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Letter 8: The File Cabinet Vanishes

Hank Walker/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

26 March 2015

Dear K.,

Thank you for sending over the copy of a letter you chanced upon in the storeroom of your office. A delightful relic from my days of service at the University. I must have signed hundreds of these. No doubt the signature on it is mine. When I looked at my own signature of yore, I was a little surprised that it seemed to have changed so little with time. As a personal identifier, a signature may be more reliable than fingerprints.

Well, identifiers like that have given way to more impersonal ones like PINs, passwords and digital certificates. If you send a postcard or a letter, as I'm so grateful you keep doing, you end it by signing your name. No physical signing with e-mails. But even if an electronic signature is appended, it wouldn't be as warm, intimate and ready to conjure up your interlocutor as a signature would.

Talking about changed appellation and identity, Philip Larkin's short poem 'Maiden Name' comes to mind:

Marrying left your maiden name disused.

Its five light sounds no longer mean your face,

Your voice, and all your variants of grace;

For since you were so thankfully confused

By law with someone else, you cannot be

Semantically the same as that young beauty:

It was of her that these two words were used.

Gone are the forms, letters, papers...which used to transact our business. PowerPoint rules our days. Where have all the papers gone? Where is their destination and destiny? If they are now given an ephemeral form of existence and made to traverse the path of electrons at the speed of light, where is the virtual catacomb where they can come to rest after serving their ends?

It's always a puzzlement to me how the know-how associated with a job gets passed on without some scrappy old files. Physical files, paper documents and the file cabinet have largely disappeared from the modern office. How on earth can a new recruit know what's gone on before him, let alone learn his trade?

Gone with the file cabinet are the tidbits of queries, deliberations and decisions deposited by a lifetime's tilling of a particular acre of soil. Portfolio is an abstract and often vacuous concept. Dossier has assumed a suspect aura and may connote negatively. Some names, numbers and remarks have been fashionably re-labelled personal data and fenced in by a legal regime often beyond the comprehension of the uninitiated.

Gone are some of the devices with which executives like us ply our trade. I began my career when the world was dictated by the Underwoods and the Olympias, dexterously poked and swiped by women with the gracious title of secretary. A few of those ladies remain today, but the machines have become history. The file cabinet, like the typewriter and the payphone, has joined the tyrannosaurus and the pterodactyls in the historical museum. One day a quarter of a century ago, Jenny, my secretary, and I watched with hardly concealed excitement when the first facsimile machine, fax for short, arrived and was being installed in our office. A wax statue for it, too?

Please forgive this absolutely unwarranted pathos. The image of the old letter probably precipitated a cathartic attack. Was it me? Could it be someone else?

No, it means you. Or, since you're past and gone,

It means what we feel now about you then:

How beautiful you were, and near, and young,

So vivid, you might still be there...

Yours sincerely,



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