Recording a life by Alex Werner

By spetty on 22 Feb 2016
Engraving of Samuel Pepys, 1793 © Museum of London

Engraving of Samuel Pepys, 1793 © Museum of London

With the world of smartphones and tablets one would have thought that keeping a diary or journal would have become much easier. The ability to capture and broadcast our thoughts and feelings has never been greater. Social media is essentially about sharing what we have seen and heard with others. The marrying of short texts with images and film clips is prevalent. Sometimes the image leads and at other times text is supported by an illustration. The dominant social media apps where posts are made second-by-second encourage a feeling that it is important to contribute in some way, making one’s mark within an already very crowded and confused world. In the past people kept diaries and journals, noting down each day what they had done and experienced, who they had met and what they planned for the future. On the whole, such private records were rarely communicated to others. Social media, on the other hand, is public in nature, transmitting information to friends, followers and then on to the wider world. Special attention is given to the now, things that are about to take place or that have just happened. All this distributed content does make up a kind of fragmentary record and has similarities to the type of information gathered in journals and diaries. But with all this chatter and activity, I began to wonder whether anybody was recording their lives in a more measured way like in the past or organising their social media postings.

Recording the routine of day-to-day life in a diary can be tedious but over time it can become important historically. Take Samuel Pepys diary, there are repetitive details such as ‘Up, and to the office all the morning, doing a great deal of business’ (19 April 1667), something which might apply to many working Londoners today. At other times, there are more revealing interventions like ‘Up and angry with my mayds for letting in watermen, and I know not who, anybody that they are acquainted with, into my kitchen to talk and prate with them, which I will not endure’ (6 May 1667) which throws a special light on Pepys’s domestic world. Reflective moments in journals can be very illuminating also such as James Boswell noting at the start of a day’s entry ‘It is very curious to think that I have now been in London several weeks without ever enjoying the delightful sex’ (14 December 1762).

Social media is able to capture the ordinary and even the banal. It is valuable that a record of what people think, feel, see and hear is made in some way. There are projects which do try to capture the everyday in a methodical manner. Perhaps the best known is the Mass Observation Project which has about 400 writers or ‘observers’ who are tasked with responding to ‘directives’ three times a year. This is a focused approach but perhaps there is a way of structuring individual social media content also. The Mass Observation project has demonstrated how much factual evidence and experience of the past would be lost without such records of everyday life. I am sure that some people still keep a written diary, recording their lives in the old way. Hopefully, there are others who are using their social media output as well as their private reflections to construct a new type of digital journal.

Alex Werner is Head of History Collections at the Museum of London .

One thought on “Recording a life by Alex Werner

  1. Paul Atherton says:

    In truth I believe Social Media is a misnomer of this generation.

    Rather than being a record of events, it’s a platform from which to brag, construct and present an identity that doesn’t actually exist.

    Even then though, the banal ironically seems ever present, with photographs of people’s breakfast, lunch & dinner on Instagram, selfies filling the streams of WhatsApp, videos of their pets doing nothing extraordinary on Vine and the second by second evolution of their child’s bowel movements unfolded on Facebook.

    Mark Zuckerburg (Founder of Facebook) only 2 days ago (Monday 22nd February 2016) launched the Virtual Reality Social Platform which will keep a record of nothing, yet create illusionary events like going to the cinema with your friends – RATHER THAN ACTUALLY DOING THEM.

    I’ve used Digital devices to record my diary since 1994 beginning with the Sharp IQ PDA (Personal Digital Assistant), moving to a Psion, a Palm Pilot Vx, dabbling with an iPhone and finally landing on an Android Device (Lenovo Yoga Tablet 2) using Google Calendar to record my daily activity today.

    The biggest irony, was all the advantages of the massively memoried Sharp (a whopping 128KB…. Yes, children KILOBYTES, not Mega, Giga, or Tera) were lost in the 21st Century with the greater capacity devices.

    My 16GB iPhone couldn’t handle the number of data entries (over 20,000) that my 128KB device handled with ease.

    The advantages that this new technology brought in the 90’s was completely lost in the new millennium (e.g. ease of finding entries, i could search all entries on my Sharp on the device and immediately as compared to Google Calendar that struggles if not connected to the internet and isn’t intuitive in it’s search processes).

    For me the biggest advantage of an electronic diary over a written paper one was being able to back up the data or so I thought at the time.

    The problem turned out that unlike paper, which has been around for 1,000’s of years, my so called technological devices are obsolete within, this day and age, literally months.

    My original iPhone’s data is irretrievable. Apple launched with a cloud based platform called .Mac, when this was “upgraded” to .ME millions of user lost all their data (myself included), the errors were replicated with the so called Upgrade to iCloud (A massive fight with Apple ensured I got my data sent to me via disk but the majority of users were once again completely wiped).

    The upgrade of Operating Systems ensured that the data held on the devices had to be moved to the latest most expensive model immediately or lost forever.

    It’s worth noting that in the terms & conditions of all Cloud Based Data storage devices something like the following is written: “This should not be considered a back-up and we will not be held liable for any data loss”.

    So, every previous generation who used paper is still likely to leave a mark for generations to come, yet this one, who is undeniably producing more information about their lives than ever before (check out the Big Data Explosion – in 2008 we could only believe that things would rise to Petabytes in reality we are know dealing in Yottabytes) will probably have information that’s either irretrievable or erased within a couple of years.

    For me, I’m literally considering returning to pen & paper. The advantages of using my 1992 PDA have been utterly eliminated in the 21st Cenury and until we have operating systems that are fixed, reliable and can be measured in decades rather than months I cannot see the problem being eradicated anytime soon.

    My film Our London Lives (the diary of events experienced by me and my son on his visits to London over the past 16 years), which was shown as part of this exhibition, only exists because it was recorded on Video-Tape. Had I recorded it on Solid State only the last 2 years would have been accessible to me.

    It’s something I believe both individuals and Museums alike need to take heed or this could be our very own modern Dark Age.

Leave a Reply to Paul Atherton Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

N.B.: No HTML tags are permitted, only text.