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Posted: August 22, 2010 12:30 a.m.

The end of the world as we know it

As the 20th century closed I was still toiling as a middle school social studies teacher. I recall archaeologists, in 1999, unearthing pottery shards in a remote area of Pakistan. Primitive writings evident thereupon were carbon-dated to approximately 5500 B.C., and linguists subsequently determined the etchings originated within the extinct Indus civilization.

I remembered that story last Wednesday morning while serving, ironically, as a substitute teacher for my wife’s human anatomy classes at Eastside High. Students entering the room were conversing about English literature. When I asked if any of them had enjoyed reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, one student stated that he didn’t read books. Taken aback, I asked others over the course of the day, and to my dismay found that sentiment repeated by about half of them.

Enquiring minds, in turn, asked why I found this disturbing. Time constraints in the science class prevented me from plumbing the depths of the matter, but I did explain my concern that the advent of the internet, e-mail, texting and other forms of electronic communiques may constitute a threat to the record of humanity’s very existence.

Think about it. The United States Postal Service can testify to the volume of letters declining since the dawn of the 21st century. As people increasingly utilize instant electronic forms of communication, written records cease to exist. Evidence in court cases increasingly depends upon hard drives of computers seized by law enforcement agencies. If a criminal has erased the hard drive or in some other manner made data irretrievable before search warrants can be obtained — the records vanish.

Can you imagine having no written record of the thoughts of Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, John Adams, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln? Suppose the King of England had "tweeted" his acceptance of the Magna Carta, then reneged? What if the e-mailed 1964 Civil Rights Act had failed to find the server?

Methinks that’s where we’re headed. Future visitors from distant galaxies who stumble upon Earth floating along in the Milky Way will find archaeological wonders and other evidence that a sentient race must have inhabited the planet.

But, oddly, written records will be found attesting that from crude beginnings and increasing in complexity, humanity existed only about 7,000 years, as writing virtually ceased about 2050 A.D.

For more insight into this matter I turned to Covington entrepreneur Jane Aikens. Along with Sarah Pratt Moore, Aikens operates one of the few remaining literary repositories in our region, Wall’s Discount Books, located on U.S. Highway 278 next to the Butcher Block Deli.

According to Jane, business fluctuates with the economy and the hours that the Newton County Library is open. Patrons return used books for credit toward the next purchase, and many long-time Wall’s patrons have held accounts since the shopping center was known as "the K-Mart Plaza." The clientele, in general, constitutes a more mature audience than high schoolers, but some parents bring their pre-schoolers and elementary students to explore Wall’s treasures.

Jane donates books to military veterans and their organizations, and also regularly provides books for local prisons. And one of our town’s hidden treasures is Sarah Pratt Moore, who is a living, breathing treasure trove of local history. Jane and Sarah are helpmates for those who lament the passing of the fabulous Oxford Book Store on Pharr Road in Atlanta, and Covington’s historical inability to support a bookstore on the town square.

So I’m very much concerned that the combination of young people turning more and more to instant electronic forms of communication, coupled with an alarming admission by some of Eastside High School’s brightest students that they simply don’t read books, is evidence that not only America, but all of human civilization, is on a fast track to awakening one day to find no record of what’s happened since the close of the 20th century.

I still have my daddy’s "V-Mail" letters from his World War II Navy service in England and the Pacific. And Americans can still view the actual, hand-written Constitution of The United States of America in our National Archives. And, for now at least, libraries across the nation, and small emporiums such as Wall’s Discount Books still make hard copies of the printed and bound word available for posterity.

But I wonder what students will be studying in high school 10 years down the road. At what point will print media cease to exist? Will that not mark the end of recorded history for mankind? And if there’s no record of the rights afforded American citizens, does this not open the door for unfettered usurpation of power?

Some insightful genius termed the internet "the world’s greatest experiment in anarchy." That may be true. But in a decade or so, where will we read about it?

Nat Harwell is a long-time resident of Newton County. His columns appear regularly on Sundays.

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