Tuesday, September 17, 2013

FOUND: Ancient Pre-Digital "Blog"... From 1990!

Ancient media artifact discovered from "the nineties"
The recent Janaro Archeological Expedition (also known as "Get Ready For the Big Yard Sale") has recovered a remarkable document deep in the family storage bins. It clearly dates from the second millennium, and it appears to be a kind of primitive blog-like collection of ruminations by a twenty-something graduate student in theology. Young John Janaro began the work in September of 1990 and continued to post in it until May of 1992.

Once upon a time, long, long ago, before there was an internet... in the days when lots of people didn't even own a personal computer, human beings used to "write" with their actual, physical hand. They used a device that was the ancestor of the stylus that people use today on their iPads: it was called a "pen." In their own unique fonts (i.e. "handwriting"), people would write on pieces of compressed wood pulp called paper.

Writing on paper was considered a technologically advanced activity (hahahahaha). It beat the heck out of chiseling hieroglyphics on stone tablets, after all. Indeed, it had developed to the point where people could communicate with each other all over the world... within a couple of weeks!

Those nice folks with blue uniforms who come to your house every day and stuff your mailbox with coupons, bills, and political advertisements? Once upon a time they were the conveyors of interactive media. The sight of the mailman approaching the house filled people with excitement, anticipation, and hope that perhaps a "letter" might come. Lovers would stare out the window waiting for the mailman to bring a written communication from their beloved, and their hearts would leap at the sight of the mailman's approach. The mailman was a kind of daily Santa Claus, bearing who-knows-what in the way of gifts.

Today, when we see the mail carrier, the most we hope for is a two-for-one pizza coupon, or else that package from Amazon that we already know is coming today because we've tracked it on the internet. Sigh.

An even more peculiar phenomenon of pre-third millennium human behavior was the unusual precursor to today's blogging. Many people would fill books of blank paper with reflections about themselves, their families, and the world in general. A book like this was called a diary or a journal.

The strange thing about these hand-written blogs is that they had no readers. In fact, they were often deliberately hidden... from everybody! They were only read by the person who wrote them.

Cultural anthropologists today disagree about what might have motivated such strange behavior. Indeed, the whole idea is remote to our 21st century minds. We all assume that expressing our thoughts in text is synonymous with publishing them. We write blogs to circulate our personal views; we promote our blogs, give them their own Facebook pages, tweet links to them over and over, and are thrilled if someone retweets them to an even wider circle of strangers. We solicit email subscribers, and we even encourage people to comment on stuff we think about.

Imagine that your blog had no readers and no comments, ever. No "thumbs up" likes. No Twitter gold stars. Not even a "+1" from the Google Plus crowd. There is no crowd, man. You are writing to yourself.

On the other hand, it is possible that the artifact we have discovered is one of those very particular things known as a writer's journal. Writers have always been a different kind of animal in the human race. Ever since chisel was first taken to stone in ancient Sumeria, some people have dreamed that if they recorded their thoughts, someone, someday would read them.

It is difficult for us to imagine a world in which people didn't presume that every thought that came into their heads could be almost instantly published. In past ages, however, the vast majority of the human race never published anything; indeed, most of them couldn't even write. But there were always the scribes, and some of them dreamed and scribbled words and hoped that they might have value, at least in the future. Then came the printing press, and suddenly writers were intoxicated with the possibility that their stuff might circulate all over the place, even while they were still alive.

Still, "publishing" was a relatively rare achievement. For many writers it was only a dream, but it was a dream they kept alive, especially in their youth. And with this dream came the aspiration to fame and a Place in History. This was the secret of the "writer's journal." Along with dreams of future fame, the writer cherished the notion that someday people would want to know what their Great Mind thought about their early years of obscurity, and the events of their time. The writer's journal was really a blog for posterity, a record of allegedly "private" thoughts that secretly aspired to be a literary legacy, a chronicle for generations to come.

Today, it is not surprising that scribes have taken to bloggery, and the whole package of verbal New Media, in an almost natural way, and with gusto. Since the days of the Epic of Gilgamesh we have been motivated by the desire or the hope or even the delusion that other people would read our stuff.

Vanity, of course.

For the Christian, vanity plus hypocrisy.... But also, faith. Certainly the 27 year old graduate student who wrote the words below as part of the "Statement of Purpose" at the beginning of his volume was puffed up with his own rhetoric. But he also really believed what he was saying. And he really did want to say it well. Young Janaro did say some interesting things, in fact. (I may present them here and there during the course of the year, now that the journal has been rediscovered.) But in September of 1990 Janaro was preoccupied with declaring his purpose. Perhaps his vanity can be forgiven because it was so guileless.

Indeed, what is striking here is that these words sound a lot like my writing today. I could enter this text digitally and post it as today's blog, with no further explanation, and the difference would hardly be noticed. Perhaps some will remark that Janaro used to be a better writer before his brains got scrambled. One thing is for sure: the meticulous print reproduced below was a first draft, straight from the pen, without revisions. I don't think I can do that any more.

Oddly, I was more serious a quarter of a century ago. While texts like this often appear in my present writings, there is nothing comparable in the journal of 1990 to the sloppy, rambling blog entries that I often post here (such as the one I'm writing now). Yet I still write this way, not only because my thoughts haven't changed but also because what I wrote in September of 1990 is still true in September of 2013.

Fundamental truths, and the basic needs of this emerging new epoch, haven't changed. And, although the author of these words has changed a great deal, he is still the same person. He still has the same voice.

From John Janaro's Journal, "Statement of Purpose," September 5, 1990