27 September 2009

On Diaries and Weblogs (Year 3, Day 33)

Corrections: My mother informed me that it was one of my teachers at Ramona Elementary School that inspired the keeping journals on vacation idea mentioned in Paragraph 3, probably Mrs. Tuioni, my kindergarten teacher. (I always thought it was spelled Tioni, but then again, I was in kindergarten at the time.) This was supposed to make up for the week or so we usually missed at the beginning of the school year for family vacation. The things we don't realize as children...

* * *

Cool. Raining all day.

I only say that because, one, it's significant and has kept me cooped up inside all day and, two, as I was thinking about what to write today it occurred to me that most diaries make some effort at recording the weather and the location of writing. While this isn't really a diary, it is an attempt at a quasi daily record. I've always been one to follow form when I have no compelling reason not to and thus, "Cool. Raining all day." (If you want the location of writing too, just glance at the sidebar. I haven't gone anywhere.)

I've had quite a bit of experience with diaries. Starting when I was about six years old, my mother sat my sister and I down everyday of every vacation to write a few words, or at least draw a picture, in hardcover books, the ones with blank lines that can easily be purchased at any major book vendor. Often, on an adjacent page, we would tape a postcard of whatever historic monument or stunning vista we had visited that day.

My family didn't have money to spend on vacations abroad or even to local resorts. In fact, besides a day trip through Canada (We only stopped to pitch a tent for the night near a mosquito infested lake in Ontario on our way to Maine), my only experiences abroad came through a 10-day field research trip in Japan and a going-on-3-years cultural immersion experience in Korea. Still, I find I am more than satisfied with my experiences visiting every contiguous U.S. state and a good number of the major national parks to boot. Cancun, Fiji, Hawaii, even--well, I don't much like the beach anyway.

Fortunately, I can remember these experiences with all the detail that a 6 year old could muster by reading the diaries I kept, and the bindings of those few hardbound books are exploding with all of the postcards we managed to cram in there. Even more entertaining is being able to look back on my own growth as both my sentences and my observational skills became more complex. I have my mother to thank for this, and probably for my interest in writing as well. Even today, I feel uncomfortable traveling anywhere without at least a pad to write on, even if I rarely write anything while on the actual journey anymore. Having those childhood diaries, to me, is very cool, no matter how uncool it might actually be.

Then there was my experience with the 2500 page diary that was my main primary source document for my final departmental research project at Valparaiso University. I basically shut myself in Washington University in St. Louis' library for the duration of that voyage through history, learning how the Japanese first perceived Victorian-era Europe and America. It was a monumental task (How much more so to compile it!), and, though my own minuscule entries as a child followed the same theme of cataloging all the new things learned and experienced while on a vacation, it was humbling to read the thoughts and opinions of the future leaders of a powerful nation as they gaped in childlike awe at countries far more powerful than theirs. They were recording everything they saw because they knew that what they observed was the only way to keep their country from falling under the sway of European imperialism. I was recording what I saw because Mommy told me.

And it makes me wonder what the use is of these diaries in the first place. After all, was my recording those entries as a child anything more than an exercise in practicing grammar? It's not like those will ever be published for their own merit.

And then there are pieces like this blog. And that blog. And the other one.

And besides these, there's Facebook and MySpace and Twitter and manifold other ways that we as a race have devised for us to tell everyone every minuscule bit of data about ourselves in every way possible, willingly putting out information that just a generation ago would have been completely private, not only because of the barriers in communication but because what we did with our lives was no one's business but our own.

I was reading an intellectual piece from a very scholarly source the other day. Though little of it was meant to be taken seriously (In reality, it's a comedy piece on what future history textbooks will say about Obama's efforts in 2009), it did hit on something particularly poignant:
Did you know the combination of reality television and sites like Facebook told an entire generation of people a) that they could be famous for doing nothing and b) that everyone was remarkably interested in what they had to say! It's true! We raised an army of delusional narcissists with inflated senses of self-worth [and we] were still shocked when things fell to shit! The more you know! [Source.]
And yet, here I am, quite self-consciously doing the same thing that this article mockingly warns against. After all, I'm not the only person recording their experiences in Korea. But, if you want the opinion of someone who's more serious than Mr. Dan O'Brien up there...

Upon returning to VALPO a year after graduation, my former college dean thanked me for continuing to send him and some other members on the faculty these mass emails I compile every once a month or so documenting my experiences here. It goes out to friends and family as well and is the best way for me to both keep a diary and to keep in touch with everyone. However, the dean also said that he was worried about the amount of information that was out on the Internet in general and its ramifications for actually inhibiting communication. With so much information out there, how can we ever possibly ingest and interpret it? In other words, everyone's talking, but no one seems to be listening.

What's worse is our sense of entitlement about this. That is, everyone thinks that what they have to say is actually worth listening to.

I am, however, skeptical about whether this sense of entitlement is actually a new revelation or just something old that we can suddenly make manifest to a much wider audience.

For instance, at the risk of sounding like a freshman year term paper, people have always had opinions and have also desired to express those opinions. However, before you had to get through a slew of people to have those opinions heard in any sort of mass public fora. With speaking, it was always a matter of if you had something interesting to say that a following wanted to hear. Past that, your only limitation was how far you could project your voice. With writing, it was more a matter of having something interesting to say that a small group of people who regulated the publication process (editors, agents, censors) wanted others to read. In both cases, only a select few could actually distribute their information to a large audience.

So, in reality, maybe the urge to present one's ideas was always there. We just weren't able to.

It then becomes a question of, now that we have this power of expression to let everyone at every time know exactly what we are thinking and doing, should we? After all, we're no where near a Japanese envoy exploring Europe in order to import technologies, ideas, and ideologies into his country to save it from social and economic servitude. We aren't really all that important and, let's face it, few people really do care besides our mothers (Hi, Mom!). Should we be writing at all?

I say, yes, but only if we feel comfortable with it and only if we're still paying attention to the voices of others that are out there, especially if they speak with authority. I still think that the more information that is available to access, the better off we are as a whole. In the end, it really is the audiences' responsibility to regulate what they watch, listen to, and read. We, as the authors of that material, should be humble about our expectations and grateful when we find an attentive ear.

Take this blog for example. It has a low readership and fewer commentators (and those mostly by other means like email or Facebook), but I still keep it because my expectations are not that it will become a source of fame and income, rather that it will help my friends and family back home know what I am experiencing and, later, allow me to look back on this time and to contemplate what my 24 year old self thought.

Or take my grandfather and great uncle. When my grandfather moved from Germany to the U.S. after WWII to make a new home for his brother and parents and to eventually bring them over, he and his brother kept correspondence. My great uncle saved almost all of these letters, and they now tell a compelling narrative of moving to and adjusting to life in an alien nation. It's even a published book that some college classes are using as a primary source document for discussing the Cold War and American immigration. From such humble beginnings as these...

My point is that recording the information is good for both us and for posterity, but that we shouldn't have such a high opinion of ourselves to think that either we or our posterity will find it by necessity interesting or useful. I keep this blog, but I don't mention it to my friends every chance I get, whispering seductively, "Take and read. Take and read." My grandfather and great uncle didn't edit their letters into a book. That was my grandmother who did that and long after my grandfather had passed on. Still, it was good that they wrote them at the time, just as it is good for us to write.

And so today's weather: Cool. Raining all day.

(On a side note...

I also think that there are some things that I just don't need to tell you about myself, just as you probably have some things you don't want to tell me about yourself. And it's not even the skeletons in our closets that I'm talking about. There are things far less insidious that most of us, though there are exceptions, consider private affairs.

In a very real sense, we are the first generation to grow up with the Internet, and so we are still learning what the etiquette and appropriate boundaries are for it. It's like the Internet is in puberty, and we are its raging hormones and teen angst. During this time of growth and development, people are going to post pictures of themselves doing stupid things on their Facebook pages and then be shocked when their employer doesn't like it and fires them, or they're going to impulsively lash out at their best friends in high school and seemingly irreparably break an unbreakable bond in a way that we would have done in private diaries in years past.

People always recorded these events and feelings, even when the cameras were film and the writing was done with paper and ink. After a while, we're probably going to start telling our children to not repeat our mistakes about posting our lives on the Internet. After a while, Internet safety will be taught right along side learning how to look both ways before crossing the street. After a while, we're probably going to have a moralistic TV show targeted at teens like Saved by the Bell with an episode where Billy learns an important lesson about not making fun of friends on his MySpace page.

But that's adulthood. Until then, most of us are still going to keep our diaries publicly and learn from the consequences.)

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