New video and audio tools make this the most scrutinized era in history. With the emergence of professional home movies and a saturation...

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New video and audio tools make this the most scrutinized era in history. With the emergence of professional home movies and a saturation of reality television, nothing really happens unless it’s caught on tape.


But if you buy the idea that future historians will actually pay attention, it follows that each person’s identity exists in his or her electronic-“`mail files. So future biographers of modern personalities will find this an indispensable source.


Aside from the massive data generated about celebrities, information about real people will say the most about how we live. And as interesting as celebrity correspondence may be, reading an archival mail file says a lot about the writer. This is especially true when you look at your own file, from a few short years ago.


Many people have used the same fundamental mail file for a decade; it is imported into a new machine every time you upgrade your hardware. Because old stuff is thrown away, you can’t really do any serious introspection in a current file. For a glimpse of the past, you need to find an old machine, like the laptop you ditched in 1998.


I switched over to the Mac in May 2004, so everything before that time is locked in a beige tower. I no longer have any monitors or keyboards that fit Windows machines, so that particular archaeological expedition will have to wait for a while. But I managed to start two old laptops, on machines that were running Windows 95. One even predated Outlook and was using something called “Internet Mail.”


Relics aside, I was able to remember a lot about those days. How I actually subscribed to and enjoyed daily news and gossip dispatches, before there was so much unwanted mail that it was inseparable from what you may have requested.


Instead, I recalled many people; former colleagues left behind when the job was finished. There were frustrations, specifically when I was moderating an empty chat room. I had forgotten that particular glory moment.


And there was some consistency, many of the same people are still sending me jokes. After seven years, I still don’t have the heart to tell them that they aren’t really funny.


Which leads to the really interesting part. You can tell a lot about a person, like yourself, from a correspondence style. Some people use words like “please” and “thank you,” along with encouraging words, instead of tersely worded barking missives as to what someone should or should not do.


Niceness really helps to get your message across. So if you never say “please,” it is never too late. And if you can’t think of a good reason to be nice, think of what future people will think when they see how rude you were.


Companies routinely archive corporate e-mail for legal reasons, but the most interesting information is in the stuff that gets deleted. What were we really like back then? For that reason you should archive your personal e-mail twice yearly, to provide a snapshot of your life for future generations.


The revelatory e-mail file may soon be obsolete, as we change over to Web-based systems. Using these, you are less likely to preserve minutiae or keep messages that have lost their urgency, and messages are harder to save on a local drive for posterity.


In any case, reading old letters will become pastime for future generations. So it doesn’t hurt to keep that in mind when you are writing a pal, and remember that it doesn’t hurt to say “please.”


If you have questions or suggestions for Charles Bermant, you can contact him by e-mail at cbermant@seattletimes.com. Type Inbox in the subject field. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.