Should they be?

  • Saba

    That would certainly feel very strange, reading a dead person’s mail – even reading someone else’s email while they are alive already feels very strange. I wouldn’t think that anything of real interest would be found in email, though. Wheevern I receive an email of particular importance or sentimental quality, I usually print it out and file it away. That said, I don’t recieve such emails very often – I find myself writing long, confessional (albeit emoticon-laden) “letter”-style emails to friends, and receiving a two-sentence long replies. (Miffed doesn’t begin to cover it.) But it’s not that email is ‘bad’ – it just serves a different purpose to letters, I guess. Letters seem more confessional, but you’d rarely pour your heart out into an email – or would you? A private blog entry, maybe.

    But unless someone asked me to, I probably wouldn’t want to go through their email. For one thing, it’d probably be full of clutter and spam, facebook notifications… I wouldn’t expect to find anything really worth reading, tbh. If someone were to rifle through my inbox looking for interesting emails they would be sorely disappointed.

    You might’ve heard about the right-wing climate change sceptics in the UK who have demanded a university department to reveal three years of email history, as the correspondence apparently details the construction of the farce that is global warming (insert eyeroll). On one hand, those emails are private property. On the other, freedom of information etc. … hmmmmmmm….

    Slightly off-topic, but last year I was reading a piece of fanfiction that was incomplete and hadn’t been updated since… 2006, 2007? I was left with wide eyes and one of those Frustrating Cliffhangers – and, of course, a fierce determination to hunt down the writer and ask, no, demand for them to write more. This resulted in firstly, a quick scan of their ‘about me’ page, which led in turn to an LJ. The latest blog entry – dated a few years back – was apparently from her sister/friend/somebody, linking to a newspaper article about a Texan woman who had died in a car crash and a livejournal community created in her memory, as well as a short message about how wonderful the writer was and how she would be missed.

    The whole thing was a shock to me. I had never really connected fanfiction to a face, much less a deceased middle-aged woman from halfway across the world. I wonder what happened to the rest of that story I had been reading – was it stored away somewhere on a HD/USB, or had she died with the knowledge of a happy/tragic ending trapped within her mind?

  • Alex

    This is a topic that really interests me. Partly I suppose because I love reading old letters even by totally normal people. Also I tend to think about preserving things for the future. Which is why I keep a diary obsessively and hate deleting emails. I don’t think its our job to decide what the future needs to see.

    I actually disagree with the idea that nothing important is contained in email. Whole friendships can happen via email. My best friend and I compose long, complicated pieces of fiction in emails. There are certain names that make my heart jump when they appear in my inbox. I’m a big fan of letter writing as well (you can’t booby-trap an email with glitter) but I honestly don’t think there needs to be a big distinction between what we email and what should be said in a letter.

    Also there’s a book called “The Salmon of Doubt”. When Douglas Adams died someone did hack into his computer and turn all the odds and ends (letters, articles and a novel draft) into a book. It stands as a potent memorial to a great writer.

  • http://www.expressmedia.org.au/voiceworks/ Johannes Jakob

    I definitely see that emotional attachment to email. Like I was getting at with the title of this post, I’m totally obsessive about checking my personal email. Who knows what exciting things await. But then the moment I’ve read a new one, there’s a real sense of deflation, like the moment the text stops being bold is the moment it loses all significance. It all feels really ethereal and in the past, very quickly.

    I am also incredibly aware of dying and having people come through my harddrive and pick out all the half-finished and abandoned gunk. This is also to do with building my own ego re: still being the centre of the world when dead. Worrying.

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